Rent is due May 1. Experts say CERB isn’t enough for some Canadian tenants

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Tenant’s rights during the coronavirus pandemic
WATCH: Tenant’s rights during the coronavirus pandemic – Mar 27, 2020

The financial sting of COVID-19 may deepen for some Canadians this week, as May 1 ushers in the second due date for renters since the pandemic began.

The crisis has left more than one million people out of work and forced millions more to apply for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has highlighted the federal aid program as a way for people to pay their rent and groceries, but there has been a myriad of concerns that the funding doesn’t go far enough.

A new survey from a community advocacy group puts the concerns of Canada’s renters into perspective.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) polled 1,100 renters from across the country as the May 1 rent deadline approached. Nearly 70 per cent of renters reported being impacted financially by the crisis, and around 35 per cent said they don’t have enough money to pay rent for the month of May.

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Despite this, the survey found about 42 per cent of people did not qualify for CERB and are not receiving it.

“Rent is expensive. It, unfortunately, does not look like the program is going to help as many Canadians pay rent as the government thought,” said Alejandra Ruiz Vargas, the national spokesperson for ACORN.

As part of the qualifications for the CERB, applicants must have earned no more than $1,000 before taxes for at least 14 consecutive days in the first four-week payment period for which you apply.

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Calls to increase B.C. rent supplement and expand the program

Vargas believes this is letting some renters fall between the cracks.

“When you receive $2,000 as a single household, say $1,500 is for your rent, $500 for the rest of your bills, really how much is left?” she said.

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“I don’t think it’s stretching far enough. There’s a lot of people who are worried.”

While the CERB has many benefits, it’s “insufficient” for tenants simply given the high cost of housing in Canada, said Ricardo Tranjan, an economist and senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

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He pointed to a recent report from the CCPA, which found that the average wage across Canada needed to afford a one-bedroom apartment is $20.20 an hour. With minimum wages varying between $11.65 to $14, a large financial gap already existed before the pandemic, Tranjan said, which the CERB is unlikely to fill.

Tack on the sheer volume of Canadians pinched by layoffs, furloughs and other financial squeezes, the CERB can only partially supplement those who rent, he said.

“It will go a long way in helping folks meet their basic needs, but for tenants, it is unlikely to go all the way,” he said.

“Renters are particularly vulnerable… Arrears and debt are likely to ensue.”

The provinces and some municipalities have instated measures to prevent evictions and rent increases, but the approaches vary across the country.

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It’s left a disconnect that’s only further complicating matters, said Vargas. Some tenants are still receiving eviction notices, she added.

“They can say, ‘Right now, no one can be evicted,’ but it wasn’t done in a way that could be enforced,” she said, explaining there are no specific penalties.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has not committed to freezing rent or providing direct financial support for tenants during COVID-19, but has said if tenants are “in crisis and absolutely can’t pay rent, you don’t have to pay rent.”

The opposition NDP recently said it’s not enough, and are calling for an 80 per cent rent subsidy for renters.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Ford asks people still employed to pay rent

“We have a premier who says, ‘You’re not going to be evicted, but if you have to choose between food and rent, choose food.’ But the rules haven’t been laid out for us… We’re really in the wilderness about it. Maybe it’s clear for the government, but it’s not clear for us.”

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British Columbia is somewhat of an exception to COVID-19 tenant measures. As part of the province’s $5-billion stimulus package in response to the pandemic, renters can apply to receive up to $500 a month for April, May and June to help pay for their homes.

Some provinces, like Alberta and Ontario, have encouraged tenants and landlords to work together to develop rent payment plans.

It’s something Ismail Ibrahim, a real estate lawyer from Toronto, thinks tenants need to think seriously about for May and in the coming months.

While it’s likely not a discussion either side wants to have, there’s “really no other choice” at this point, he said.

He said it’s in the best interest for both the tenant and landlord to keep the tenancy, so finding a method to cover any arrears needs to be “reasonable and realistic.”

“I know the temptation is to agree to a repayment plan for a short period, where you pay it off as quickly as possible. In an ideal situation, that’s great, but you don’t want to get into making promises about paying back when your income is still unclear,” he said.

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“Some landlords are going to try to get tenants to agree to guarantees, but tenants may not have those guarantors.”

He said he hopes landlords will be flexible, but warned that some may insist on it in certain cases.

There should also be proof of the agreed-upon plan that includes the terms of repayment, the amount and the interest, if necessary.

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How landlords are coping with the COVID-19 outbreak

Renters should also remember their rights, Ibrahim said.

Protections for tenants “still exist,” he said, so landlords aren’t permitted to change locks or enforce evictions, pointing to the protections under the Residential Tenancies Act in Ontario and similar laws in other provinces.

“The only thing the landlord can do right now is file an application to the Landlord Tenant Board, but those applications aren’t going to be processed until this whole situation is done,” he said.

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However, that is not an excuse for tenants to not pay their rent, he said, adding that there are “no winners” in this situation, and many property owners who rely on rent are also struggling to make ends meet.

“At some point, landlords can go after tenants… If tenants can pay, they should be paying rent.”

Vargas echoed that advice. She acknowledged that it’s a difficult time for a lot of Canadians, but said that not paying rent isn’t the best option.

— With files from the Canadian Press 

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