Emergency measures to control the spread of COVID-19 has led to many tenants losing their source of income. Last week over 500,000 individuals applied for Employment Insurance. Renters across the province who are impacted by income losses will struggle to pay their rent during the pandemic.
The province of Ontario acted quickly and took the necessary steps to halt evictions. But urgent action must be taken before the April 1 rent is due to provide renters across Ontario with rent relief, especially those most impacted by this pandemic. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing explains, “housing has become the frontline defence against the coronavirus. Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation.”
Canada recognized that housing is a human right. There has never been a more urgent need to put this recognition into action.
Tenants unable to pay the rent
Covid-19 did not create this housing crisis. Tenant advocates have long warned governments that renters in Ontario were already living in unaffordable and inadequate housing. Half of Ontario tenants pay unaffordable rents (spending more than 30% of their income on rent). The pandemic has exposed tenants’ vulnerabilities on a large scale. Now, thousands of renters face income loss due to self-isolation, lay-offs and reduced work hours. Their anxiety is mounting – “How will I pay my rent for April and have enough income for other expenses?”
Many of the industries that renters work in have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Many of these industries tend to be low-waged with no benefits. While the federal government introduced emergency measures to provide Employment Insurance and other federal supports during this pandemic, the funds will not cover the high rents that tenants are forced to pay.
This is especially worrisome for renters living on lower incomes. The overwhelming majority (82%) of tenants living on $20,000 or less a year are spending 30% or more of their income on housing. And 71.4% of renters with incomes between $20,000 and $40,000 a year spend 30% or more of their income on housing.
Come April 1st, many renters will be unable to pay their rent. They will fall into rent arrears, which will continue to accumulate while businesses remain shut to fight the spread of COVID-19. Once this crisis passes, we expect there will be a significant increase in eviction applications for rent arrears at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB). This will push many out of their communities or into homelessness. Our housing and shelter systems are overwhelmed. Rents will be pushed higher because of vacancy decontrol – vacant units will be re-rented at much higher prices.
Action Item – Federal Government
- The federal government must require that there be no evictions for rent arrears for any landlord that receives/received federal funding.
Action Items – Provincial Government
The province should adhere to calls by tenants for immediate rent relief for those unable to pay the rent. The top priority must be to prevent mass evictions once the LTB reopens.
- Urgent action must be taken by the province to provide rent relief to renters impacted by this pandemic.
- The province must introduce a rent bank program where tenants can access funds to cover their rent shortfalls. These funds should be provided either as grants or as no-interest loans.
- The province must halt all annual guideline rent increases and above-guideline rent increases (AGIs) retroactive to when the COVID-19 crisis was detected.
- The LTB must update its guidelines to prevent future evictions due to the inability of tenants to pay their rent during this pandemic and to pursue other remedies. Section 83 (Relief from Evictions) of the Residential Tenancies Act, 2006 already provides the board with discretion.
- Some landlords may resort to illegal methods during this crisis – illegal lockouts, shut-off of vital services, harassment, repair issues affecting health and safety. Tenants should have the ability to reach out to the LTB for emergencies to protect their rights. The province should provide the Provincial Investigations and Enforcement Unit resources to look into tenant complaints of illegal lockout, harassment, loss of services, or repair issues affecting health and safety.
Action Items – Municipal Governments
- Expansion of municipal rent bank programs. Low-income tenants should be provided with interest-free loans to pay their rent.
- Municipally-funded landlords must waive or delay the collection of rent for tenants who have lost income.
- Municipally-funded landlords should cancel or delay annual rent increases in their rental properties.
- Municipally-funded landlords that will pursue future rent arrear applications should not use eviction as a remedy if the tenant was unable to pay rent because of job loss or health issues during this pandemic. Instead, they should rely on feasible repayment plans.
- Municipalities should give their police services directions that they should not be evicting tenants from their housing and instruct police that their role is to protect people’s housing during the crisis in accordance with the directions from the province.
Overwhelmingly, tenants pay their rent in full and on-time. But these are unprecedented times for all parties involved. This pandemic is not only impacting tenants but also small landlords. Rent relief will help everyone involved. More homelessness and housing precarity will not help us to recover from this pandemic.
Unfortunately, rent gouging created by vacancy decontrol will continue to take place as some landlords will use this as an opportunity to exploit tenants’ vulnerabilities. This will result in renters who are unable to find new homes. As we have recommended many times before, curbing rent gouging should be the government’s top priority to tackle Ontario’s affordable housing crisis. A long-term solution to deal with the aftermath of this pandemic must include the voices of tenants and housing advocates.
This is the time to work together and collectively push for the health and safety of everyone across the province. These issues aren’t new. The affordable housing crisis isn’t new. The pandemic has simply pushed the vulnerability of tenants living on lower incomes and the exploitation of the system by some landlords in the spotlight. The time to act is now.