Alberta has proposed legislation to stop business tenants from being evicted during the economic slump caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Economic Development Minister Tanya Fir says it would also stop landlords from raising rent and charging late fees on missed rent payments.
“Commercial tenants and their landlords are facing unprecedented circumstances,” Fir said Tuesday prior to introducing the bill in the legislature.
“We expect businesses and landlords will work together in a respectful and fair manner during this challenging time. And this legislation will help create the conditions so that they can do exactly that.”
If passed, the bill would be retroactive, covering from March 17 to Aug. 31.
It responds to business community concerns that too many tenants face eviction because landlords are having trouble navigating or are declining to sign up for government rent relief under the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance.
Under that program, federal and provincial governments are responsible for half of rent payments. Landlords and tenants split the rest, meaning tenants are ultimately responsible for 25 per cent of their rent during the pandemic.
Alberta has already committed $67 million toward the program.
The proposed legislation would help tenants whose landlords have not signed up for the program, saw their businesses closed by health orders, or experienced revenue declines of 25 per cent or more during the COVID-19 crisis.
In return for eviction protection, landlords and tenants would be responsible for hammering out full repayment plans. If they couldn’t, landlords would have the option to proceed to evict after Aug. 31, Fir said. Tenants could seek redress through the courts.
The bill does not call for evictions or terminations that have already been launched to be undone. Landlords can still evict tenants who break terms of their lease for reasons not linked to the pandemic.
The province declared a state of public health emergency due to the novel coronavirus outbreak on March 17.
That order has been rescinded since the province, in recent weeks, has substantially slowed the spread of the virus.
That has also allowed most businesses and activities to resume — under health restrictions — but public outdoor gatherings remain limited to no more than 100 people.
Restaurants in particular have been looking for eviction relief. Many were forced to close or severely curtail operations earlier this spring as the pandemic gained ground. They can now open but must enforce hygiene and physical distancing. Diners are limited to six per table.
“The legislation introduced today will provide the time needed for restaurant tenants and their landlords to agree to long-term rent solutions without worrying about evictions,” Mark von Schellwitz, vice-president for Restaurants Canada, said in a statement.
NDP critic Jon Carson said the government had been pressed for weeks to bring in some kind of eviction protection, and now there is no recourse for businesses that have already shut down for good.
Carson said there also needs to be more direct aid for businesses to keep them afloat once the pandemic ends. He said the bill, by simply deferring rental payments, helps keep businesses afloat in the short term only to see them sink in the long run.
“It’s too little too late for this legislation,” he said.