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The Housing Crisis Is Not a Symptom of COVID-19

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With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Quebec now exceeding 2,498, provincial Premier François Legault has put the province “on hold” for at least three weeks in hopes of “flattening the curve.” This hold, along with similar holds across the country, has led to a drastic increase in unemployment, and a predicted national recession. Although Legault stated that the shutdown would last three weeks, many predict that Canada will functionally be on pause for a minimum of six weeks

On average, Service Canada receives 45,000 unemployment applications per week. However, from March 16 to 22, they received 500,000 applications for employment insurance (EI), not including those who have had difficulties accessing the site due to server overload. In response to the influx of unemployment claims, criteria for EI applications were extended to include joblessness as a result of COVID-19, including temporary unemployment due to business closures. These changes occurred after Prime Minister Trudeau announced an $82 billion aid package on March 18. In Quebec alone, it is predicted that 349,906 jobs will be lost.

Quebec, like many other provinces, has temporarily suspended eviction orders. The Régie du logement du Québec promised that there will be no evictions if a tenant is unable to pay rent at this time. However, eviction hearings regarding “health and safety,” as well as “ones involving access to a rental unit […] along with those requiring exceptional intervention” will continue. The public has yet to be made aware of the mandate for eviction cases that are already underway. 

It appears, at first glance, that political leaders nationwide are providing effective financial solutions for those who are unemployed due to COVID-19-related business closures. However, most of these “solutions” are little more than band-aids. They do not consider long-term economic implications for tenants, nor do they provide a clear indication as to who is eligible for these aid packages. What’s more, these “solutions” undermine the reality that these specific cases of eviction are part of larger issues such as a lack of efficient social services and the rise of rental prices across Canada. Monthly rent increased by 31 per cent in Montreal between February 2019 and February 2020, a hike largely driven by unregulated short-term rentals facilitated by companies like Airbnb. Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic do not create these issues; they simply exacerbate flaws that are already present in unsustainable capitalist structures.

Suspending some eviction hearings may provide a temporary sense of security for tenants. However, once the suspension is lifted, those facing eviction will be re-entering an economy in recession, which will likely lead to an increase in homelessness. Additionally, not all cases have been suspended, leaving open questions about what will happen to those facing eviction amid the pandemic. Postponing evictions is not a sufficient measure to protect tenants from homelessness, or the pandemic. 

Despite the predictions of a six-week shutdown, politicians have not yet proposed a plan for long-term financial support. The Vancouver Tenants’ Union argued against temporary strategies, saying that these approaches are “not going to keep [renters] in their homes. They are at a risk of eviction and they are panicking.” 

In Quebec, there has been no discussion of how newly-unemployed tenants will make rent payments after the eviction moratorium. Rent freezes are crucial during this time. Although employment insurance now includes those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, there has been no consideration of how this shutdown will impact those who rent in the coming months.  

As a response, tenants in Montreal and across the world are initiating a rent strike on April 1. Landlords face less financial instability than their tenants because they derive their incomes from ownership rather than labour. Banks have frozen mortgage payments for the next six months, meaning that landlords have no excuse to continue demanding money from tenants. This is why we need to strike! Besides refusing to pay rent, the strike also aims to “block evictions and renovictions [and] open up vacant housing — including Airbnbs, empty condos, and hotels — to house homeless people or those who lack safe housing.”  

In order for strikes to be effective, everyone must participate; to learn more about the rent strike, you can join the Facebook group “Rent Strike/Grève De Loyer – Montréal.” If you are in a position to do so, consider helping out in other ways by joining the Facebook group “MTL COVID-19 Mutual Aid Mobilisation d’entraide” in order to learn how you can be of assistance to your community. Most importantly, keep in mind that evictions, unemployment, and government-induced financial crises are not limited to this period of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the provincial shutdown has placed those already in precarious situations at the risk of financial ruin, housing insecurity predates the COVID-19 pandemic. We should always be striving for a more inclusive housing system that isn’t based on exploitation. Offering temporary solutions to those facing housing insecurity in a crisis is no substitute for real, comprehensive housing reform.