British Columbia

Businesses forced to pay rent to City of Vancouver during COVID shutdown

The tenants who occupy commercial spaces at Library Square say they are still paying rent even though they had no choice but to close down in March when the municipality closed down the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch downtown.

'The whole library concourse closed down and we couldn't do any business,' pizza shop owner says

Phuong Danh, owner of VN Convenience, stands with her husband, Tom Nguyen, in front of her convenience store located inside the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library on Georgia Street in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Small businesses say their landlord, the City of Vancouver, is making them pay their full rent, in spite of the fact that they were forced to close for months because of the pandemic.

The tenants that occupy commercial spaces at Library Square say they had no choice but to close down in March when the municipality closed down the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch downtown.

"They locked the doors on both sides so that means no customers go through so that's why I can't open my business," said Tom Nguyen who runs VN Convenience store with his wife Phuong Danh.

Inside the atrium of the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library in Vancouver on Wednesday. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Normally, the shops across from the library stay busy thanks to the foot traffic through the atrium between Georgia and Robson streets as downtown workers and library patrons pass by. 

"The whole library concourse closed down and we couldn't do any business," said Robert Chen who owns Flying Wedge Pizza.

With the doors shut down, they had to pay thousands in rent without making any income for nearly four months before the City of Vancouver reopened the atrium on July 7.

For Nguyen and Danh, that meant paying nearly $4,500 in rent plus utilities to the municipality, the landlord for the Library Square businesses.

City tenants not eligible for federal help

In a statement to CBC News, the City of Vancouver said while it is not offering rent waivers to its commercial tenants, it is offering a rent assistance program which allows businesses suffering due to the pandemic to defer two months' worth of rent, to be paid back without interest over a 12-month period starting in 2021. 

VN Convenience and Flying Wedge Pizza both applied to have rent deferred, but they say that's not enough to help their businesses.

"We should be getting the federal government's rent help assistance, but the city tells us the city does not qualify for the federal government's program," said Chen.

Robert Chen, owner of The Flying Wedge, at the entrance of his pizza shop located inside the library's concourse. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In April, Ottawa announced the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, which gives a 75 per cent break on rent for qualifying businesses.

However, the city has said that municipal government landowners are not eligible for the program.

The City of Vancouver says one entrance to the atrium was open for public access throughout the shutdown. While most businesses closed in March, some like Little Bee Bubble Tea, tried to stay open with delivery services, but that was difficult as the entrance was only open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"It's very difficult for the delivery people to come to pick up the order, even the customer orders from Doordash or Skip the Dishes," said owner Calvin Kong.

He also says with delivery drivers taking a 30 per cent commission on orders, it wasn't worth it to stay open.

Some Library Square tenants are also worried that their expiring leases are only being renewed for another year.

"Next year we don't know if we stay here or not because on the lease [there's] no option to renew," said Nguyen.

He and his wife invested $140,000 to start the business and feel they are now being pushed out.

"We pay for property taxes, we pay for everything, but when we get down and out, you shut down our business," said Nguyen. "We just need some help."

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