Posted July 2, 2020
Thousands of Nova Scotians could be facing homelessness now that a provincial order banning landlords from evicting tenants behind on their rent because of COVID-19 is about to be lifted.
The eviction moratorium introduced three months ago expires midnight Friday and the Nova Scotia government has offered no replacement plan to assist those hit hardest by the pandemic.
A rally of concerned citizens met in front of the Nova Scotia Legislature in Halifax on Tuesday afternoon urging the province to take action to keep people in their homes as long as the province’s state of emergency lasts.
Nova Scotia Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) put on the event that drew citizens of all ages. Mila McKay, a member of the anti-poverty group, said for the last several weeks the association has been pushing the province to commit to a support program for tenants.
She said the group reached out several times to Service Nova Scotia Minister Patricia Arab but has yet to get a commitment.
“We’ve been trying to talk to the government but they are really not listening," said McKay. “There’s no plan. We’re now facing a very urgent, serious situation.
“We just have to push harder until they hear us.”
Tammy Wohler, managing lawyer of Nova Scotia Legal Aid’s Social Justice Office, said she anticipates many landlords will seek evictions in the coming weeks and months now that the ban has expired. But Wohler said the evictions process is largely on hold with the province under a state of emergency.
Access Nova Scotia is only processing notices to quit applications in emergency situations, where, for example, a tenant poses a safety threat to other tenants. But even if hearings were happening and resulted in eviction orders tenants still have the option to appeal in small claims courts. But small claims court operations are suspended.
Ultimately, there’s an eviction freeze because Access Nova Scotia is shut down. She said some landlords are resorting to questionable and even illegal tactics to get rid of tenants in arrears.
“What we’re seeing is landlords doing what they’re not supposed to be doing to get people out. People are being bullied, they’re sending nasty emails, landlords are turning off power, turning off water.”
Wohler also pointed out that there’s a misconception about who exactly was protected under the order. The eviction freeze only applied to tenants whose incomes were reduced by COVID-19, whether they lost their jobs or had their hours reduced. The rent freeze didn’t apply to low-income people not impacted financially by the pandemic or those who were facing eviction before the public health emergency came into effect in March.
She said the larger problem is the lack of power low-income people have in a tenant-landlord arrangement in Nova Scotia. She said landlords have no obligation to agree to a repayment plan if a tenant falls into arrears.
“One of the biggest problems I see, and forget COVID-19, is many people fall into arrears for different, legitimate reasons if they are low income,” she said. “The legislation should be changed so the tenancy officer has the discretion to impose a payment plan when it’s appropriate.”
That’s one of the requirements in the Eviction Prevention Plan for Nova Scotia proposed by Dalhousie Legal Aid Service. The plan released Monday with the support of 50 community groups, including ACORN, calls on the province to take immediate steps to prevent “COVID-19 related forced evictions into homelessness.”
The plan urges the government to extend the COVID-19 related eviction ban. It says the moratorium should remain in place for the duration of the public health emergency and should be accompanied by policies that direct landlords to enter into reasonable repayment agreements with tenants whose income has been affected by COVID-19.
The document also asks for regulatory oversight on rental repayment plans. It proposes the province amend the Residential Tenancies Regulations to include a section directing landlords not to refuse a reasonable rental arrears repayment schedule with tenants whose income is affected by COVID-19.
The Nova Scotia government did not respond to questions about how it intends to help tenants facing evictions and landlords facing significant loss of revenue.
Kevin Russell, Executive Director of Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia, estimated that landlords will immediately file around 1,750 applications on residential tenancy matters.
Russell said he’s been given no assurance by the province on whether the eviction ban has even been lifted and when Access Nova Scotia and small claims courts will be open for business.
He said he is not in favour extending the ban as proposed because landlords are facing mounting debts and need revenue. He pointed out that larger property owners face less of a challenge since they have higher financial capacity and can weather the pandemic more easily. But it’s the smaller operations that are really suffering, he said.
“It’s the small rental operations, family operations of up to 10 to 20 units that don’t have the capacity to carry non-paying tenants," said Russell.
“The small operations are disproportionately impacted. They have mortgages and bills to pay. They have to be paid and we are not getting support from anyone.”
He said Premier Stephen McNeil made it clear in March that the eviction ban would be a temporary measure until people received federal financial relief. That help came in the form of Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), he said. But landlords have been put in an unsustainable position of absorbing tenant arrears.
“We were asked to work out payment deferrals and we led the country in rent deferrals,” said Russell. “But the reality is, three months later, a number of landlords are experiencing serious financial difficulties.”
NDP leader Gary Burrill said landlords can’t be expected to pick up the entire tab of an eviction freeze program.
He said the province needs to fund a rent relief program such as the one put in place in British Columbia. The province is providing up to $500 a month for tenants and landlords affected by the pandemic. The programs specifically targets low- and moderate-income renters who have lost income as a result of COVID-19.
Burrill, who attended Tuesday’s rally, said the province must act in the face of an urgent situation. At minimum, he said, the eviction ban needs to be in place for the duration of the public health emergency
“Two thousand to six thousand people at midnight tonight are going to be at a place where it’s possible that they could have eviction notices moved against them," said Burrill.
"So the government needs to prevent this…During a state of emergency, you simply can’t be putting people on the street."
Article by Andrew Rankin for the Chronicle Herald