Before COVID, there was already an affordable housing crisis, poor wages relative to the costs of living and multitudes of working people with no savings and a single paycheque or less from living on the streets. Government supports during the pandemic fall far short and without action, there will be major crisis of housing insecurity and homelessness. Housing is not currently a right protected under any provincial or national law, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. What the present crisis demonstrates is the necessity of making housing affordable and accessible to everyone.
There have been suspensions of evictions in provinces including Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia; expansion of EI Sickness benefits to cover those who have had to stay home due to quarantine or self isolation; Emergency Care benefits for those who don’t qualify for EI Sickness benefits, but are sick or quarantined; and, Emergency Support benefits for those who are not eligible for EI, but face unemployment. Overall, the government of Canada rolled out a $27 billion dollar aid package for businesses and workers and $55 billion in tax deferrals. And Canada’s major banks are allowing a mortgage deferral payment for up to six months. These are all band-aids on a broken system.
Before COVID hit, there was a substantial gap between incomes and affordability of housing and the costs of living in general, and despite numerous and recent calls for change, nothing has improved. It is important to note that as soon as workers have been unable to work due to COVID layoffs and reductions of work, there has been an immediate pinch. Working class people, by and large, have little to no savings. Many are still fighting for a mere $15-dollar minimum wage. One paycheque away from the abyss is the reality now facing so many.
As for the COVID-related protections against evictions, they go by province, and don’t go that far. In Nova Scotia, the suspension of evictions is only for those whose incomes have been affected by COVID. But there is no indication that these tenants will be excused from the rental debt accumulated over the course of the pandemic. There is no freeze on rental payments. The Nova Scotia government has not suspended non-COVID-related evictions, even though evictions for anyone will likely expose those individuals to great risk — they will either become homeless and possibly take up residence in shelters, begin couch surfing or will be exposed in the course of moving.
What of the federal government’s income supports? The EI sickness benefits require that one has worked 600 or more hours and is actually forced to self isolate or quarantine due to illness or suspected illness. Temporary foreign workers are left out regardless, which is its own major issue. Even though no medical certificate is required for the sickness benefits in COVID cases, there has to be a demonstrated risk of illness that lands a person into isolation or quarantine, if not sick and in the hospital. Even with 15 weeks of EI benefits, the recipient only draws 55% of their income to a maximum of $573 per week. Low wage workers will be far below that amount.
As for those who don’t qualify for EI, but otherwise meet the sickness requirements noted above, the Emergency Care benefit only provides a maximum of $900 biweekly for up to 15 weeks. Workers who have lost their job due to COVID’s impact will have access to Emergency Support benefits, which is currently an unknown amount, and expected to roll out in April. However, it is unreasonable to expect it to be anything more than EI Sickness or Emergency Care benefits. Looking at all the measures that have been put in place, precarious, relatively lower-waged workers before the pandemic will still not have the cash flow needed to meet the costs of living.
When you add the reduction in income due to COVID to a lack of any government-enforced rent reductions or rent payment freezes, you end up with a deluge of evictions, eventually. The rental debts that will exist after the COVID crisis subsides will leave many struggling to survive and stay housed due to the inadequacy of government actions.
The present situation in Nova Scotia, mirroring that across the country, is one in which working class people with no savings, who largely rent are now paying the price for a lack of rent control, affordable housing crisis and general lack of any effective regulation to keep housing accessible and available to all. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation states that housing is only affordable if it costs less than 30% of the before tax household income. That is far from the reality for many workers. Currently the vacancy rates in Nova Scotia are approximately 1.4% and an even worse 1% in Halifax, with affordable housing at a miserable 0.5%. Many people currently housed are struggling with rent affordability and possible homelessness as prices are raised, with a recent story about a woman in Sackville as one example.
Excessive and increasing rental prices and a lack of affordable and available housing was a crisis before anyone breathed a word about COVID. They are urgent issues to address now because in a few months, increased precariousness in the fallout will make matters worse.
The law as it currently exists will not go very far to protect tenants. There has to be changes. The calls for action have been repeated many times: affordable housing, rent freezes, rent control and even rent reductions. Governments over the years have ignored every call for action, and the situation has only gotten worse. Housing is not yet recognized as a right, so homelessness and housing precarity is considered legally acceptable to all levels of government.
Tenant organizing is really the only solution to winning necessary changes in the law to better protect tenants. Tenants in Toronto’s community of Parkdale, through Parkdale Organize, are organizing for their members to keep their rent during the pandemic: “Tenants keep your rent. Landlords keep your distance.” They acknowledge that it is against the rules to withhold rent, but despite that, they push forward out of necessity, especially during the pandemic. It will be interesting to see how the issue of necessity may be dealt with when the time comes:
There is strength in numbers. Thousands of us deciding to keep our rent gives us the resources to better provide for the health and well-being of our families and communities. Social distancing helps stop the spread of COVID-19. It doesn’t stop us from taking the collective action of keeping our rent.
This organizing is happening even with social distancing. It is one example among many of working people organizing to protect each other in the days to come.