Change is due: Students delay rent payments due to ongoing pandemic

Change is due: Students delay rent payments due to ongoing pandemic

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, some students deferred rent payments in order to sustain themselves following job losses and a lack of support from the government.

"In general, the students we assist at our clinic tend to be more financially secure than the low-income tenants we serve," said Benjamin Ries, a staff lawyer at Downtown Legal Services. "But there is definite overlap."

Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, government support included the Canada Emergency Response Benefit(CERB) allowed $500 a week. CERB has since been transitioned to a modified employment insurance (EI) program.

Since Sept. 27, the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) has provided $900 every two weeks for people not entitled to EI. They must reapply for this money at the end of the two weeks.

However, Sara SM, an advocate with Keep Your Rent, said $2,000 a month is not enough for students to survive in this city, adding that insufficient funds mean students are being forced to choose between food and rent. "We are making the ‘radical' decision of choosing food," said the first-year journalism student.

Keep Your Rent is an advocacy group for folks who struggle to pay rent in Toronto and Hamilton, including students and community members at greater risk of income loss due to the pandemic. Their movement began in late March, when they scattered posters across the city and on social media, calling on tenants to withhold April's rent in response to Toronto's state of emergency.

SM said the weight of the consequences for landlords and tenants were also a motivator to defer rent. If a landlord misses a month's rent, they're financially burdened but not immediately lost for shelter during the pandemic. "If the tenant gets evicted, they lose their home and often end up in shelters or on the streets or unsafe housing situations with extended family," said SM.

SM said she's incurred over $20,000 in renters arrears since the start of the pandemic. Since her typical income has ended and she can't work any harder to resolve the debt under eventual full-time employment, she said she can't imagine repaying her rent in full anytime soon.

"Tenants need rent forgiveness provided by the Ford and Trudeau governments," said SM.

Housing in crisis before the pandemic

During the start of the pandemic, the average Toronto rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $2,213, which led to financial difficulties for 750,000 of Toronto's residents.

More and more tenants are coming together and organizing to advocate against Toronto's housing crisis. A rental market study estimated that there was a shortage of 200,000 rental units in Toronto, with vacancies lowering and prices skyrocketing.

"I believe that when tenants decide they have a common opponent and no longer wish to bid against each other to meet their basic shelter needs, those tenants require a radical change to the law and system that determines how much they pay in exchange for what amount and quality of housing," said Ries.

Ries said low-income families have tried to bargain with landlords on matters like unfair rent prices for decades. Given a lack of recognition from the courts like that given to workers unions, tenant unions often struggle to bring landlords to the legal negotiating table.

"Like workers in the earliest stages of the union movement, I think it is crucial that tenant organizers clearly articulate their demands and goals," said Ries.

What's more, the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) is not always fair, said SM. It was created in 2006 to protect and enforce the rights of tenants and landlords.

According to a financial post article, some tenants argue that evictions should be put off until the pandemic is over, while some landlords believe this gives more power to tenants, talking about tenant problems that existed even before the pandemic.

The LTB is in place to solve problems between landlords and tenants, such as eviction, illegal charge of a deposit or anything that may threaten tenant rights.

According to data from Tribunals Ontario, there were 15,000 unresolved cases at the LTB at the end of 2019. Landlords don't know when their cases will be heard given the backlog of pending eviction cases throughout the pandemic.

This allows tenants to go six to 12 months without paying their rent, forcing landlords to keep burdening a non-paying tenant, until they can grant eviction. Or, as supply shrinks, some landlords even raise up rent for other tenants.

"Threatening eviction during a pandemic is a form of profiteering. Landlords are the only people who expect not to lose money during a pandemic, which is ludicrous," said Ryan Langdon*, a second-year student at The College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of Ontario.

"People need to advocate for themselves and their loved ones by mobilizing, protesting when necessary and organizing with their neighbours because we are always stronger together," said SM.

Banned evictions or subsidized rent programs haven't been offered to individual renters, despite the federal government offering support to tenants renting commercial space.

Ontario's government and courts suspended eviction in March due to the pandemic but reinstated it by August, according to Ries.

His workplace, Downtown Legal Services, is representing the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario in an ongoing court case seeking to restore the suspension of eviction enforcement.

"No matter how many people cannot pay their rent due to economic circumstances, public health officials have encouraged everyone to stay home as much as possible. Eviction prevents that by taking away a person's home, forcing them either into someone else's home, or into a shelter, or onto the street," said Ries.

Ries added that mass evictions increase the likelihood of COVID-19's spread in low-income communities, which is why the United State's Center for Disease Control (CDC) prohibited low-income evictions until the end of 2020.

"With Ontario's COVID-19 case numbers now rising far past what they were during the first wave of this pandemic, I do not know why our leaders are unwilling to do what they did earlier this year, and what the US is doing."

On top of insisting that rent be paid in full throughout the pandemic, Ries said many Ontario landlords are demanding tenants to turn over extensive personal financial and health information before being allowed to enter a repayment plan. "Bill 184 passed this summer, [and] appears to allow landlords to take away a tenant's right to a legal hearing before getting an eviction order, if they miss a payment in the future."

In July, Bill 184, also known as the Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act, was passed to make a list of amendments to protect both landlords and tenants. Bypassing the LTB, it allows landlords to offer tenants repayment plans, but if refused, can be grounds for easier eviction.

"Bill 184 passed this summer, [and] appears to allow landlords to take away a tenant's right to a legal hearing before getting an eviction order, if they miss a payment in the future," said Rise.

This new bill will increase housing insecurity in Ontario, drive up rents and hasten the loss of affordable housing units, wrote lawyer Dania Majid in an article for Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario.

Since her parents were landlords throughout her childhood, SM said she's very familiar with the legal rights of tenants and landlords. "The best advice I can give someone … [is] know your rights so you can know your options," she said.

Ries said the greatest lessons for advocates of fair housing prices can be taken from the labour movements of old. As they demonstrated in the last century, "changing legal systems of oppression may not be as simple as voting or raising awareness. Confrontation, civil disobedience, and real risk-taking seem to have given us the labour laws and protections we now enjoy," he said. "I cannot blame tenants for thinking the same might be required of them now."

* Aliases have been given for Sara SM and Ryan Langdon, who are both at risk of losing their housing because of their advocacy