Photo: Walid Amghar / Unsplash

While April 1st has historically been a day reserved for practical jokes and gags, in 2020, there’s little to laugh about, especially when the rent is due.

The first day of April this year was not only when Canada surpassed 9,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 nationwide, but the first of many months in which tenants and landlords will likely face rent payment difficulties. With the forced closure of non-essential businesses across Ontario, alongside layoffs and reduced staff hours, thousands of residential and commercial tenants have seen their source of income shrink or evaporate entirely. As tenants continue to grapple with forced unemployment, landlords of all sizes must also find the right approach to payments in the weeks and months to come.

“It looks like April seems to be okay, for now,” said Nawar Naji, a Toronto real estate investor and broker with Chestnut Park Real Estate. “The issues are possibly with May and June. As more companies lay off, more people go on EI, I think there will be more issues down the line.”

Naji has four residential tenants, along with clients who have tenants of their own. For April, Naji explained that rental payments don’t appear to be an issue, but some of his tenants have expressed concerns about rent as the shutdown drags on. In the weeks and months ahead, he plans to take a customized, one-on-one approach to his tenants’ rental payments.

“We’re going to talk to them the second, third week of April and see where everybody is at,” said Naji.

For Mark Kenney, President and CEO of Canadian Apartment Properties Real Estate Investment Trust (CAPREIT), tenant payment issues are not a new concept. The ongoing coronavirus crisis has left some tenants within CAPREIT’s 65,000 rental units mired in financial uncertainty, but for those who are facing difficulties, Kenney says that most of them have been open to working on an arrangement with property managers.

“Our compassion hasn’t changed,” said Kenney. “We’ve always, since our inception, made payment plans if somebody has economic disruption, and the pandemic, it’s not the first time people have experienced economic disruption, it’s just on a bigger scale.”

Payment solutions with landlords have varied, ranging from portional monthly payments — in which the remainder of the rent is paid later in the year — to using the tenant’s last-month deposit sum. Greenrock Real Estate Advisors (GREA), a Toronto-based property management and real estate services company with multiple rental buildings, developed a rental assistance program that allows their tenants to use their last month’s rent deposit as a credit towards their regular payments, either in portions or in full.

“GREA is also cognisant of the financial hardships its residents may face during this time,” GREA stated in a press release. “While our three levels of Government have promised various measures of support, it will take time for these relief funds to be disbursed.”

Photo: White.RainForest ∙ 易雨白林. / Unsplash 

Amid forced closure, commercial tenants are also experiencing rental payment uncertainty, with restaurants and small businesses being among the most vulnerable. The federal government has offered up to $40,000 in interest-free loans to small businesses and not-for-profit organizations in response to COVID-19, though some business owners have argued that this would tack on more debt than many companies can bear. To provide relief, some larger commercial landlords have granted rent deferral options. Ivanhoé Cambridge confirmed to Livabl that it would be providing deferral solutions to certain Canadian retail tenants on a case-by-case basis.

While some landlords have been able to negotiate rental payments with their tenants, others have not been so empathetic. Governments across the country have intervened to varying degrees, with British Columbia banning most evictions during the pandemic and Ontario closing the Landlord and Tenant Board.

“Landlords can still give eviction notices, however, landlords are encouraged to work with tenants to establish fair arrangements to keep tenants in their homes, including deferring rent or other payment arrangements,” reads the website.

However, there are exploitive outliers.

“I heard a story about a landlord who was coming up with a loan program to tenants, charging them interest. It’s disgusting,” says Kenney. “All landlords are not the same. We shouldn’t be painted with one brush. And all tenants aren’t the same, and they shouldn’t be painted with one brush. I think it’s really important that people exercise compassion and decency.”

Kenney, who said that he is vehemently against evictions right now, believes that more leadership needs to come from the government to protect tenants from landlords, such as those who could issue large rent increases on new construction units in the current environment.

Meanwhile, there have been calls for rent strikes by housing activists, such as Parkdale Organize, who advised residents not to pay rent on April 1st so tenants can “make the reasonable and responsible choice to keep the money they need to live in these uncertain times need support,” according to the Keep Your Rent webpage.

Both Kenney and Naji shared concerns about a possible rent strike’s impact on landlord mortgage payments. Not all landlords are eligible to defer mortgage payments, and Kenny explains that some tenants feel that they don’t need to meet rental obligations, even if they’re still working. He is worried about the 80 percent of small landlords across Canada who are not protected by income from a large volume of units.

“Everybody’s got to pay their obligations and if there’s circumstances where people can’t pay rent or can’t pay a mortgage then they need to work it out together as a team, because we’re all in this together,” said Naji.

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