Renting in the Time of COVID, or The Meaning of Home in This Time

October 6, 2020 by The Affordable Housing Challenge Project Collective

The home, in the midst of what is said to be a period of collective trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has become a symbol of necessity. For many of us, it is what we rely on for physical and emotional safety, a site of refuge and resistance against the pandemic’s creeping invasion into every facet of our lives, a space for ‘work from home’ labour, and a place of belonging and comfort. With a circulating slogan of “we are all in this together” as a way to promote and build collectivity in this moment in time, there has been some awareness about providing more support for people who are in need, quarantined, and socially isolated. Although a sense of community is embedded in this message, it can also shroud and blur the very distinct divide between the permanently housed and those with precarious housing such as renters. Indeed, renting and being housing-deficient in the time of COVID-19 have produced more vulnerability with regard to the meaning of home and its notions of permanence, safety, and comfort. Despite public calls for social unity, the fragmented reality of the housing crisis in Toronto has been further exposed and stark housing inequalities have become more visible as people struggle to pay rent, retain their housing, and secure healthy and safe places to stay during the pandemic.

 

There are monumental signs that things are not equal and that they are not okay over the course of this past summer. Individuals and communities are fighting on multiple fronts - against anti-Black racism through the important direct actions of Black Lives Matter, against domestic and gender-based violence as we learn the on-line hand signals that silently identify abuse, and against housing displacement and homelessness as people retreat to the spaces where they can afford to live. These issues are not siloed but are deeply interconnected and interwoven with the uneven development of the city, systemic racism and inequality, and with the inequitable forms of housing provision. The recent collection of demographic data by the City of Toronto identifies that the parts of Toronto most starkly impacted by COVID-19 cases are neighbourhoods in the post-war suburban areas of the city such as West Humber, Jane Heights, and Malvern/Rouge, that are also communities with a large number of Black residents and other people of colour.  Comparatively, and indicative of Toronto’s socio-spatial injustice, an area with one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 cases is the Beaches neighbourhood – an enclave comprised of largely white and affluent homeowners in the east end of the city’s downtown. A report published this past August by Toronto’s Wellesley Institute underlines that housing precarity and evictions are more likely to occur in the neighbourhoods that have been significantly impacted by COVID-19. The connection between the differences caused by racialization and income disparity, where people live in the city, and their form of housing tenure has become increasingly apparent and blunt in the midst of the pandemic.

 

We need to centre the practice of renting in Toronto within larger conversations about where and how people live, and what they live in. Renting, like many other things, is a precarious act. In Toronto, a city with skyrocketing rents and little rental supply - where the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment was $2013 per month in September 2020 - it is even more precarious. By renting our housing we situate the responsibility and power over our living spaces squarely in relation to the whims and interests of landlords. Renters experience this while waiting for repairs to be done, while competing with other renters for a dwindling supply of affordable rental housing, and while experiencing covert and explicit forms of discrimination, prejudice, and racism in rental applications.  Renting has become a way of life in Toronto despite the desire of Canadians for property ownership. Renting in Canada, however, is not the same as other countries where tenancies are much more a part of the social fabric of aging in place; where renting is seen as a socially acceptable action. In our popular discourse, renting one’s housing in Canada, despite its prevalence, has become increasingly ‘counter-normative’ – it is (mistakenly) viewed by larger society as an act that individuals are forced to do when they can’t afford to purchase a house, when they do not receive family help with the increasingly large down payments that are needed, and when they don’t have the social privilege that is increasingly required to enable home ownership. Owning a home is, problematically, viewed as a mark of full citizenship and engagement within Canadian society. The ubiquitous trope of the ‘property ladder’ does little to mitigate this discourse, with one either making a linear way up the ladder over the course of a lifetime or failing to reach the first rung. Such narratives are constituted by and embedded within an individualized and asset-obsessed culture of property ownership in Canada that is reproduced in the form of family home ownership and residential investments for lease by so-called ‘mom and pop landlords’ and multi-national corporations; both of which exist to generate wealth from the needs and precarity of renters.

 

Amidst calls to retreat to our homes during COVID-19 - to isolate, to quarantine, to work, to care-take, to sequester in place because there is nowhere else to go right now – the precarities and dominant narratives that renters experience are forgotten as access to housing becomes a universalized ‘given’. There exists an unwavering sense that everyone has the same and equal comfort and safety of home and ability to pay for housing and this notion is supported by public policy. Renters have faced a policy and funding void within the context of multiple governmental supports for Canadian residents since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  While the federal government has created a financial relief program to mitigate payment pressures for commercial tenants (the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program – CECRA), and federal policies encouraged banks to provide 6-month mortgage payment deferrals to homeowners, no federal funding program has been developed to lessen financial burdens on residential tenants. Indeed, residential tenants have been directed to the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), intended for individuals who have lost their employment income and consisting of payments of $2000 in total per month, to cover rent and day-to-day expenses – a program that is now coming to an end. The responsibility of financial relief for residential tenants has been given to provincial and municipal governments, which have devised ad-hoc plans that vary by province and municipality.

 

In Ontario, this has surfaced in the form of temporary relief from the penalization of residential eviction. At the beginning of the pandemic, the provincial government passed an eviction moratorium that suspended residential tenant evictions ordered by the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) or the hearing of eviction requests in relation to tenants who were not able to pay their monthly rent due to the economic stresses and employment losses that were created by the pandemic. A report by the Toronto Foundation states that in Ontario, between 8-13% of tenants were not able to make their rent payments in April or May. The temporary ban on eviction hearings at the LTB ended at the beginning of August. The lifting of the ban has been identified by affordable housing activists as a punitive act that will create both a bottleneck and flurry of LTB eviction orders due to the moratorium on prior eviction hearings (that were already backlogged) and new eviction applications that will now be brought forward by landlords. Thousands of eviction orders are currently backlogged at the LTB. The situation is further complicated by the assent of the provincial government’s Bill 184, Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act, on July 21, 2020, which affordable housing and tenant rights advocates see as a regulation that will make it easier and faster for landlords to evict tenants through a series of changes to the Residential Tenancies Act. The changes brought by the new bill have also been made retroactive to the start of the eviction moratorium, creating an expedited process for evictions to occur based on rental non-payments during the pandemic. Indeed, Toronto’s City Council voted on July 29, 2020 to proceed with a legal challenge to Bill 184 because of concerns over the impact of the pandemic on residential tenants in the city and a rise in future evictions. A recent announcement by the provincial government to bring forward legislation this fall to halt the annual rent increase in 2021 does little to lessen the burden of the already high payments that renters make on a monthly basis. Indeed, renters have been paying the existing annual rent increase in the midst of the pandemic.  In Toronto, the exceedingly high rental housing costs, employment precarity caused by the pandemic, and inadequate short and long-term policy support and funding relief for residential tenants during the pandemic - including new legislation that works against tenant rights - has produced a very sudden crisis for renters. This is especially concerning given the unpredictable longevity of COVID-19 and the recent rise in case numbers, as well as its yet-unknown long-term social and economic impacts.

 

During the pandemic we have been told to ‘stay safe’, to keep healthy, and to reduce the transmission of infection. These ideas are linked to the upkeep of our health, and towards our bodies remaining largely at home and in protective social bubbles. Staying at home and reveling in the comforts of home have, for some, become a hallmark of the COVID age. However, we need to collectively ensure that a right to genuinely affordable housing, to be free from evictions and displacement, to have comfortable, safe, and secure housing in order to shelter from threats caused by the pandemic, must be situated at the front and centre of public discourse and policy - not just in light of this current public health crisis but with a long view towards comprehensive housing justice. A rights-based approach to housing must emphasize a move away from our societal obsession with generating wealth from individualized property ownership and include generous public support for renters and attention to community-based, de-commodified alternatives for how we live and how we are housed.

 

* Note: Renting in Toronto is a precarious act. We are mindful that identifying the names of people who are renters and who are also openly critical of high rental costs and problematic landlord practices can place these individuals in more vulnerable positions when it comes to renting. As such, this blog post was authored anonymously and posted by members of the Affordable Housing Challenge Project Collective.

 

** For further discussion on the topic of renting and evictions in Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic, please attend the Affordable Housing Challenge Project’s public webinar, “Pandemic Displacements: Fighting the Evictions Crisis Amidst COVID-19” on Tuesday, October 13th from 7-8:30 pm. Please register on Eventbrite via the following link: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/pandemic-displacements-fighting-the-evictions-crisis-amidst-covid-19-tickets-124150568693