Uncertainty is growing around how many Canadian tenants will decide not to pay all or part of their monthly rent on May 1 because their finances have been hit by job losses and business closures as a result of the pandemic.
“We are seeing landlords and tenants pitted against each other today and that is just going to get worse and worse every month that this progresses,” said David Hutniak, CEO of Landlord BC, which represents 3,300 rental housing landlords across the province.
The organization surveyed 457 of its members in April and found that 10 per cent of them didn’t collect any rent, while nearly one-quarter collected only partial rent.
Those findings aren’t far off an analysis done by CIBC, which estimated that 75 per cent of tenants in Canada paid April rent in full, while 10 per cent paid part of it.
Most provinces and territories have put in place temporary moratoriums on eviction orders, but Hutniak believes the federal government should have introduced a rent subsidy program, considering that one-third of Canadian households rent.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed that request this week, saying rent relief should rest with the provinces.
Amount of subsidy questioned
B.C. has introduced a rental subsidy program, but Hutniak believes it is inadequate.
Singles and couples without dependents are eligible for a $300 subsidy if their gross income was less than $74,150 in 2019. A household with dependents can qualify for a $500 subsidy if combined earnings were less than $113,040.
In both cases, the amount goes directly to the landlord.
BC Housing said more than 50,000 people who have applied have been deemed eligible to receive the benefit, but Hutniak believe the subsidy payments should be increased.
He said if landlords are out the money, those who depend on the income to make their own mortgage payments will be in trouble.
“Renters are suffering and unhappy and so is our sector,” Hutniak said.
Across the country, groups representing landlords are repeating the same concerns and conducting their own polling in regards to how many tenants are paying rent.
The Alberta Residential Landlords Association estimates that its members had 80 per cent of tenants pay rent in April, with 13 per cent negotiating payment arrangements so rent could be paid in instalments.
The Ontario Landlords Association, which represents small landlords who don’t own entire complexes but rather individual units and suites, also conducted an internal survey of its members.
William Blake, a senior member of the Ontario association who also rents out units in B.C. and Alberta, said their numbers show that 20 per cent of their tenants paid rent in full. The rest either partially paid, arranged payment plans, used deposits on the property to cover April rent or didn’t pay at all.
“There is a huge echo when someone doesn’t pay rent,” Blake said. “Many landlords rely on that income to help cover their mortgage and bills.”
Renters who have lost their jobs or are now earning less are having to revaluate their finances even if they qualify for federal benefits. Many are choosing what bills are getting paid this month.
A national campaign called Keep Your Rent is percolating in several Canadian cities, particularly in Toronto where some tenants are urging others to not pay their rent and organize so neighbours can work together to try to avoid evictions once moratoriums are lifted.
At Royal Terrace Apartments in New Westminster, B.C., one of the campaign posters was taped up in the elevator.
The three-storey building has 41 units and is a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments. One 570-square-foot suite was listed for rent starting in May for $1,550 a month.
Ryan and Kathleen, who didn’t want their last names used, have been living there for three years, but didn’t pay rent in April and won’t be paying it for May either.
“We both lost our jobs in early March,” Ryan said.
In addition to the loss of income, they had also accrued debt over the winter, including credit card bills.
“It is just a perfect storm for not being able to do something like make rent,” Ryan said.
Ryan is an industrial painter and is on EI. His partner, Kathleen, qualified for the Canadian emergency response benefit.
Ryan said it doesn’t make sense to pay part of their rent because that won’t protect them from being evicted once the moratorium is lifted.
Groceries or rent
Elizabeth Ellis made a different choice and paid half of the $725 she owed in April for her basement apartment in Hamilton, Ont.
She is a personal support worker who was slated to start a new role in mid-March, but the training was put on hold because of COVID-19. She said her other clients don’t want home visits because they are worried about catching the virus.
She applied for the CERB at the end of April, but her only income for that month was the $700 she received through Ontario Works, a provincial social assistance program.
She is a member of ACORN, a national organization that advocates for families with low to moderate incomes.
“People that I have [been] speaking to have had to choose. Do I pay my rent or do I put food on the table?”