Calls for Alberta tenant protections grow during COVID-19 outbreak

The calls for the Alberta government to institute renter protections continue to grow as thousands of tenants across the province face financial upheaval during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawyer, advocates say immediate government protections needed

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley called on the province to ban evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hannah Stone, who spoke at Tuesday's news conference via video chat, says she won't be able to pay rent next month as a result of the financial upheaval generated by the outbreak. (John Shypitka/CBC)

Calls for the Alberta government to institute tenant protections during the COVID-19 pandemic continue to grow as renters across the province face financial upheaval as a result of the outbreak. 

Hannah Stone says her family is unable to make April rent after she was laid off from a sales job at West Edmonton Mall. She is caring for her seven-year-old son while her husband recovers from a workplace injury. If she doesn't come up with rent by the second week of April, she says her landlord will issue an eviction notice. 

On top of that, the landlord is raising rent by $400 a month on their northeast Edmonton home starting in June, she said. 

"I have to choose between going out and finding a new place … or waiting until we're forced out. Both of those things put us at risk for contracting COVID-19," she said.

"I'm asking Jason Kenney to help us feel safe. Protect the renters. We're begging you." 

Stone and two other tenants joined an NDP news conference Tuesday morning, where Opposition Leader Rachel Notley called on the government to ban eviction orders during the public health emergency.

Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia are among the provinces to either freeze orders or suspend eviction hearings. 

In Alberta, the government has yet to announce any specific protections for over 400,000 households that pay rent, including roughly 120,000 in Edmonton. 

Government considers eviction order suspension

In the absence of legislated protections during the outbreak, the Alberta government has said renters can look for relief from compassionate landlords, while noting it could take several weeks before eviction notices are adjudicated by a provincial tribunal. 

Premier Jason Kenney said the government is considering a short term stay on eviction enforcement, but offered no immediate plan at a news conference on Monday.

Landlords must be able to protect their property value from bad tenants, he said, but they should also extend relief wherever possible. 

"It makes no economic sense for them to evict tenants for missing April rent given the effective shutdown of our economy because who else is going to fill those units," Kenney said. 

The Premier asked landlords who benefit from mortgage payment and property tax deferrals to pass those savings on to tenants.

'A disaster waiting to happen'

The Alberta Residential Landlord Association, which represents over 75,000 rental units in the province urged its members to suspend eviction during the crisis in a statement posted to its website Friday.

When asked whether rental giant Boardwalk supports a suspension on eviction orders during the pandemic, as other provincial governments have done, a spokesperson said, "100 per cent we support exactly that." 

"In fact, our company has talked with other housing providers in other regions precisely about that point," said Boyd Belisle, director of community and corporate culture, in an interview with CBC News Monday. 

Belisle said the company's only requirement would be to ensure there is recourse against illegal activity or activities that jeopardized health and safety. 

But CEO Sam Kolias walked back that statement on Wednesday. Boardwalk does not support a government imposed eviction suspension, he said in an interview with CBC News. 

"We fully support the Premier's position on leaving the tribunals and access to our legal system open to maintain law and order and peaceful enjoyment," Kolias said. 

The company, Kolias said, would work with every tenant facing financial hardship during the pandemic on a case-by-case basis. 

"We believe self-regulation is much better than government regulation," he said.

But it's not enough to rely on the goodwill of landlords during a crisis, says Sarah Eadie, a staff lawyer at the Edmonton Community Legal Centre. 

"It's a disaster waiting to happen," she said. 

While the vast majority of tenants can fight eviction notices before a provincial tribunal, others cannot, Eadie said. Renters who live in the same unit as their landlord or people who live in mobile home parks, for example, are not covered by provincial tenancy law. 

"Now is the time that the government needs to step in and protect citizens because the open market is not going to work here," she said. 

Demands for more aggressive tenant protections, beyond banning eviction orders, have swelled in recent days. Over 600,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the federal government to cancel rent and mortgage payments. 

A Facebook group for Edmonton renters to share legal resources and support tenants facing evictions has gathered more than 200 members since Saturday. The page's co-administrator Kay Del Rio says renters are frustrated as they watch political leaders urge big banks to defer mortgage payments for property owners without any protections extended to tenants. 

"The best thing the government can do is to increase rent protections right now," Del Rio said. 

ACORN Canada, a national advocacy organization for low-income families, also called on the federal government last week to suspend rent payments. Supporters say it's not enough to put off eviction orders until after the crisis, without regard for whether a tenant will have the means to pay arrears. 

At a press conference Monday, Premier Jason Kenney said the government would consider a short-term stay on eviction orders during the pandemic, but made no definitive announcement. (CBC )

Premier Kenney shot down those suggestions on Monday. He said barring landlords from collecting rent during the pandemic could collapse the province's housing stock. 

In addition to an eviction ban, Notley said the province should consider income top-up measures to supplement federal benefits such as EI, which covers 55 per cent of a person's insurable wage, to ensure tenants can keep up with payments.

The province announced it will offer a one-time payment of $1,146 to bridge the gap until federal benefits arrive in April, although applications have not yet opened. Residents can also defer utility payments for 90 days, while Alberta student loan repayment has been paused for six months.