Toronto

Ford says he's set to extend rent protection for small businesses days after evictions resume

The provincial government is set to extend its ban on small business evictions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Premier Doug Ford said on Friday.

Small business featured in 2018 Ford campaign stop was locked out Sept. 2

Samer Rahwanji, general manager of the Tria Cafe and Bakery in Oakville, sits outside his shop's locked front doors Wednesday. The business was evicted for non-payment of rent on Sept. 1, the day the province's eviction ban was lifted. (Mike Smee/CBC)

The provincial government is set to extend its ban on small business evictions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Premier Doug Ford said on Friday.

The ban — put in place in June to protect business owners who'd fallen behind on their rent payments due to plunging revenues —  expired Aug. 31.

"We're extending it, as of today," Ford said at his Friday news conference. "It's going to go for another month, to the end of September. Our priority is always to make sure we protect businesses out there."

Ford made the comments in response to a question from CBC Toronto about a small cafe owner in Oakville who found herself suddenly locked out by her landlord on Sept. 2,  two days after the original ban expired.

Tria Cafe and Bakery, on Old Bronte Road, had been in business for about six years, and was a featured Doug Ford campaign stop in the days leading up to the 2018 election.

Cafe owner Susu Rahwanji said she paid about $10,500 a month in rent to her landlord, VGR Investments Ltd. in the months leading up to the pandemic outbreak. Since then, she's fallen behind by about $51,000, according to her lawyer.

Rahwanji and her brother Samer, general manager of Tria, told CBC Toronto this week they'd been shocked to discover the locks changed when they went to the cafe early Wednesday morning.

A statement from Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark said the plan is to extend the ban to Sept. 30, and make it retroactive to Sept. 1. The changes need to be approved by the legislature.

Cafe owner Susu Rahwanji checks the door to the Tria Cafe and Bakery, which was locked early on the morning of Sept. 1. (Mike Smee/CBC)

The statement said the province is also working with the federal government to extend the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program.

Under CECRA, commercial tenants only pay 25 per cent of their rent, while the landlord is reimbursed for 50 per cent of the total. That program ended at the end of August but a spokesperson for Ford said Friday it will be extended in Ontario.

The pledge to retroactively ban evictions is "very good news," Samer Rahwanji said on Friday. "It's a reprieve, but our hands are still tied to someone else's decision."

Ryan Mallough, of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says small business owners are frustrated that federal government aid is being channelled to landlords, not tenants directly. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

The cafe's landlord, VGR, chose not to take part in the CECRA program, which was optional. The company has not yet responded to CBC Toronto's request for comment.

Rahwanji said the landlord and the cafe had been in negotiations since March, but couldn't come to an agreement on rent payments and deferrals.

"I've always wanted to build something like this, and all of a sudden, just because of a virus, I'm not able to continue with my business," Susu Rahwanji said earlier this week after learning she had been evicted.

Tria employee Bisel Masri peers through the cafe's window on Sept. 2, the day after the cafe was evicted. Some employees say their personal belongings are still inside. (Mike Smee)

"I'm really not sure what I'm going to do next."

According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), more than 20,000 Ontario landlords had applied to take part in CECRA by Aug. 23, affecting 44,500 commercial tenants. It's unclear what percentage of the total number of Ontario commercial landlords that represents.

But Ryan Mallough, the CFIB's director of provincial affairs for Ontario, said most tenants would rather Ottawa pay the money to them directly, rather than sending it to landlords.

"The biggest frustration we've been hearing from tenants on CECRA is that landlords just aren't applying," he said. "The number one concern we've been hearing from landlords is that the program is both overly complicated to apply for and actually doesn't work for them on the cost side."

Back at Tria Cafe and Bakery, Sam Rahwanji said he's frustrated that the federal government didn't step in to help struggling businesses directly, rather than relying on landlords to apply.

"They have poured billions into so many programs," he said. "Why are we left to somebody's decision — a person — that controls our lives?"

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