Higgs resists calls for eviction freeze, rent control from opposition parties, advocates

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WATCH: Premier Blaine Higgs is resisting calls for a freeze on evictions from opposition politicians, advocates and tenants. Nova Scotia recently banned evictions and instituted a rent increase cap for the duration of the pandemic, but Higgs says he's not sure such measures are needed in New Brunswick. Silas Brown has more. – Dec 4, 2020

As opposition parties and advocates call for an eviction freeze and a cap on rent increases in light of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says he’s not sure such measures are needed.

“The stats that we’ve seen would suggest that the eviction rates during the pandemic have been very low,” Higgs said when asked about calls for tenant protections during Thursday’s COVID-19 update.

“I expect landlords to do the right thing during the pandemic and that would be that you wouldn’t be making it unreasonable, you wouldn’t be doing things that are totally untoward or things that you have options to do differently and put someone out in a pandemic.”

In the first 10 months of 2020, there have been 1,525 requests for evictions in the province, down from 2,518 in the whole of 2019 and 1,688 in 2018. But the province had previously put a freeze on evictions from March 19 to May 31 of this year, meaning the 1,525 requests for evictions actually cover just over seven months.

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Read more: As coronavirus eviction bans end, advocates worry homelessness will rise

Those numbers do not include “renovictions,” where a tenant’s lease is not renewed so a landlord can renovate, or those who leave their home due to a large increase in the monthly rent. New Brunswick currently does not have any sort of cap on the amount by which landlords can raise rent, as long as three months’ notice is given.

Nova Scotia has recently implemented an eviction freeze and rent increase cap through its emergency order. Higgs says that he has been speaking with landlords and is looking to evaluate the situation in the province before implementing any sort of policy.

“Certainly, as with any situation or reaction thereto, I always like to understand the facts or the rationale behind it,” Higgs said.

“We will pursue to understand that before we react on a policy that may have been necessary somewhere else and may or may not be necessary here.”

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According to those working in the affordable housing sector, such changes are necessary in New Brunswick.

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George Cormier, the executive director of the New Brunswick Non-Profit Housing Association, says a perfect storm of low vacancy rates, high rents and lack of affordable housing, all set over the backdrop of a global pandemic, make for a dangerous situation for those facing eviction.

“Where are these people going to go?” Cormier said.

“We’re going to have people on the streets. It’s going to increase our homeless population, which is already high enough.”

Numbers released earlier this year by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation peg New Brunswick’s vacancy rate at 2.6 per cent. In Fredericton, the vacancy rate is 1.4 per cent, the lowest in the province. Moncton and Saint John sit at 2.2 and 3.3 per cent, respectively.

Read more: New study shows apartment vacancy rates falling across New Brunswick

Cormier says measures like evictions bans and particularly rent control are crucial in the short term while the lack of housing stock in the province is addressed.

“The developments that are going up now that are renting for $1,500 and upwards, that’s not affordable housing, it’s never going to be affordable housing,” Cormier said.

“We need to put a cap on the escalation of rent prices and evictions. We have to try and manage evictions somehow.”

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It’s this climate that has spawned the New Brunswick Coalition for Tenants Rights, a new advocacy group with lofty goals of pushing to overhaul the entirety of the Residential Tenancies Act to make it friendly for those who rent.

The group is calling for rent control, an eviction freeze, and a guarantee that rental debts accrued during a freeze won’t be used against tenants moving forward.

“The fact of the matter is that tenant rights are human rights,” said Aditya Rao, one of the group’s organizers. “We have to make sure that our tenancy legislation approaches tenancies from that perspective, from a right to housing perspective and not just a run of the mill contract law question where there are two equal parties.”

“The fact is is that there is a massive power imbalance between landlords and tenants. The ramifications for landlords when something goes wrong may just be a loss of revenue, … but the ramifications for a tenant when something goes wrong is homelessness in the worst-case scenario.”

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The calls for a freeze on evictions are being echoed by opposition MLAs as well. People’s Alliance leader Kris Austin says he supports a freeze on evictions in the short term and sees rent control as something that could be paired with the elimination of the tax on non-owner occupied properties to increase the affordable housing stock.

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“I think if you reduce and eliminate that double tax and then you start implementing things like rent freezes, put some caps on it, then you’re taking the profit that the landlord would get from not paying that double tax and you’re ensuring it gets to the tenant where it needs to be,” Austin said in an interview.

Green leader David Coon tabled a bill to create the framework for rent control in the province and says he plans to continue to push for an eviction ban in meetings of the All-Party Cabinet Committee on COVID-19.

“We need to follow the need that Nova Scotia has taken on this just recently to implement a pause in evictions and put in place a limit on rent increases,” Coon said in an interview.

“The premier, cabinet, the minister of public safety could do this in a heartbeat and they should. This is about ensuring that people are protected during this pandemic. The premier in his throne speech stressed that he didn’t want to leave anybody behind, but people are losing their homes because they can’t afford unreasonable rent increases or renovictions in every corner of this province.”

Read more: Advocates say New Brunswick needs to increase tenant rights

The Liberals are also supportive of an eviction freeze. Social development critic Robert Gauvin says it’s essential to keep people housed at a time when the government is asking people to stay home.

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“I understand the free market, I understand insurance is going up, I understand the price of wood and materials is going up. I understand all that,” Gauvin said.

“But does that really mean you can hike the price of a unit by $400 a month? I really have problems with that. The goal is to work together and try to find a way to keep people in their homes. We should never lose sight of the goal, which is to keep people in their homes.”

Gauvin also questioned Higgs use of statistics gathered during the pandemic as a basis to make decisions.

“If we start using pandemic numbers to be the normality for making future decisions, a lot of people are going to be in trouble in a lot of ways,” he said.

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