Coronavirus is forcing Toronto to confront the rental housing crisis like never before

The pandemic has led many tenants to seriously consider the radical act of withholding rent, but will the global crisis lead to lasting change?

Politicians, doctors and public health officials have repeated the same plea over the last two and a half weeks: Stay home. 

Our best shot at limiting the spread of the coronavirus is by staying home as much as possible, and only venturing out for essentials like groceries, medications or health care. Homes have become our greatest protection against COVID-19, but also a vulnerability for tens of thousands of tenants in the city. 

Coronavirus has laid bare the realities of Toronto’s housing crisis, and the fact that nearly half of renters in Ontario are a paycheque or two away from losing their homes. The hope is that the pandemic – whenever it’s over – will force a re-evaluation of the inadequacies of our current system and prompt the kind of change that views housing as a fundamental right. For now, however, it’s pitting tenants against landlords.

A radical fix

Chris (not his real name) is a 28-year-old university student who – due to a full course load and multiple practicums – hasn’t worked since last summer. He had a contract position lined up for the summer, which along with his Ontario student loan, would cover rent and next year’s tuition. But the contract has been cancelled due to the pandemic. And since he wasn’t working, Chris is not sure if he qualifies for the federal government’s recently announced Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which will provide $2,000 per month for four months to people who’ve recently lost their job. 

Chris has asked his building’s property management company if he can use his last-month’s deposit to pay for his rent on April 1. He’s still waiting to hear back. He says he can’t spend the last of his savings on rent.

“I feel like I need to maintain an emergency fund to cover the cost of food over the next months. If the crisis persists throughout the summer, I will likely have to drop out of school.”  

Even under normal circumstances, many tenants struggle to pay rent and ward off illegal evictions by unscrupulous corporate landlords – if they can even find decent, affordable housing in a market starved of it. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation says spending any more than 30 per cent is considered “unaffordable.” In Toronto, tenants who make less than $35,000 annually spend more than half of their income on rent. 

Coronavirus has exacerbated the crisis, with mass layoffs across industries. As a result, demands for relief in the form of government assistance and temporary freezes on rent increases are growing louder. And the loudest voices among them are calling for a more radical fix: a rent strike. 

From Parkdale to North York, Mount Dennis to Leslieville, Torontonians are  joining a North America-wide movement of tenants who aren’t paying rent on April 1, either because they can’t afford it or in solidarity with those who say they have been taken advantage of by landlords for too long. 

Signs have been appearing on Toronto’s streets exhorting people to join. The words “NO APRIL RENT” have been scrawled across the concrete barrier wall of the Gardiner Expressway, while posters by the group Keep Your Rent can be found plastered on telephone poles and storefronts, and pinned to bulletin boards in apartment lobbies across the city. 

Keep Your Rent is an offshoot of Parkdale Organize, the housing group that has staged rent strikes against above-guideline rent increases and aggressive tactics to push out lower-income tenants in Parkdale, as Toronto rents have become the most expensive in the country and vacancy rates dropped.

Bryan Doherty, a Parkdale tenant working with Keep Your Rent, says the current upswell of support for rent strikes isn’t just “an online phenomenon.” (Although the movement has gained a lot of traction online: A petition created by Toronto tenant Joe Rutherford calling for rent cancellation has over 760,000 signatures.) 

“Thousands of people across the city are having this same conversation,” says Doherty. “No one knows how things are going to unfold, but what we know is that we need to organize with each other. Hashtags and petitions are not going to pull us out of the fire.” 

A recent research paper from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives examined the financial well-being of Canada’s 3.4 million tenant households and found 42 per cent don’t have enough savings to cover more than two weeks of expenses. 

“These households have been on the verge of homelessness after two bad weeks for years now,” says Doherty. “What happened is that everyone else just had two bad weeks.” 

Last week, tenants at 87 Jameson, who are largely made up of working-class and immigrant families, sent a letter to their corporate landlord, MetCap, saying they would stop paying rent “until it is deemed safe for us to return to work.” In 2017, tenants successfully staged a two-month rent strike after MetCap tried to hike rents. They’re still awaiting a response to their most recent correspondence.

Keep Your Rent poster

Nick Lachance

Keep Your Rent posters began appearing around Toronto in late March.

“I don’t want to be evicted”

Sarah (not her real name) lives at 87 Jameson and is a single mother with four kids – ages 6, 10, 12 and a teenager. She receives social assistance and was looking for full-time work, but now her job search has stalled. She’s been able to cope financially by going to food banks or using services at her local temple, but that too is harder now because of the pandemic. 

“I don’t want to go to food banks right now,” says Sarah, who is also dealing with other underlying health issues and doesn’t want to risk exposing her family to the disease. 

Sarah isn’t sure if she’ll qualify for the CERB since she was previously unemployed. And she won’t be receiving the increased Canada Child Benefit or GST credit in time for the April 1 rent.

“I don’t want to be evicted, but what are we supposed to do?”

Although city council doesn’t have the power to direct landlords to defer or cancel rent payments, Mayor John Tory has asked landlords to work with tenants who are struggling financially. 

Some Toronto landlords are sympathetic and are waiving April rents completely or working with tenants to hash out repayment plans. At one Starlight Investments building in Parkdale, tenants can pay half of their rent on the 1st and the rest on the 15th or request a deferral, and the Nova Scotia-based Killam Apartment REIT said in a statement the company would work with “tenants facing financial hardship to find flexible payment solutions on a case-by-case basis.” 

But in a city where there’s been a sharp rise in personal-use evictions and renovictions, as documented by the Social Justice Tribunals Ontario, many tenants are concerned their landlords will not be as understanding. There are cases of landlords, for example, threatening to file an N4 form, the notice to end tenancy early for non-payment of rent, while others have said they will contact collections agencies, which will hurt the ability of tenants to find future housing. Some large property management companies have sent notices of rent increases during the pandemic. 

Silence from landlords

The Big Six banks in Canada have said they would work with landlords to defer mortgages and the city has announced a 60-day grace period for residential and commercial property taxes, utilities and maintenance fees. 

However, landlords who own investment properties say they don’t qualify for the deferrals since it’s not for their primary residence and are concerned they’ll default on their mortgage.

At the same time, tenants in Ontario have received assurances from Premier Doug Ford that they won’t be evicted if they fail to pay their rent.  

“If you have a choice between putting food on your table or paying rent, you’re putting food on your table. The government of Ontario will make sure no one gets evicted,” he said in a press conference last week. 

Ontario has temporarily halted new eviction orders, but landlords can still send eviction notices (like the N4), which tenants could confuse with proper eviction orders. And there’s been a silence on what happens after the moratorium is lifted (the date of that also hasn’t been announced). Tenants may come out of the pandemic housed, but they will also be thousands of dollars in debt. 

Julie O’Driscoll, director of communications for the minister of municipal affairs and housing Steve Clark, could not answer specific questions about what will happen in the aftermath of the pandemic. 

She says, however, that “we’re calling on landlords to be as flexible as possible when it comes to collecting rent. The same goes for any planned rent increases landlords are contemplating, whether already approved by the Landlord and Tenant Board or not.” 

The provincial NDP are calling for an 80 per cent rent subsidy, up to $2,500 per home, for up to four months. But unlike British Columbia, which is offering $500 per month in rent relief paid directly to landlords, Ontario has yet to announce similar legislation. 

The pressure is on policy-makers

Last June, Canada’s National Housing Strategy Act cemented the right to housing in Canadian law for the first time. 

But city council, the province and the federal government have yet to take steps to adequately recognize it as such. Similarly, countries like Italy, France, Australia, Ireland and Singapore have banned evictions during the pandemic, but have fallen short of waiving rent in their bailout plans. 

“I haven’t reached out to my neighbours about withholding rent,” says Chris. “I feel that my circumstances are my own and don’t really want to influence anyone else. On the other hand, I recognize that if more tenants choose to take this action, that puts a greater pressure on the landlords, which means more pressure on leaders and policy-makers to actually do something about this.” 

Last week, nearly a million Canadians applied for Employment Insurance. That number is expected to grow as layoffs continue, which was part of the impetus for the recently launched website, by the national member-based independent left coalition Courage. The website connects tenants across Canada considering strike action with resources and organizers in their own neighbourhood.

“People tend to think if they’re in a jam that’s something to be ashamed of. People need to say it loud because that’s when you realize someone else is too, and it’s not an individual’s fault,” says Courage member Gonzalo Riva.

“We’ve been shaved to the bone in this economy, and everyone was one accident away from not being able to make rent. And lo and behold, that accident happened to everyone at once.”


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