In Canada, COVID-19 has meant that public events and gatherings are being cancelled. Flights, concerts, and hockey games are getting cancelled across the board. Restaurants and bars are closing. People’s contracts and work hours are being lost.
Why not cancel rent day too?
Already, one in five renters spends more than 50 per cent of their income on rent in Vancouver. Now COVID-19 has forced many businesses to close their doors and lay off their staff across the country. Baristas, servers, bartenders, cooks, barbers, event staff, musicians, hotel workers, and service workers of all kinds are among those hardest hit.
We know that on the first day of the month, hundreds of thousands of renters who live paycheque to paycheque are going to fall short on their rent. They need immediate relief, to make sure nobody loses their housing in this pandemic.
Vancouver’s Mayor Kennedy Stewart proposes an expanded rent bank for struggling tenants to take out loans to make their rent. Imagine that: telling people who’ve just lost their jobs to get a credit card to make sure their landlord gets paid on time.
If anything, we should do the opposite. We should cancel rent day for tenants.
And we can think of something creative for landlords, maybe giving them the ability to borrow money for maintenance and staff costs from provincial maintenance banks. Why should we burden solely the tenants who have the least ability to pay?
We also have to urgently face the fact that Canada’s health advice to stop the spread of COVID-19 doesn’t help the homeless. People who live on the street or in tents or shelters cannot socially distance themselves or self-isolate when they are ill. They cannot rest and recover. They often suffer from compromised immune systems and risk death.
The province must use their emergency powers to quickly house every homeless person in Canada in unused buildings and hotels and public facilities and commit to keeping them housed not just for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, but until long-term housing can be found for every single one of them. This pandemic should be our turning point — not another single night on the streets, for anyone, in our country.
For tenants, the simplest solution is to declare that rent day is cancelled, and have each province use available powers to affirm there’s no rent due for the month of April to start, with an option to extend rent day cancellation further if the crisis continues. This would mean that no one in Canada would have to incur rental debt for job loss due to coronavirus, and that all tenants would get a needed boost to their finances.
Obviously landlords have expenses, and the province should help them during the crisis too. I propose something simple: Provinces should reimburse landlords for maintenance costs during the pandemic. In order to apply for this relief, landlords would just need to submit information about their maintenance costs over the last year. In B.C., for example, the province can boost funding to the Residential Tenancy Branch Compliance and Enforcement Unit to analyze the data and determine access to reimbursements.
The data used in refund applications could discreetly and confidentially be used by the provinces to create new independent provincial landlord registries, which track the real costs of rental units across the country. This priceless data would give the provinces information it needs but can’t usually get to shape policy to better address the housing crisis, keep rents affordable, and create housing for the homeless. We can use rent day cancellation as an opportunity to look under the hood of our housing market and fix the problems based on the evidence.
The spread of COVID-19 has shown us the fault lines of our housing system. People across the country should call on their MLAs and MPs to cancel rent day and end homelessness before we miss the window to blunt the impacts at the kitchen table for working people.
In B.C. alone, cancelling rent day would provide over a billion dollar stimulus directly to renters and boost the local economy. It would be affordable to the provinces and would help policymakers to better understand the rental market and the housing crisis in the future. It’s just a good idea.
If provinces do not take action to relieve renters, landlords might face a worse prospect: a well-organized rent strike from workers fed up with being given the short end of the stick.
I think that everyone, including landlords, would find the prospect of cancelling rent day to be a much simpler solution.