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Housing vulnerability during the pandemic: Part II

On April 10th, I wrote a post about housing vulnerability during the pandemic, including interim programs and policies to support renters, commercial tenants, and people experiencing homelessness or violence at home. I wanted to write an update because I’ll be doing a webinar on this topic on Tuesday, April 28th, as part of MacEachen Institute’s COVID-19 series. Shawn Harmon will also be discussing intergenerational justice, Jacquie Gahagan will talk about our study on LGBTQ seniors, and Linda Wilson will discuss COVID and homelessness in Nova Scotia.

 

As of the end of April, six weeks after the pandemic was declared, what types of support are governments offering to renters, commercial tenants, and precarious or vulnerable populations?

Banning evictions for residential tenants

As I wrote last time, housing advocacy groups fought for the suspension of rents, utility payments and property taxes, and the ban of evictions during COVID-19, including a campaign to “Keep Your Rent on April 1”. This contributed to a response from provincial governments banning evictions for residential tenants (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has a webpage tracking these temporary policies). All governments are insisting that rent payments (and mortgage payments, for that matter) be made in full once the state of emergency is over.

In general, evictions are suspended, generally until the state of emergency is lifted. In some provinces, the end dates are coming up quickly. In Alberta, tenants cannot be evicted for nonpayment of rent or utilities before May 1, and before that landlords are required to enter into a meaningful repayment plan with the tenant or make reasonable attempts to do so. Suspension of evictions in New Brunswick will last until May 31. In BC, all new and existing evictions have been put on pause, except in “exceptional circumstances”; in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and PEI all but cases endangering public health and safety or illegal activities have been suspended. In the Yukon and Nova Scotia, evictions are banned until June 30, but tenants can still be evicted if their income has not been affected by the pandemic. Renters have still been receiving eviction notices: Press Progress showed eviction notices received by tenants in Toronto and Victoria. BC, Alberta, and Manitoba have frozen annual rent increases.

While some housing advocates are calling for a national rent subsidy to assist tenants, temporary rent supplements have been introduced in some provinces. In BC, up to $500 per month will help landlords whose tenants are unable to pay rent because the pandemic has affected their income (tenants must be on EI/CERB and meet an income criteria). PEI’s Temporary Rental Assistance Benefit will provide renters up to $1000 over three months ($500 the first month and $250 for the second and third) if they do not qualify for the rental assistance program or social assistance. The Northwest Territories has streamlined the application process for its Transitional Rent Supply Program, which provides assistance to those experiencing unaffordable shelter costs, to allow applicants who have lost income during the pandemic to receive $100-500 per month until August 31, 2020.

Extra support for residential tenants

Temporary provincial support for those who must self-isolate (e.g. in Saskatchewan, Quebec, and New Brunswick) introduced in late March have now been replaced by the CERB. PEI is offering a $100 Sobeys gift card to help with the cost of groceries while laid-off workers wait for their EI payments to arrive (including students). The BC Emergency Benefit for Workers (announced April 23) will provide a one-time payment of $1,000 to workers who qualify for the CERB–applications will be accepted starting May 1. A temporary emergency child care for essential workers service in BC allows the province to match requests for child care with available spaces in the province (April 16); Ontario expanded the list of essential workers who qualified for emergency child care (April 17).

Students finally received confirmation of federal assistance on April 22: the Canada Emergency Student Benefit will give students $1,250 per month from April to August. Students earning less than $1,000 per month are also eligible. The $9 billion fund will also expand eligibility for Canada Student Grants, and financial assistance. create 76,000 new jobs in hard-hit industries, and launch a new Canada Student Service Grant of between $1,000 and $5,000 for students volunteering in the COVID-19 fight to go towards their fall tuition. The University of Toronto has a special bursary program for its students, and has already distributed $1.2 million in bursaries since mid-March.

Programs for commercial tenants

Support for Canadian businesses has mostly been at the federal level. The COVID-19 Emergency Response Act (passed March 25) introduced a temporary wage subsidy of 10%. The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (announced March 27, passed in the House of Commons April 11) covers 75% of an employee’s wages (up to $847 per week) for any employer that has seen a decrease in gross revenues of 15% or more in March and 30% in April and May. The subsidy covers wages from March 15-June 6. Small businesses and non-profits can access the new Canada Emergency Business Account, which will roll out in mid-April through financial institutions. For self-employed individuals, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit already provides up to $2,000 per month for up to four months for those who have lost their income due to COVID-19. Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation published this handy tutorial for anyone who wants to apply to the CERB.

On April 24th the federal government announced the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program to help small businesses who have ceased operations during COVID-19 and experienced at least a 70% decrease in income. which will cover 50% of three monthly rent payments for April, May, and June if the property owner agrees to reduce the small business’ rent by 75% and agree not to evict the tenant while the rent forgiveness agreement is in place. The program will be cost shared between the federal government (managed by CMHC) and the provinces, who will contribute 25% of the costs, and will be in place by mid-May.

In BC, property taxes have been deferred and school taxes reduced for commercial tenants; similar actions have been taken in cities like Mississauga, Toronto, Ottawa, and Edmonton. PEI landlords who defer rent payments for commercial tenants may be eligible for financial assistance of up to $50,000 per landlord and $15,000 per tenant if the deferred rent cannot be recovered (Commercial Lease Rent Deferral Program). In Toronto, the BusinessTO Centre provides one-on-one virtual support for businesses, including applying for the CERB and Wage Subsidy program, the Digital Main Street program to assist businesses with everything from e-commerce to website design, and webinars on COVID-19 related issues. Similar support through the BC Business COVID-19 Support Service began on April 16: businesses in BC can find information on available programs in several languages.

Programs benefitting homeless or at-risk populations

After last weekend’s mass killing of 22 people near Halifax, which began with Gabriel Wortman’s assault of his girlfriend, the plight of domestic violence victims has been magnified. The Canadian Battered Women’s Hotline reported a 300% increase in calls during the pandemic. Researchers have documented similar increases after events like Hurricane Katrina and during the Ebola, H1N1 and SARS epidemics. The federal government is slated to  give Women and Gender Equality Canada $40 million to help maintain operations at shelters and sexual assault centres, and $10 million to Indigenous Services Canada for its 46 shelters on reserve and in the Yukon. In Nova Scotia, people experiencing violence in the home are asked to contact the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia at 1-855-225-0220 or visit nsdomesticviolence.ca.

The federal government is providing $100 million in funding to organizations to help buy and distribute food to those in need, provide personal protective equipment to staff and volunteers, and hire temporary help to replace lost volunteers. On March 29, $9 million was also allocated to United Way Canada through the New Horizons for Seniors Program. On April 4, federal government announced $157.5 million for the Reaching Home program to help purchase beds and maintain social distancing in shelters, which will be distributed to municipalities.

At the local level, the Atlantic Compassion Fund has distributed $240,000 to 42 organizations in the Halifax area, including supporting essential staff at Freedom Foundation, providing safe temporary housing for women temporarily released from incarceration through Elizabeth Fry Society, and supporting hourly wage increase for Shelter Nova Scotia staff. NWT created a Homelessness Assistance Fund to ensure those at-risk or experiencing homelessness can access resources. Ontario pledged over $37 million to meet the needs of Indigenous communities in preventing the spread of COVID-19, including helping local non-profits and charities to supply food and essential services and ensuring access to local airports for supplies. Companies like Fido also launched campaigns to raise money for Food Banks Canada.

To meet immediate housing needs, temporary shelters have been set up in empty community centres and hotels in many cities, including Toronto, Vancouver, London, Hamilton, and Yellowknife.

On April 22, Ontario announced extra efforts to fight COVID-19 in long-term care homes, including increased testing of asymptomatic staff and residents, a 24/7 response team to assist in providing PPE for workers, resolve staff issues, and put infection protocols in place, and identify staff needs with qualified workers.

All levels of government have introduced measures to stabilize housing. As some provinces begin to open up businesses. and we slowly return to normal, let’s not forget what we accomplished during the crisis and ask ourselves how temporary programs, policies, and services could be extended to meet critical housing needs. I’ll be discussing this at our webinar on Tuesday–please join us!

Ren

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