B.C.'s housing crisis to hit 'boiling point' as pandemic protections are set to be lifted

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Nargis Shad was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with her second child when her landlord sent her an eviction notice in July for non-payment of rent. The notice was a bullying tactic, according to Shad. It won't be enforceable until the eviction moratorium is lifted and the rental repayment plan begins in October. 

Shad, an esthetician, and her husband, a construction worker, were laid off in March when the pandemic hit. Since then, they have only been able to pay a fraction of the rent for their Burnaby residence. 

Shad was just recently approved for the $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) after a long back-and-forth with the Canada Revenue Agency. Then, in early August she had her baby and went on maternity leave. 

Her husband collected CERB for two months in spring before the construction company re-hired him. After working for two and a half months, construction for the skyrise he was working on was postponed. He did not qualify for CERB the second time.  

"We couldn't pay rent because I wasn't working, he wasn't working and we literally had nothing coming in," Shad said. The family is now $7,000 in rent debt.

Housing advocates say many families in Vancouver are facing similar severe financial challenges with the end of the pandemic support programs -- including the end of the eviction ban on September 1 -- and the beginning of the rental repayment plan.

"We are going to be seeing what was already a crisis absolutely hit boiling point," said Maya Violet, an organizer with the Red Braid Alliance (RBA). The RBA has been protesting the housing crisis during the pandemic by squatting in empty buildings and occupying apartments scheduled to be demolished. 

Alex Hemingway, policy analyst at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the termination of a host of pandemic support programs, including B.C.'s Temporary Rental Supplement on August 31, which provided up to $500 a month to eligible renters, will likely create a surge in evictions this fall.

"Those kinds of cash supports for renters, and the failsafe of having an eviction ban in place, are very important," Hemingway said. "I would like to see those programs extended."

Starting October 1, tenants who were unable to pay their full rent during the eviction moratorium will be expected to start making back payments on their debt through the rental repayment plan, which grants renters until July 2021 to pay it off. 

But Violet said the plan amounts to an increase in rent for the lowest income tenants. "If people already couldn't afford to pay the rent, then having the rental repayment of an extra $100 or $200, or however much on top that, is going to make everything even more difficult."

The Shad family will be expected to pay their $1,590 rent, plus up to $600 in overdue rent for the next ten months when the rental repayment plan begins. 

"We can't even afford to pay our current rent," Shad said. "It's so stressful."

Her biggest fear is losing their housing altogether.

"I'm so scared of being homeless right now," she said. "Having a two-week old baby and a two-and-a-half-year old daughter, and having nowhere to go, it just takes my breath away."

According to the B.C. government, 12 per cent of renters in the province paid partial rent and three per cent were unable to pay any rent during the pandemic. The total of 15 per cent of renters in arrears means about 88,000 households have accumulated rent debt during the pandemic. In greater Vancouver alone, that amounts to more than 51,900 homes that face an immediate hike in the cost of housing when the repayment plan begins.

Mazdak Gharibnavaz, an organizer with the Vancouver Tenants Union, said the repayment plan demonstrates how grossly out of touch B.C.'s housing minister Selina Robinson is with working-class renters. "She thinks in an economy with 11 per cent unemployment, that these people who've been disproportionately laid off and lost their jobs are not only going to get their jobs back, but they're also going to get higher wages."

Gharibnavaz said the conditions for a potential eviction crisis are "turbocharged" by B.C. rental regulations. Because rent is tied to the tenant, not the unit, rent can only be raised significantly when renters move. This gives many landlords financial incentive to evict long-term tenants.

"The COVID-19 crisis has actually presented the private housing sector with one of the biggest opportunities they've had in many years to be able to pump up the market in a huge way by kicking out vulnerable people who are in the most affordable units, and either selling off entire buildings or bringing in new tenants," Gharibnavaz said.

He noted B.C.'s repayment framework ignores the financial incentive landlords have to evict low-income tenants. 

In an email to rabble.ca, Marielle Tounsi, spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said the plan gives landlords the option of being more flexible with tenants who are repaying their rent debt. "We've built in flexibility to the framework to allow landlords to further adjust payment amounts to give people more breathing room at the beginning, or extend the repayment process past July 2021. We expect landlords to take advantage of that and offer as much flexibility as possible to tenants right now."

Gharibnavaz said a flexible repayment schedule should be required, not left up to the discretion of landlords. He thinks most landlords will likely do the bare minimum. "Landlords are not out of the kindness of their hearts going to say, 'I'll make the repayment plan the best for you, I'll put most of it at the tail end so you have more time to find a job' or something like that."

Many tenants do not anticipate they will be able to meet the obligations of the current repayment plan, according to a survey of 400 renters conducted by the Vancouver Tenants Union. Sixty-nine per cent of respondents with rent debt said they did not think they would be able to start making repayments by October.

Viveca Ellis, a spokesperson for the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition (BCPRC) said she has heard from renters across B.C. who are terrified of losing their housing this fall. The BCPRC has called on the B.C. government to extend the eviction moratorium and the temporary rental supplement. 

"We should not lift the evictions ban and ensure that nobody during the pandemic, which is still in full force, experiences eviction and homelessness," Ellis said.

Other community groups, including the Vancouver Tenants Union, are demanding rent debt be cancelled all together. 

Shad said that if her family's rent debt were cancelled, they would be able to get back on their feet. "It would be a huge, huge, huge relief for us."

Hemingway noted that because landlords in Vancouver have benefited enormously from the runup in rent and property values, they should be required to share the burden of rent debt. He listed potential programs that might disperse the financial losses associated with the pandemic more equitably, including a possible rent cut. 

Long term, Hemingway says an investment in publicly owned housing would create jobs and increase stock in permanently affordable public housing. 

The Red Braid Alliance and the Vancouver Tenants Union are also calling for affordable public housing as part of a universal housing framework. For them, the transformation of housing in Vancouver will have to come from the ground up, through organizing and protest.

"What the pandemic has really made clear is that we are living in an unsustainable system of housing and anytime our human rights come up against the profit motive of a landlord or corporation, then they can be taken away," Gharibnavaz said. "There is an opportunity for us to shift the dynamic of what it means to have housing as a human right. But first, we are going to have to take some radical action to defend ourselves."

For now, Gharibnavaz said housing remains a human right only in theory, which means it is too expensive for many middle and low-income residents to afford, particularly with the acute financial challenges of the pandemic.

Shad thinks she will eventually have to move her family out of the Vancouver area altogether because of the high cost of housing. She wishes that wasn't the case because she sees many benefits to raising her children here. She loves the weather and the community in her Burnaby neighborhood and walking her oldest daughter to her daycare year-round, which she couldn't do in snowy Alberta where her family is from. 

"We're happy where we are," she said. "That's the other thing I'm worried about -- that we're going to have to start all over again."

Anika Nykanen is a 22-year-old writer and recent university graduate who has covered housing on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.

Image: Alejandro Luengo/Unsplash

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