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Photo: Rame Abdulkader/The Fulcrum

Provincial government has temporarily delayed all landlord-tenant hearings during the COVID-19 outbreak

Amailia* cannot afford to pay rent in April. 

The first-year history student at the University of Ottawa was planning on moving in with her partner and to apply for jobs at the end of March to be able to afford the $1,400 monthly rent for her one-bedroom apartment — a price she said is similar to what she was paying when she lived in residence.

But the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating issues Amailia and other tenants are facing. Since emerging in December 2019, the outbreak has caused many “non-essential businesses” to close their doors or lay-off staff, leaving employees without paycheques. The provincial government says no tenants will be evicted if they cannot afford to pay rent. 

“Nobody is hiring. I’ve gotten a bunch of emails back saying ‘we’re so sorry. We’ve had to stop the hiring process,’ ” she said. “There’s the immediate issue of paying rent in six days. And then there’s the issue of the rest of the summer too, because it’s not looking good in terms of getting employment.”

Amailia says there isn’t anything she can cut back on to afford next month’s rent. 

“I’m paying rent, internet and food and that’s it. It’s not like when people say ‘if you save up coffee money every day, then you’re good enough to get by,’ but that’s entirely not the situation at all,” said Amailia.

Amailia says she’s taking it day by day to figure out if she’ll be participating in a rent strike called Keep Your Rent, organized locally by the Herongate Tenant Coalition.

Organizer and concerned citizen Josh Hawley says there hasn’t been support for tenants during the COVID-19 outbreak, which forced a lot of companies to temporarily close or lay-off employees. Justin Trudeau announced on Friday the government will be providing a 75 per cent subsidy for small to medium-sized businesses across Canada in order to keep employees on the payroll. 

“We’ve seen relief being provided to businesses and homeowners and people who might qualify for employment insurance (EI), but nobody’s certain about that,” he said. Nearly one million Canadians applied for (EI) last week.

Hawley says the rent strike originally started in Toronto and inspired him and other organizers to spread information to tenants in Ottawa. He says the movement can work as a collective for tenants to band together. 

“The movement revolves around tenants taking matters into their own hands and saying, collectively, ‘we can’t pay rent, we’re gonna keep our money, keep our rent for April.’ ” 

Hawley says tenants shouldn’t be forced to pay for April’s rent later in the month or after businesses reopen. 

Herongate Tenant Coalition advocate Naima Hussein says it’s important to recognize how minorities are affected uniquely by the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a Muslim, Hussein said it’s part of her religion to not take out loans with interest.

“A lot of Muslims are in that situation where it’s like, ‘I don’t know what the next step is.’ For a lot of people, they don’t know when that next paycheque is coming in., It’s a really precarious situation.”

Hussein says she is cautious of what the province’s freeze on evictions means for tenants.

“I think that landlords already exploit so many people, but now we’re able to really see that predatory side come out in the flesh where we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and people can’t pay rent,” said Hussein. “I know that the province has guaranteed no evictions, but in the future, what is that going to look like?”

Hawley said the group has not reached out to municipal, provincial or federal levels of government because the clock is already ticking.

“We can’t wait. We Don’t have time to wait for politicians to make a decision on this or to negotiate with them,” said Hawley. “As working-class people, we have the power to take matters into our own hands to take control over our lives and to protect ourselves when we’re at our most vulnerable.”

Hawley says tenants should know their rights when it comes to not paying rent next month. 

“We don’t know how landlords are going to respond on April 2, when they don’t get the rent. But we can expect them to attack working-class tenants,” said Hawley. “This can be in the form of threats of eviction, intimidation, letters, withholding maintenance requests until they get their payment, all of which is illegal.”

If tenants do not pay rent, their landlord can send a letter asking them to do so.

“We’ll see if landlords actually do that, but that notice has no legal weight behind it. It’s not an order and again, the only way landlords can actually evict tenants is that they get an order from the Landlord Tenant Board. And they can’t do that right now and we don’t know how long the freeze is going to last.”

Hawley says the most important part of the rent strike is to inform others and band together. 

“The thing that’s so amazing with Keep Your Rent right now is we’re seeing tenants — by the hundreds, by the thousands across cities — organizing now. This is not about any individual being a leader or anything like that. This is a mass of tenants organizing together to back each other up when the time comes.” 

*Name has been changed to protect identity due to privacy concerns.

Editor’s Note (March 28, 11:38 a.m.): This article has been updated to clarify that if a tenant does not pay rent, the landlord can send a letter asking them to do so, not the Landlord Tenant Board.