Ottawa Citizen - Resumption of evictions during COVID-19 risks worsening of homelessness, affordable housing crisis

By Bruce Deachman

 

The lifting of Ontario’s temporary pause on residential evictions this week could create a “devastating” housing crisis in Ottawa by tossing thousands of residents from their homes, Somerset Ward Coun. Catherine McKenney says.

“If you think about the people who simply fell behind (on paying their rent), they can catch up and find a way to work with their landlord. But, if you haven’t been able to pay anything because you’ve lost your job and have no income — let’s say it’s about three per cent, or 3,000 households that can pay nothing — that’s 3,000 households that we could find unhoused in Ottawa if they were all evicted.

“That would be devastating for the city, and there’s nothing we could do; we could not absorb that number of households.”

McKenney, who is council liaison for housing and homelessness and sits on the board of directors of Ottawa Community Housing, says the eviction moratorium gave some stability to people who lost their jobs or faced other financial hardships because of the pandemic and allowed them time to recover without worrying about homelessness. During the pandemic’s second wave, McKenney says, the city estimated that between three and six per cent of roughly 108,000 renter households in Ottawa were either behind on rent or hadn’t been able to pay any rent at all.

The issue, McKenney adds, is typically less dire with landlords who have only a few tenants and tend to develop closer relationships with them. Far more problematic are companies with thousands of units and little or no connection with renters.

“They’re the ones trotting off to Landlord and Tenant Board to get people evicted, when in fact there’s nowhere for (tenants) to go.”

Ontario announced in January a suspension of most residential evictions while the province remained under a state of emergency and a stay-at-home order. But on Tuesday this past week, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing confirmed that the temporary measure would expire along with Ontario’s stay-at-home order and that evictions would resume.

During the time that evictions were suspended, however, Landlord and Tenant Board’s hearings into applications continued so the resolution of disputes wouldn’t be delayed. And, according to Ottawa-Centre NDP MPP Joel Harden, residential evictions didn’t entirely cease. Those that were already “in the pipeline,” he said, continued.

“The government has to understand, inasmuch as they may be getting complaints from big landlords who are frustrated that evictions aren’t happening fast enough, now is not the time to be throwing people out on the street,” Harden said.

“You can’t get blood from a stone. What are people to do when so many people have been thrown out of work and the CERB benefits have ended, and folks on income security programs like OBSP or OW … Those are woefully inadequate to pay for the increased costs of living.

“This government,” he added, “hasn’t done anything at all, beyond episodic eviction relief, for tenants.”

On Thursday, Bill 276: Supporting Recovery and Competitiveness Act, 2021, was passed at Queen’s Park. A section of the bill, which now requires only royal assent to become law, prohibits anyone from photographing or recording a hearing, including a Landlord Tenant Board hearing, or disseminating recordings. Offenders facing fines of up to $25,000.

“Sometimes,” Harden said, “these sittings happen in between two-and-a-half to five minutes. Sometimes there are language barriers or issues with respect to people’s access to the internet, so many tenant advocates and tenant unions have sat in on and recorded these proceedings when, in their opinion, there’s been a very unfair procedure, and then released that on social media. But the government has instituted a bill to prevent that, and I think this shows, sadly, who the Ford government cares about in this pandemic.

“Recording a legal proceeding should not be understood as a criminal or unsavoury act,” Harden added, “but the Ford government is treating it as such, and I think it’s because the corporate landlords in Ontario are frustrated.”

William Blake of the Ontario Landlords Association agrees that tenant evictions are largely being driven by big corporate landlords. The OLA, he said, represents “tens of thousands” of small and medium-size landlords that he estimates constitute about 80 per cent of Ontario’s residential rental market.

“You’re going to have some people saying it’s great to end the moratorium,” Blake said, “but, among our members, there’s no happiness in evicting someone.”

Blake notes, however, that many smaller landlords who rely on rental income for their survival have no choice.

“Most are working-class landlords renting to working-class tenants, and we all have relatives who are renting as well. The vast majority of out members don’t want to evict somebody. However, just to get a hearing if someone decides not to pay rent can take over six months.

“It’s a terrible situation for both the tenants and landlords.”

Rather than ratcheting confrontation between the two sides, Blake says the OLA has been lobbying the province for more than a year for the sort of system being used in British Columbia, where low- and medium-income tenants can receive $500 per month, sent directly to their landlords.

“The B.C. government said airlines get bailouts, everybody gets bailouts, so let’s try to help landlords and tenants. It was a really good solution and it helped a lot of people.”

Blake said the OLA met with Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark to pitch the idea, but to no avail.

“Unfortunately, the Ford government didn’t come in and play the role they should have to help both sides. They have simply failed to do it, and it’s a total failure of policy. These evictions are not the solution.”

One Ottawa tenant who is greatly concerned about these recent developments is Dustin Munro, one of a dozen renters in a pair of Vanier apartment buildings who in late March received letters from a potential buyer of the building, threatening eviction if they didn’t agree to move. The letter, Munro said, cites pending renovations, or possibly demolition, as the reason behind the demand.

But the 53-year-old Munro, an ODSP recipient and seasonal street-sweeper on Sparks Street who lost his job because of the COVID-19 pandemic, worries he won’t be able to move back or be able to find a similar affordable apartment — he currently pays about $660 for his bachelor apartment — when the dust settles.

Furthermore, he wonders how he was supposed to look for a new apartment while respecting the stay-at-home order. “Why is it that I can’t even go buy a pair of running shoes, but these guys who want to buy the property don’t seem to have to obey the rules? But they put us at risk by making us go look at new apartments.”

Munro sent emails to the three provincial parties, city and federal public health officials and others, asking for help, but says he hasn’t received much beyond lip service.

“Doug Ford sent a reply saying thanks for letting me know what you think, and the federal NDP sent me a reply saying, yes, it’s too bad you have to go through that demoviction stuff, but unfortunately we can’t help you because it’s a provincial jurisdiction.”

Munro is considering purchasing a used camper trailer in case he finds himself homeless, but says he hopes he can simply avoid being evicted. He recently reached out to the Ottawa chapter of ACORN, a national organization that advocates for residents of low- and moderate-income neighbourhoods.

According to Norma-Jean Quibell, co-chair of ACORN’S Ottawa West Nepean chapter, sternly worded letters threatening eviction and other high-pressure tactics have become more common during the pandemic as landlords — typically corporate ones — have tried to circumvent the restriction on evictions. The practice, she says, only worsens tenants’ anxiety.

“One of the things a lot of our tenants report is that, when their landlords do come around and start harassing them or giving them notices or trying to get them to go to the landlord tenant board, it creates a great amount of stress during an already stressful period. People have their kids at home, people have lost jobs, people are barely scraping by, and this adds a whole new level of stress.

“We’re seeing a lot of tenants going through a very stressful time because they’ve been having trouble with making ends meet. Many have lost jobs or had reduced hours, and landlords have still been handing out eviction notices because a lot of these tenants don’t know their rights, so they think they’re being evicted right away. So right now it’s a concern that a lot of low-income families are going to end up homeless because of the situation.

“This is going to cause a lot of problems,” she added. “A lot of tenants are going to have issues, they’re going to fall into rent arrears. This is going to increase the current housing crisis in Ottawa.”

Quibell adds that ACORN isn’t interested in fighting landlords. The group would like to see the province step in with assistance, similar to how it helped small businesses with loans and grants to pay their rent.

“We would like to see something similar for low-income people. Sometimes these people don’t qualify for CERB or EI, so there’s a big gap there, and people are falling through the cracks.”

ACORN and McKenney support the idea of a rent bank, a municipal project where those behind in rent payments can apply for loans or grants to help them stay in their homes. “We’ve seen something similar in Toronto and we would like to see it here in Ottawa,” Quibell said. “Something has to happen here. We want the ban to stay in place. We want the provincial government to step in to help these low-income people, these vulnerable people, because we know that that’s adding to the problem.”

McKenney notes that about 20,000 households in Ottawa pay more than 50 per cent of net income for rent, with a further 16,000 above the generally accepted affordability threshold of 30 per cent.

“So those renters are at serious risk of falling into homelessness, and they often do.

“For me, one of the frustrating things is that we don’t have the resources we need just to help people pay their rent. But at some point we’re going to have to, so we can decide to do it now, or we can wait until more people are homeless, but at some point we have to stop people from falling into homelessness.”

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