It’s April 1, which means that, legally speaking, your rent is probably due. Except it’s not that simple, because nothing is anymore, and in Ontario, at least, the government has said it won’t be enforcing eviction orders during the current state of emergency. This is something — throwing people out of their homes during a pandemic would be a disaster — but it’s not nearly enough to head off what’s about to unfold in the province’s rental market, and Premier Doug Ford has missed a key chance to anticipate events in this emergency.
The government already missed a chance to get ahead of price-gouging in stores. When, early on in the state of emergency, the premier was asked whether he would use the new powers to punish profiteering, he said that he and social media would shame any companies that took advantage of consumers.
It turns out there are limits to what public shaming can do, even in this shame-filled age. The premier’s bully pulpit was insufficient, too. So he rightly turned to the powers of his office and brought in steep fines for any retailer caught overcharging for such essential supplies as hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks. The premier has since said that businesses have been overwhelmingly supportive and co-operative in this time but that “a few bad apples” have needed the stern hand of government to discipline them.
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Well, there are a few bad apples among the province’s landlords, too. Bet on it. Or don’t bet on it, because this isn’t even a gamble. Before very long, if this hasn’t happened already, tenants will be on Twitter and Facebook complaining about landlords being unreasonable about rent payments, and there will be a small but non-zero number of landlords acting in crazy, headline-grabbing ways. And, then, like it or not, it will be the government’s problem.
And the problem won’t be limited to residential tenancies. Even the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (not exactly a coven of Maoists looking to abolish property) is calling on provinces to provide more direct relief to commercial tenants and landlords.
It's understandable that the government — which has a lot on its plate at the moment — may be trying to limit the number of battles it has to fight at any given moment. That probably also explains, in part, why it’s responded incrementally to the various problems it’s been presented with. But it could have gotten ahead of this particular file exactly because it was so predictable: the first of the month is what scientists call “a recurring event.”
Ontario’s support for renters so far has ushered in a period of ambiguous anarchy: the law is going to be silent, for the next little while, on whether or not you’re lawfully in your home. But, for now, that’s all the government has said to renters, and it’s entirely unclear what’s going to come after the state of emergency eventually lifts. That’s insufficient for tenants and also bad for landlords — who’ll need to plead their own case to whoever owns their mortgage, in the total absence of any clarity from the state. The money flowing out of Ottawa is going to help some people, as will federal directives to banks, but regulating the relationship between tenants and landlords is fundamentally a provincial matter.
Numerous other provinces have done more. British Columbia, for example, has offered substantial financial aid specifically to renters and instituted an emergency rent freeze. If the Progressive Conservatives can’t stomach the thought of following an NDP government’s lead, they could look to Alberta, which hasn’t put money on the table specifically for renters but is making it clear that renters will not face evictions during or after the emergency: landlords will have to work with tenants to come up with repayment plans for anyone unable to pay their rent during the emergency.
The point here isn’t to be dogmatic about what, exactly, the government needs to do next but to say that something more is clearly going to be necessary. The status quo leaves both tenants and landlords in a state of precarity (though, obviously, one party in this exchange is far more precariously positioned than the other). Even if the direct effects of COVID-19 pass mercifully quickly, people will need real clarity about how the single biggest expense in their lives is going to unfold in the next few months. There was an easy win for the Tories here, if only they’d gotten ahead of it in time.