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Despite pandemic, governments mustn’t forget: housing is a right

Over 1/3 of Canadians are worried about missing a rent or mortgage payment this month because of COVID-19.

Ottawa (26 March 2020) ― As we begin to witness the full extent of COVID-19’s impact across the country, across the economy, and across so many aspects of people’s lives, we must acknowledge the effects on housing.

Governments have taken initial steps to respond to housing concerns, for example, by offering flexibility to mortgage payers and providing additional funding to the shelter system, but gaps remain.

Financial strain for the majority

The majority of Canadians are or will be facing financial stress due to COVID-19. Many are faced with lost income due to reduction in work hours, inability to work altogether, layoffs, and closure of small businesses.

Research released this week by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) found that nearly half of rental households (1.6 million) have enough savings to cover their bills for one month or less. And 1/4 of households (approximately 830,000) cannot afford to go through one week without pay.

COVID-19 is likely to make matters worse. Over 1/3 Canadians are worried about missing a rent or mortgage payment this month because of COVID-19, according to polling commissioned by the Angus Reid Institute. As NUPGE has commented here, it is the most vulnerable workers and populations that will experience the most significant impacts.

Flexibility for homeowners is not what it seems

The federal economic supports initially focused on homeowners. The Trudeau government announced last week that it would be providing flexibility to lenders so that households could defer mortgage payments.

However, reports that followed revealed that the arrangement is not as good as it sounds. Not only is it still unclear who will be eligible for deferrals, but there would also be long-term impacts as the deferrals effectively increase a household's debt load, reports CBC News. This arrangement will simply compound the problem down the road for homeowners.

What about renters?

In its communications, the Trudeau government has been clear: no Canadians should be unable to pay their rent or mortgage during this time. Although 1/3 of households rent, there have been few supports specific to renters.

While unattainable housing prices in many parts of the country make headlines, the cost of rent, too, is increasingly out of reach for many workers. According to a CCPA study on rental affordability in 2019, in almost every neighbourhood across the country, the wage required to afford apartment rental far exceeds minimum wage, and that cost continues to rise.

More support for tenants needed

While the economic relief packages announced by federal and provincial governments ― such as direct income supports ― are crucial, they are not yet sufficient for many workers.

In some provinces, including British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island, governments have temporarily suspended evictions, with some exceptions. So far, governments have also announced a freeze on rent increases in both Manitoba and B.C. These are important first steps, but they need to be expanded upon.

Experts and housing advocates have called for all provinces to suspend evictions immediately, and for other measures like rent freezes, additional transfer funds for tenants to cover rent, or waiving April 1 rent altogether.

Many small businesses that are needing to close or shift their operations are now also faced with the challenge of rent or mortgage payments, and they are calling on governments for greater support.

BCGEU/NUPGE calls for suspension of mortgage, rent payments

As the COVID-19 crisis was beginning to unfold in Canada, the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU/NUPGE) called on the federal and provincial governments to suspend all mortgage and rent payments until the pandemic is over.

“Our federal and provincial governments have an opportunity right now to mitigate one of the major economic pressures that force people to choose to keep working even if they have been exposed to COVID-19 or are symptomatic,” said BCGEU President, Stephanie Smith.

In addition to suspending evictions and freezing rent increases, B.C. announced yesterday it will be providing financial relief of up to $500 for renters who are struggling to pay the bills. It is yet to be seen whether that amount will be enough for vulnerable workers, including those facing unemployment or loss of income, but it is a welcome step.

Urgent support needed for those experiencing homelessness

The members of our communities who are experiencing homelessness, or are precariously housed, need urgent support. We are already seeing reports of the strain on homeless shelters.

NUPGE commends the governments that have stepped up with additional supports for homeless shelters and other social services that support our most vulnerable. We know that vulnerable populations are most at risk of catching the virus, as well as suffering the economic impacts related to the pandemic. Governments must ensure that the shelter system and frontline social services are adequately funded and staffed, but also invest in supportive housing and affordable housing as long-term options.

Time to address the housing crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the cracks and crises in all of our systems: under-resourced public and social services, piecemeal protections for many workers, and numerous other inequities. It has also exposed the gaps and inequities in housing policy, which had led to lack of access to affordable housing and a homelessness crisis prior to the COVID-19 crisis. Governments must respond with meeting the immediate housing access needs, while also working to repair the broken system and meeting housing needs in the long run.