'Devil is always in the details': Ottawa's commercial rent relief plan and what it needs to succeed

With COVID-19 smothering the economy at large and closures strangling many small businesses, the government is creating a commercial rent relief program in partnership with the provinces and territories.

Tenants, landlords and advocates explain 5 key elements they feel program must have

Peter Reid, standing in front of his building in Owen Sound, Ont., says his commercial tenants were forced to close due to COVID-19, so he waived their rent. (Submitted by Nikki Burgess)

With COVID-19 smothering the economy at large and closures strangling many small businesses, the government is creating a commercial rent relief program in partnership with the provinces and territories.

Announced Thursday, its name has a familiar, urgent ring in keeping with other federal aid plans rolled out since the pandemic began: Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA).

It's being met with a sense of relief, but also of caution.

"Well, it's clearly very welcome news," said Laura Jones, executive vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. "Help is desperately needed, and it can't come soon enough. But the devil is always in the details."

CECRA is intended to support small businesses struggling with lost sales due to the pandemic.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau explained the new program will "provide loans, including forgivable loans, to commercial property owners" who lower or forgo rent for small businesses over the months of April (retroactively), May and June.

CECRA is meant for businesses "most impacted by the pandemic," but the exact eligibility requirements haven't yet been defined. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Morneau both promised more details would come soon.

CBC News spoke to organizations, tenants, landlords and other stakeholders about what program details are most important to get right.

They expressed views on timing, eligibility criteria and more, distilled here into five keys they say will help make CECRA a success.

1. Grants, not debt or deferrals

The CECRA concept is based on loans. It could include a generous forgiveness policy, but loans have been a controversial part of Canada's COVID-19 Economic Response Plan.

The program comes after pressure for rent relief from CFIB, Restaurants Canada, Save Hospitality and Save Small Business (SSB).

"For this help to be helpful, it needs to be relief, not just more deferrals," Jones said. "There has to be a substantial part of this that is a grant, not just a loan, where you're basically kicking the problem down the road."

Laura Jones of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business says the government's commercial rent relief program should not be based on deferral payments or debt. (Submitted by CFIB)

Landlord Peter Reid of Owen Sound, Ont., agrees.

He's waived rent for all three of his commercial tenants and cut it in half for residential tenants.

"I'd like to see it come through as more of a grant, even if it's not for the full amount of commercial rent due", said Reid. Right now I'm not even covering the property taxes. never mind hydro in common areas."

2. Be fair to tenants and landlords alike

Nikki Burgess teaches painting from a studio in Reid's building and she's worried about the ripple effects of COVID-19.

The idea of rent relief gives the artist hope.

She says it would make her feel better to know Reid isn't "at a loss because he's looking out for me to make sure that I can stay where I am in his building."

Nikki Burgess is a painting teacher who rents a studio for her students in Owen Sound, Ont. She had to close because of the pandemic and is grateful her landlord waived her rent. (Submitted by Peter Reid)

For Murtaza Haider, a professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management with Toronto's Ryerson University, a rent relief program is a necessity.

"The goal should be to keep the landlords and commercial tenants in a fluid situation, so that we avoid either the tenants or the landlords getting into financial hardships resulting from this collapse."

3. Be fast and focused

With countless small businesses on the brink of failure, advocates say the federal government needs to come to an agreement with the provinces and territories about rent relief quickly.

Many businesses did not make April rent and May is due in just 2 weeks.

The latest CFIB weekly member survey gathered responses from more than 10, 000 businesses. According to its findings, revenues for most businesses are off by 50 per cent or more while almost a quarter of businesses have no revenue at all.

Adding to the worry, "half of business owners aren't sure they're going to survive if current conditions last until the end of May," said Jones. "It's ... unfathomable, really, to lose half of Main Street."

If the program isn't quickly defined, it risks becoming hotly debated between the government and opposition parties.

"Government, I think, has been doing a reasonably good job of getting programs out, correcting the programs," said Jones. "It's never going to feel fast enough for those that have bills due, and so, you know, we keep encouraging them to put the jets on it."

4. Cast a wide net

Jon Shell, co-founder of Save Small Business, says a big part of how well the program works will be determined by how wide a net it casts.

Jon Shell wants to be sure the government's criteria for small businesses considered 'most impacted by the pandemic' is wide enough to help many companies. (Noa Shell/Submitted by Jon Shell)

The question is just what businesses will be considered "most impacted by the pandemic" under CECRA.

"Our nightmare scenario is something being announced that only applies to hospitality and tourism," said Shell. "So ensuring that this is inclusive to a number of small businesses is very important."

Shell wants Ottawa to cover five sectors: retail; full-service restaurants; arts, entertainment and recreation; health care; and social assistance.

5. Put a ban on business evictions

All the advocates agree another key to making CECRA a success is getting the provinces and territories to put a ban on commercial evictions.

One sector especially worried about evictions is the hospitality industry.

There are almost 97,000 restaurants, bars and caterers across the country. Now the threat of eviction looms over thousands of empty dining rooms and bars.

Some have already been evicted or locked out by landlords. Others have been warned their rent is due as though it's business as usual.

Some form of eviction protection is needed while details of the CECRA program are sorted out, said David Lefebvre, a vice-president with Restaurants Canada.

Besides evictions, Lefebvre worries some owners seeing bills pile up will simply give up if they're not given protection.

If that happens, having a rent program won't matter "because it's gonna be too late," he said.

David Lefebvre of Restaurants Canada is concerned not only about small businesses being evicted, but about businesses giving up if they don't feel protected. (Submitted by Restaurants Canada)

Besides evictions, he's worried that some owners seeing bills pile up will simply give up if they're not given protection.

If that happens, said Lefebvre, having a rent program won't matter "because it's going to be too late."

Restaurants Canada called on all provincial governments to halt evictions and property seizures in early March.

The CFIB took that position as well. Jones says she's "disappointed that the provinces haven't done more in this area, to be frank, stepping up to stop evictions from happening."

So far only New Brunswick has banned commercial evictions under its state of emergency.

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