We need a rent freeze now

There has been and continues to be countless economic stimulus packages and programs introduced to help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. With many people now out of work and the international economy slumping to a degree that is on par with the Great Depression, calls have only ramped up for governments around the world to help get us through this crisis in the best way possible.

One thing that happened early on was that the big banks announced a six month mortgage deferral program for homeowners. However, one thing that has been notably absent is a similar type of program for renters.

Over 30 per cent of Canadians are renters according to Statistics Canada, which does not include non-citizens like students, people on temporary VISAs and so on. To not offer relief to them is a major oversight in terms of the public response to this crisis. If the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 is to stay home, how are people to do that if they run the risk of being evicted for not paying their rent?

That does bring me to my next point, because the government did put a freeze on evictions. However, I have a hard time believing, given the extreme power imbalance between renters and landlords, that this is worth more than the paper it’s written on. Unless they dramatically increased enforcement alongside that eviction freeze, that effort likely isn’t going to do much for many people.

While it doesn’t seem necessary to me, if the government were to subsidize landlords in tandem with freezing rent we would be able to avoid this entire mess. With mortgage payments deferred for homeowners, coupled with the threat that COVID-19 presents to our society, how can we justify anything less?

This pandemic seems to be shining a light on many bizarre elements of our society that we never thought much about before, with this being one of them. How is it that we allow people’s livelihoods, the shelter that they need in order to live, to be in the hands of literal lords, who have no direct check on their power? The Landlord and Tenant Board is one thing, but the abuses that landlords get away with on a daily basis during normal times that I’ve heard anecdotally from friends and family are breathtaking, let alone during this pandemic.

To not offer this basic protection to people facing job loss, the risk of viral infection and the need to pay for essentials like groceries, to me seems immoral and wrong. What’s even worse is to support homeowners, some of which are the same people who demanded that their tenants pay rent on April 1 or face illegal consequences, while purposefully ignoring renters.

What’s ironic is that a lot of renters are lower income, working class people, many of whom work minimum wage jobs in places like restaurants and grocery stores, some of the places we are all relying on now. Even workers in long term care, like Personal Support Workers, who are caring for the elderly right now in homes that are facing COVID-19 outbreaks left and right. I don’t understand how hard it is to make the connection between the people who are risking their lives to help us all during this time and the need to support them by doing things like freezing rent.

While I don’t think it is all that likely, I do hope that this pandemic causes us to re-think some of our societal norms once things have levelled out. It doesn’t take a pandemic for someone to face unemployment or a medical emergency that makes them unable to pay rent. In normal times, they would just be evicted, with nowhere to go. To me, this is wrong always, not just during a pandemic. In a perfect, compassionate world, we would distribute housing based on need, not your ability to pay. I just hope that this pandemic will help some more people see it that way.

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