Nfld. & Labrador

Newborn photographer tries a COVID comeback, but rent woes remain

A photographer close to celebrating one year in a storefront business hopes she and other tenants will soon catch a break.

Kayla White says her landlord hasn't given tenants a firm answer whether he'll apply for rent relief

Rock Baby Photography owner Kayla White arranges photography props and baby wraps at her shop in the Goulds neighbourhood of St. John's. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

A photographer close to celebrating one year in a storefront business in St. John's hopes she and other tenants will soon catch a break.

Kayla White, who owns Rock Baby Photography, rents a space in Bidgood's Plaza in the Goulds neighbourhood, along with more than a dozen other tenants.

She — like thousands of other small business owners across Canada — is at the mercy of her landlord to apply for the federal government's rent relief program.

"As a business owner we really wish that choice was in our hands and not left up to the landlords," she said.

"I can't imagine the stress that [landlord John Bidgood] is under as well but we're just looking for just a little help."

White's studio isn't large, but just the right size to photograph pint-sized newborns. She said her business was flourishing before the pandemic closed shops and threatened the health of infants.

"Every year I project my year to see what's coming, what to expect, my overhead and all that, and I had projected a really good year for 2020," White said.

"Maybe I jinxed it for everybody."

White specializes in capturing a baby's first months in the world. (Kayla White/Rock Baby Photography)

White, who is also a mother of three, was left scrambling for ideas. Then came hope in the form of a federal government program aimed at people like her.

In early May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, which offers unsecured, forgivable loans to commercial property owners.

The goal is to reduce rent for tenants with small businesses.

Property owners must offer a minimum of a 75 per cent rent reduction for the months of April, May and June.

It requires property owners to cut the rent by 25 per cent for those three months and for tenants to pay 25 per cent of the rent for the period. Property owners can then apply for a loan to cover the remaining 50 per cent.

White says she doesn't know if her landlord will try to apply for rent relief.

"We're getting mixed signals," White said. "Sometimes he says yes, sometimes he says no, so I really don't know."

Bidgood did not respond to CBC's email requesting comment.

Relief coming for Avalon Mall tenants

Similar concerns have been raised right across the country, and have been heard in St. John's East MP Jack Harris's office.

Harris and other members of the federal NDP have been lobbying the federal government to change the program so the onus doesn't fall solely on the landlord to apply. 

The program has been criticized by landlords as being overly complicated and risky.

Tenants of big commercial property owner Crombie REIT, which operates the Avalon Mall, also feared they wouldn't get a break on rent.

However, the company told CBC News on Thursday it is registering its properties and enrolling tenants who meet the program's eligibility requirements with the Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation.

"It's a lot of work but well worth it as we believe this is an important program to support the success of our tenants," said Glenn Hynes of Crombie REIT.

Some shoppers returned to the Avalon Mall on Monday as more stores began to open their doors. One business owner says it will still take some time for the public to be completely comfortable with shopping in person. (Gary Locke/CBC)

As for White and Rock Baby Photography, the future looks uncertain.

"Business is starting up again but I work with babies and it's a really sensitive kind of session," White said.

"Babies don't have an immune system, so to get back into the full swing of things, it's going to take me a while to catch up."

When and if she does, White said she doesn't know if she'll stick around Bidgood's Plaza once her lease is up.

"I've lost three months of money. And with three kids and a big rent bill it's not fun."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.

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