As COVID-19 spreads, evictions are a public health nightmare

Quebec and Ontario are first provinces to announce postponement of evictions
Photo: sswj / flickr
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British Columbia holds the dubious honour of being the eviction capital of Canada — over the past five years, more than 80,000 people have been removed from their homes through eviction or foreclosure. In this epicentre of a pan-Canadian housing crisis, over one in five tenants use more than half of their income for housing every month.

Jennifer Efting, an organizer on the steering committee of the Vancouver Tenants Union, is on the front lines of the housing crisis. Right now, she says, the union is helping dozens of tenants who are facing “demoviction,” a term that refers to evictions justified by plans to demolish buildings and build new, often upmarket, housing. These tenants are being forced to leave by April 30 at the latest.

“At least one of those tenants, if not more, are vulnerable,” Efting says. “They have compromised lung function. Now they have to go out into the community and travel on public transit to go to open houses and try to find alternate housing.”

“People are working, trying to pay their rent, trying to get repairs done. But then in the other timeline, we’re in the middle of a public health crisis.”

Under normal circumstances, Efting would respond to these cases with the urgency demanded of seeing community members potentially made homeless. Under normal circumstances, these cases are already important.

But these aren’t normal circumstances — the stakes are much higher.

The consensus is that the only way to prevent COVID-19 from pushing the healthcare system beyond its capacity is to practise social distancing — avoiding public spaces and minimizing contact with others — to prevent the rapid and widespread transmission of the virus.

The message is clear: stay at home.

Staying home, of course, requires that a person have a home in which to stay. And that’s why tenant organizations across Canada such as the Vancouver Tenants Union are engaging in an urgent push to ban all evictions during the pandemic and its immediate aftermath.

Two timelines

Since its emergence in China in December 2019, the novel coronavirus has spread rapidly across the world. The virus, which was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, has claimed more than 6,500 lives and infected close to 170,000 people as of March 16.

Individuals infected with the virus can be without serious symptoms, during which time the virus may remain contagious. The virus has spread exponentially in epicentres like Italy — where the healthcare system has been overwhelmed, forcing doctors to choose which patients receive care and which are left to die based on criteria like age, general health, and likelihood for survival.

Any serious public health measure needs to span the length of the crisis.

“People are living in two different timelines right now,” says Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations in Toronto, which is pushing for an eviction ban in Ontario.

“People are working, trying to pay their rent, trying to get repairs done. But then in the other timeline, we’re in the middle of a public health crisis, and we’re trying to make sure our healthcare system doesn’t collapse. The problem is that people are still contending with that first timeline.”

In cities and states across the U.S., evictions are being temporarily banned as a measure to prioritize public health and help people whose income has dropped due to the economic slowdown associated with the pandemic. Those calls are also penetrating Canada.

Short-term ban insufficient

So far in Canada, two provinces have announced eviction postponements.

Ontario said Monday night that no new eviction notices will be issued and that scheduled enforcement of evictions will be put off for this week at least.

A day earlier, on March 15, Quebec announced that the rental board — the Regie du Logement — would suspend eviction hearings for one week, until March 23.

For Veronique Laflamme, spokesperson for the Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), a one-week ban is “clearly insufficient.” Any serious public health measure needs to span the length of the crisis, she says, and then continue long enough afterwards for people to re-establish their income.

Landlord associations “need to not have any input into our public policy during this crisis.”

Prior to housing minister Andrée Laforest’s announcement of the one-week suspension of eviction hearings, the rental board had put out a statement announcing that it was suspending all activity except “essential” hearings, which it said included eviction hearings.

The Regroupement des comités logement et associations de locataires du Québec (RCLALQ), another tenant advocacy organization, is also demanding an eviction ban in Quebec. When the rental board announced that evictions would continue, RCLALQ spokesperson Philippe Girouard described the decision as “unbelievable.”

“We had a call from a tenant on Friday that had his hearing scheduled, and who didn’t know when the landlord was going to evict him,” Girouard says. “The amount of distress that this person was feeling was incredible.”

Eviction hearings in Quebec are poorly equipped to deal with issues like this pandemic, Girouard says.

“A hearing for non-payment of rent gives you no way of even explaining why you weren’t able to pay, Girouard says. “The only thing they ask you is … ‘can you pay now?’ If you can’t, you’re evicted.”

Eviction ban campaign

Last week, the largest landlords’ association in Quebec put out a statement about the coronavirus. A section of the text, which has since been modified, said that “tolerating a situation of non-payment can cause repercussions on other tenants and degenerate rapidly, leading to a loss of control.”

Geordie Dent, when he saw that statement, described the landlords’ association as made up of “dangerous fanatics” who “need to not have any input into our public policy during this crisis.”

“Hopefully sane heads will prevail,” Dent says. “Because some of us who are reading the reports out of Italy, Iran, we know that there is a choice between immediate action and mass graves.”

For now, tenants’ organizations like the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations, Vancouver Tenants Union, RCLALQ and FRAPRU are focusing on mounting pressure on political decision-makers to implement an eviction ban. FRAPRU has just launched a petition to get one passed in Quebec.

“Rent strikes, like any organized strike, aren’t easy.”

Alongside that action, others like Montreal anarchist organizer Jaggi Singh are also pushing for tenants to organize themselves in the event that decision-makers refuse to ban evictions. Singh has been circulating a call for a rent strike in Montreal, which he says is not tied to a specific housing organization.

“It’s not just the individuals and families who can’t pay rent who shouldn’t pay,” Singh says, “but also the people who can. It’s a way of showing social solidarity.”

Singh is under no illusion that simply launching a call for a rent strike online will cause a strike to happen. “Rent strikes, like any organized strike, aren’t easy,” he says. “It involves going door to door and creating neighbourhood solidarity, and we’re in a situation right now where going door to door is frowned upon, for obvious reasons.”

But he sees even the threat of a rent strike, if credible, as an effective means to pressure decision-makers to ban evictions during this period of crisis.

“There’s a huge number of people who suddenly can’t pay rent anymore, so we might as well politicize it.”

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