Living with the coronavirus pandemic has been tough on everyone, but for people like Zinnat Jahan, the last year has been especially devastating.
“I’m feeling the fear of homelessness,” she told Global News.
She moved to Toronto from Bangladesh in 2017 to join her husband. The couple dreamed of providing their two daughters with a better life, but last year, those hopes fell apart. First, her husband died of cancer in January, after two months in hospital. Then, the pandemic hit.
“Unfortunately, I got laid off on March 15. So another disaster came. I lost my husband, lost the major part of income, lost my job.”
Jahan had to spend her savings during the time her husband was in hospital. After she lost her job, the bills were piling up. She was getting the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, but she says by April, between supporting her daughters, food and other essentials, she couldn’t pay the $1,525 rent on her one-bedroom apartment. The following month, she got an eviction notice.
Jahan soon realized a lot of her neighbours were having the same struggles, so they formed a tenants’ union to try to negotiate a collective solution with their landlords. That’s how Jahan met Carly Tisdall.
“It’s just something that had to happen, because here in my community, it just feels like at this point we’re the only people that we can rely on,” Tisdall told Global News.
Tisdall is an actor, another industry hard-hit by the pandemic. She lives in a building in the same area as Jahan. And like Jahan, Tisdall says she got an eviction notice after not paying her rent for one month, and she claims the company that owns her building wasn’t willing to give her and her neighbours a break.
“You can’t get blood from a stone,” Tisdall says. “I’m telling you, I won’t be able to pay the rent. And we were told, work it out with your landlord. You can negotiate. Nobody is going to get tossed out on the street in this pandemic.”
The Federation of Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario says data it compiled through surveys late last year suggests 98,000 families in the province are falling further and further behind on rent, by a total of nearly $80 million every month that goes by during the pandemic — in Ontario alone.
Tisdall and Jahan say their tenants’ unions requested a collective negotiation with their landlords. When economic conditions began to improve over the summer, they say they began paying their rent again. They claim they also paid extra amounts ranging from $150 to $300 per month towards their debts.
In return, they say they asked for a rent reduction, and partial forgiveness of the rent arrears, but the landlords rejected those conditions.
“Please come discuss this with me. That was the simple ask,” Tisdall says. “The landlord’s reaction was to cash the cheque and send a letter back saying no deal and you still get taken to a Landlord Tenant Board. So those people who had already been repaying were then taken to these eviction hearings.”
The management companies that oversee the buildings where Tisdall and Jahan live declined our request for an interview.
But in an emailed statement, Tisdall’s landlord Ranee Management claimed it has had multiple “good faith” discussions with Tisdall, and has been able to reach agreements with most of its tenants who are struggling.
They added that it’s not their goal to evict tenants, and that “Ranee only filed applications with the Landlord and Tenant Board for those tenants who ignored our numerous requests to communicate their individual situation and did not make any payments. The group has since demanded rent abatement for all pandemic related arrears for everyone as a condition of further discussion.”
Tisdall says she and her neighbours have never demanded forgiveness of 100 per cent of the unpaid rent they owe. She claims she requested the company forgive a quarter of the debt, but was willing to negotiate.
Jahan’s building is managed by Pinedale Properties. Pinedale told Global News it hasn’t evicted anyone during the pandemic and has reached agreements with the majority of its tenants.
“Pinedale is committed to working with them on repayment plans with a goal of keeping our residents in their homes. We have filed a limited number of cases with the Landlord Tenant Board since March 1, 2020, relating to residents who were overdue on rent and did not respond to our outreach to engage in dialogue.”
Pinedale also disputes Jahan’s claims about the payments she has made, and says it will “present evidence on this matter in the hearing.”
“In good faith we provided her with a repayment proposal in November. She has chosen not to respond to that offer or to enter into negotiations,” the company says.
Jahan says that repayment proposal was unreasonable. It called for her to pay $900 per month for 10 months, on top of her $1,500 rent.
Most provinces had moratoriums on evictions during the first wave of the pandemic. But those bans were lifted at the end of summer. At the same time, hearings at the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board moved online, hearing nine or more cases in two hours, according to observers.
Tisdall and Jahan’s tenant unions were able to enlist the help of a lawyer, and they got their hearing postponed.
“My hearing was adjourned because it would have taken too long to hear it in what’s called these sort of express eviction blocks where they just want to go through. They’re set up to just happen as quickly as possible. So a tenant who comes in with an actual defence, with pages and pages of evidence, you just get adjourned,” says Tisdall.
Their hearings are still pending, but advocates say many people without knowledge of their rights, or the ability to get legal advice were evicted, quickly.
“This whole process of online evictions was set up specifically to facilitate the massive evictions of tenants during COVID,” says Cole Webber, an outreach worker at Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto.
He witnessed several hearings and says the online hearings were problematic.
“You had all kinds of technical difficulties and glitches where people weren’t able to call in or who were thrown off the call. Yet the hearing went on without them and they were ordered evicted,” he says.
“I witnessed tenants being evicted in as little as 60, 90 seconds.”
Webber says once the moratorium was lifted in Ontario, the floodgates opened, culminating in 7,000 online hearings in November alone. He says he hasn’t been able to find out how many resulted in eviction orders. Global News asked the Landlord and Tenant Board, which had not provided an answer by deadline.
Amid another surge of the virus, the Ontario provincial government ordered a temporary pause on enforcement of evictions, but no further support for those struggling to pay the rent.
In addition, pre-pandemic Canada already had an affordable housing crisis with hundreds of thousands of people precariously housed or experiencing homelessness.
“Homelessness has always been killing people. But when you have a pandemic at play, it is so obvious it has never been this stark,” said Dr. Andrew Boozary, the University Health Network’s executive director of social medicine.
Boozary says across the country, tens of thousands of people are without stable housing, and close to 10,000 in Toronto alone. He’s concerned about how many people might be losing their homes with nowhere to turn during the pandemic.
“We’ve already failed tens of thousands of people on the housing crisis. To say that we’re going to have a whole new generation of people move into chronic homelessness… I mean, that’s even more of a damning failure.”
And much like the pain of the virus itself has not struck at Canadians of all backgrounds equally, neither has the pandemic’s economic fallout. The pandemic has exposed and amplified long-existing inequities.
During the economic shutdown in May, unemployment peaked at a record 2.6 million Canadians, or 13.7 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. By July, the figure had declined to 9.3 per cent, but was markedly higher in racialized communities — such as those who identified as South Asian (17.8 per cent), Arab (17.3 per cent) and Black (16.8 per cent).
For Jahan, the often-repeated mantra of the pandemic is demonstrably false.
“Uh, no, we are not all together in this crisis. Riches are becoming rich, poor, becoming more poor.”
During a Jan. 12 coronavirus modelling update, Ontario public health officials called for more support for renters, through paid sick days and income support.
Jahan and Tisdall are among thousands in Ontario who have the threat of eviction hanging over their heads. With negotiations with her landlord at an impasse, Jahan owes $8,000 in back rent, and has nowhere to turn for that money.
“To save our home, we need rent relief,” says Jahan.
The frustration is evident in Tisdall’s voice.
“You hear this messaging, ‘Stay in your home.’ How can I stay at home when I have an eviction order?”