Evictions loom while COVID numbers climb

Housing is a right Floyd Brown

People could lose homes amidst pandemic

On August 4, almost five months after COVID-19 prompted the provincial government to put a moratorium on evictions to ensure that Saskatchewan residents who were unable to pay their rent would not lose their homes in the midst of a pandemic, the ruling Sask Party has ordered the moratorium be lifted. However, the pandemic isn’t over, and neither is its effect on the employment and personal finances of Saskatchewan residents. The unemployment rate for June was 11.6 per cent, three per cent higher than in March when the moratorium was put in place and nearly double what it was in June 2019, meaning that many Saskatchewan renters are still without work. Numbers of confirmed COVID cases have also spiked in the province, with Saskatchewan reporting its second-highest COVID hospitalizations since the pandemic began and gaining the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita rate of infection in the country. In light of this, it’s unclear why the province is proceeding with lifting the eviction ban.

Renters of Saskatoon Area (ROSA) and their supporters have been raising the alarm about the looming housing crisis since the pandemic began. “The pandemic has magnified the [concerns about] existing safe, affordable rental supply policy [like] inadequate incomes and community health and safety supports, and justice and safety disputes,” they said in an e-mail. “Renter anxiety is high, including about abilities to keep their home and household together.”

More than a decade of austerity coupled with exorbitant rents that don’t reflect vacancy rates or cost of living has made working class people in Saskatchewan especially vulnerable to the economic fallout from the pandemic. “In normal times, the rental industry has undergone a massive explosion in systemic tenant human rights breaches and corresponding homelessness,” ROSA said. 

Saskatchewan has the lowest minimum wage in the country, and social assistance benefits are also paltry – the real value of social assistance decreased by nearly 20 per cent between 1989 and 2017, but the cost of living has continued to rise. Even prior to the pandemic, 103,000 people were living in poverty in the province, one quarter of them children. This leads to an intersection of poverty and illness, where poverty forces people to live in overcrowded, often unsanitary housing, exacerbating existing health conditions, and ultimately contributing to the spread of highly contagious illnesses like COVID. Allowing landlords to evict tenants for non-payment will only worsen – and prolong – the pandemic.

The landlord-tenant relationship is always a profoundly unequal one. You cannot commodify shelter, a basic human right, and then expect that those with the means to own property will not exploit those whose survival depends on having a roof over their head. Whoever has the gold makes the rules, and when it comes to housing, those with enough gold to buy it and rent it out are also the ones with the power to ensure the rules surrounding that relationship are in their favour. The poorer a tenant is, the greater the inequality between them and the person (or corporation) who owns the building they live in. It has always been this way. But the pandemic has thrown this inequality into sharper relief. 

“The existing calls for fair, equitable rental system changes, like eviction prevention, tenant protections, and fair access to justice […] became urgent at the onset of the pandemic,” ROSA wrote. While tenants already face an uphill battle when it comes to fighting evictions and other housing-related issues, a lack of money to pay for phone and internet services and the inability to access those services in public spaces, either due to the pandemic, mobility issues, or living in a remote area, has made the crisis facing tenants more acute, since the Office of Residential Tenancies (ORT) will be requiring tenants to appear for their hearings via Zoom or by phone. If they’re unable to appear through those methods, ORT automatically rules in favour of the landlord. “If a tenant has phone reliability issues, they may lose their access to the justice of a hearing, and permanent loss of fair opportunities.”

“[The] Ministry of Justice has inequitably favored businesses further in a pandemic by now combining several different tenant protection processes into one speedier eviction process, directly undermining tenant justice,” ROSA said. “Renters may find that what used to be separate and complex eviction or debt hearings now can be combined into one hearing, require greater expertise and range of evidence in advance, and increased risk of losses.” 

And getting evicted has long term consequences, far beyond the immediate threat of houselessness. “Tenants without a positive previous housing reference, and particularly with a rental history that includes eviction have a hard time competing for safe and affordable housing, often ending up renting from problem landlords, unsafe and illegal housing,” ROSA wrote, adding that this ends up “costing more to the community in the longer term, than it would have been to supplement the tenants through a rent bank grant, or with targeted emergency funding.” Studies have also shown that evictions (and the threat of evictions) can lead to depression, high blood pressure, and other poor health outcomes. Evictions are a public health issue, during a pandemic or not, and they affect the entire community. 

It will be some time before we get the full picture of how many people lost housing because of the coronavirus and its related effects, but one thing is clear: this could have been prevented. If leaders put people before profits, if they recognized the inherent right of everyone to have food, shelter, medicine, and dignity, if they concentrated their efforts on ensuring a robust social safety net for times of need, we would not be having these conversations right now. This is a policy failure.

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