Announcing a rental assistance program with less than a month before the big moving day in Quebec isn’t the sign of a government looking out for people

 

Here in Quebec, Canada Day is a bit different, which I’m sure won’t come as much of a surprise.

July 1 is not so much a patriotic holiday for having beers and setting off fireworks — that’s the Fête nationale, a week before — instead, it’s Moving Day.  At one point, leases were mandated to start and end on a single date.

It’s one of the quirks of the province, that stretches back to New France, originally designed to prevent feudal landlords from evicting their tenant farmers before spring.  Eventually, moving day moved from May 1 to July 1 to accommodate the school year, and the weather.

Since the 70s, it hasn’t actually been the law that leases renew on July 1, but it continues as something of a tradition. 

As federal holidays go, it adds an interesting layer of tension.  Particularly this year.

Montreal is in the midst of a housing crisis.  Rents across the island are shooting up, and supply is dwindling.  Vacancies in many neighbourhoods are at or near one percent.  “Renovicitons” have become a popular way to turn over residents, forcing people out to renovate an apartment, then substantially increasing rent for the next person.

Add to that the pandemic and its good friend economic collapse and things are bad. 

So bad, that in my neighbourhood multilingual signs saying “At risk of being homeless?  Options are available to you.  Call 311,” have been put up by the city in the last couple weeks.  This was new, something that hadn’t happened in the six or so years I’ve lived here.

At least 450 people had reached out to the city for help as of July 1, according to the Montreal Gazette, and some 170 of those are households where people have nowhere to go.  It’s part of an ongoing crisis, and people are left without homes every year, but this year the number of households being unable to find somewhere to live has doubled, according to the story in the Gazette.

The province finally put in place some emergency rent assistance for those in need in the first few weeks of June, amounting to an extra $21.5 million.

It’s not nothing, but it seems hardly enough.  While the federal government has offered general supports for people losing jobs, its support for renters has been focused on paying commercial landlords, not keeping people from being thrown out of their homes. 

People who rent their homes — and they make up a particularly large portion of the residents of Montreal — have been left out in the cold.  Or, I guess, the heat.

Which is perhaps why I didn’t feel that wholesome Canada Day spirit this year.  Having been bashed in the head, over and over, since March how we’re all in this together, I have to wonder how many other neighbourhoods are filled with signs for people worried about not having a place to live. 

Given the signs are in six languages other than English and French, you get some idea who the city believes to be the most at risk. 

From the start of the crisis, every announced support problem has come with massive holes, leaving some of the people most in need hanging in the balance while the government continually recalibrates.  Small businesses with rent and payroll obligations had to wait.  Self-employed people* had to wait.  People making some money, but not enough money, had to wait.  And so on.

Look last week at the massive outbreak at a farm outside of Windsor, Ont.  There, 191 cases were found at the one farm in a single weekend.  How could this happen?  Well, surely it had nothing to do with the province allowing farm workers to continue on the job if they had tested positive for COVID-19, but showed no symptomsAnd it definitely had nothing to do with the awful conditions farmers are permitted to house their temporary foreign workers in.

Or look to how both Ontario and Quebec essentially abandoned our elderly in long-term care homes, until they literally had to call in the army to assist with the problem.  More than 80 percent of the people who have died of COVID-19 have died in residential care homes, according to the independent count by Nora Loreto.  How different would things have been if those two provinces had acted more like British Columbia, where LTC workers were forbidden from working at multiple homes in the early stages of the pandemic, rather than weeks after things had spiralled out of control.

If that’s not your speed, perhaps look at the ways different benefit recipients will be treated.  On one hand, people getting CERB benefits could face huge fines and even jail time for inappropriately receiving assistance.  On the other hand, you have corporations being eligible for benefits unless they’ve been convicted of tax fraud, which no company ever has.  It also doesn’t matter if they’re registered in a tax haven, thereby dodging taxes, because governments both Conservative and Liberal have shown that Canada doesn’t really care about tax cheating, as long as you’re doing it in volume.

It was like that here with renters.  Announcing a rental assistance program with less than a month to go before the big moving day — where in a typical year more than 100,000 people will be shuffling between apartments across the province — isn’t the sign of a government looking out for people.

It’s just one more reminder who this country is for.  If you’re a weird charity personally supported by the prime minister and his wife, you’ll inexplicably get to manage a nearly $1-billion federal program.  If you’ve lost your job and your landlord is pushing you out the door to put in some tile floor and jack up the rent, you get to grind your teeth to dust worrying about what you’ll do when the lease runs out until the last minute.

But all the same, Happy Canada Day!

***

*Which includes me.  Though, as yet, I’ve been fortunate enough not to need any benefits.

Photo Credit: Cult Montreal

More from Robert Hiltz.     @robert_hiltz

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