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‘We are stretched to our limits’: Advocates push for extension of Ontario rent freeze

House for rent in Kingston, Ontario on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Lars Hagberg

Monique Gordon is worried about her rent increasing next year as the pandemic wears on.

The single mother was laid off at the start of the pandemic and had to make do with funds from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which left her with only a couple of hundred dollars each month after paying for rent, utilities and her phone.

With Ontario’s pandemic rent freeze set to expire at the end of the year, Gordon’s monthly rent payments are set to rise by $15 in January. The Toronto resident has been called back to her job as a security guard but is concerned about potentially being laid off again while having to pay more in rent.

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“It’s hard to try and make the money stretch,” said Gordon, who teared up during an interview. “We can see in a blink of an eye, we can lose things.”

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Several tenant advocacy groups say they want to see the provincial government extend the current rent freeze to help individuals who have yet to fully recover from the economic fallout of COVID-19.

ACORN, which advocates for low- and middle-income residents, said it plans to write to the province to call for an extension to the rent freeze and a ban on above-guideline rent increases.For 2022, the provincial has set an increase guideline of 1.2 per cent.

Alejandra Ruiz Vargas, chair of ACORN’s East York chapter in Toronto, stressed that a rent increase in 2022 will only make matters worse for the many tenants currently struggling to make payments.

She said she spoke to one senior on a fixed income who’s left with little more than $70 a month after paying her rent.

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“Imagine her rent is $14 more. Now, it’s how much (left over)? How are you going to live with that kind of money?” said Ruiz Vargas. “It’s going to be tough.”

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The provincial government passed legislation to freeze rent at 2020 levels last fall. That meant rents did not increase this year for the vast majority of rented units covered under the Residential Tenancies Act.

One exception was rent increases above provincial guidelines that had been approved by the Landlord and Tenant Board prior to Oct. 1, 2020.

Dania Majid, a staff lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, said there are many tenants who lost their jobs or saw cuts to their incomes who are especially in vulnerable positions.

Majid said her centre would like to see the provincial rent freeze extended because the economy has not fully recovered from the pandemic and wages often don’t increase at the rates rents do.

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“(A rent increase is) going to pose great hardship for many tenants whose incomes haven’t recovered … when things are still so tight for them,” she said.

Tenants who fell into arrears after the pandemic hit will be in a particularly tough spot, she said.

“Those tenants are going to be paying even more out of pocket and that’s probably money they don’t have, or they are going to have trouble making their other ends meet,” she said.

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Elena Loven, an organizer with a tenants union for apartment buildings in Toronto’s East York area, said she’s had to dip into her savings and cut expenses to keep a roof over her head after being laid off at the start of the pandemic.

Loven said she got a notice of a 5.2 per cent rent increase in 2020 before the freeze legislation took effect. While she hasn’t yet been informed of a rent hike for next year, she’s worried about being able to withstand further potential increases since her hours of work at a Toronto daycare are not yet back up to pre-pandemic levels.

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“We’re working-class tenants. We cannot face multiple rent increases in such a (short) period of time, especially during the time of the pandemic, when we struggle already,” she said. “We are stretched to our limits.”

Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said the government has taken “decisive action” to protect and support the province’s 1.7 million rental households during the pandemic.

That includes the rent freeze, temporarily pausing the enforcement of residential evictions and providing municipalities with more than $1 billion to support housing and homelessness programs, it said.

“Our government continues to work with all our partners to ensure Ontarians have a safe, stable, and affordable place to call home,” ministry spokesman Matt Carter said.

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The Ontario Landlords Association did not respond to a request for comment.

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