Rent's due for shuttered businesses, but federal relief a 'mess' that might not save them
TORONTO -- A growing chorus of entrepreneurs' voices say government rent relief won't help enough small businesses that need it, which will inevitably lead to evictions and bankruptcies.
Emergency measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 mean non-essential businesses across the country have been shut down for about six weeks. For small businesses that haven't found ways to sell products and services through online channels or other means, paying the rent for May is a difficult, if not impossible task.
Ginger Robertson, who owns two restaurants in Toronto, is in a quandary. She can't afford her rent, but also knows her landlord can't afford not to be paid.
"Rent is due. It's not negotiable," she told CTV News Channel Friday.
"I don't blame him. He has bills to pay himself. A lot of landlords are small businesses themselves and they can't afford to absorb that 25 per cent."
Rent relief is provided to eligible landlords who apply for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program.
To be eligible, a landlord must be charging less than $50,000 in gross rent per month and have a non-essential business tenant that is either shut down or has experienced a drop in revenue of 70 per cent a month since emergency pandemic measures were put in place.
The landlord is required to reduce the rent charged to their tenant by at least 75 per cent, forego any profit on their rent for April, May and June, and agree to a moratorium on eviction for three months.
The tenant must pay 25 per cent of their rent and the federal government, in some cases in conjunction with the provincial government, covers another 50 per cent.
"It's very good deal for the landlord, they're going to get 75 per cent of the rent and it's a very good deal for the small business because they're only going to pay 25 per cent," said federal finance minister Bill Morneau in announcing the rent relief on April 24.
He estimated the program would cost $2 billion.
But Robertson says both she and her landlord think the federal rent relief program is "severely flawed." Her bills, including utilities and insurance, are piling up while her restaurant The Edmund Burke is closed and her other restaurant Off the Hook Fishbar is open limited hours for pickup and delivery.
"The debt is mounting for a lot of us and I suspect most of my friends in the industry won't be able to pay their rent today and if they can, there will be nothing left."
She says many landlords would rather defer rent than take a 25 per cent hit, so they haven't applied for the government program. But that will just put struggling tenants further "behind the eight ball."
"The debt is mounting, like I said, and most people are going to go bankrupt over this, sadly."
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is warning that Ottawa's rent relief could shut out many of its members.
"In theory the program is good as it covers a substantial fraction of the rent and the costs are shared, but in practice it is quickly turning into a mess," said Laura Jones, CFIB's executive vice-president in a press release.
"Tenants are powerless if their landlords don't apply, and landlords are worried there aren't enough details to know whether they qualify."
The organization says only about one-in-10 members surveyed are eligible for the program and think their landlord will apply. Another four-in-10 said they said qualify, but aren't sure if their landlord will apply.
Another 36 per cent said they don't qualify but need help nonetheless.
The CFIB argues that rent relief should go directly to tenants and has been urging provinces to offer monthly grants of up to $5,000. So far, only Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia are providing grants and they are one-time only.
The CFIB is also urging provinces to protect commercial tenants from evictions for the duration of the crisis.
The organization offers tools on its website to help both tenants and landlords talk to each other to "work out something reasonable and fair to help as many businesses survive this storm as possible," said Jones.
A Colliers Canada report released Friday found that 21 per cent of its 7,100 retail, industrial and office tenants requested April rent relief.
Of these commercial tenants, close to half indicated that they could not afford to make their rent payment.
The survey found that small business tenants were 2.7 times more likely to request rent relief than regional, national or international tenants. It also found that tenants whose businesses are closed were 3.4 times more likely to request rent relief than tenants who were at least partially open.
The pandemic disruption has particularly hit retail tenants, who were 2.3 times more likely to request rent relief than office and industrial tenants, according to Colliers.
"Now more than ever, tenants and property owners need to openly communicate and maintain strong working relationships to keep businesses on both sides operating," said John Duda, president of real estate management services at Colliers Canada in a press release.
He said landlords require clarity around the government's rent relief program before they decide whether to participate. They have until Sept. 30 to apply for retroactive relief.
"More information is needed in a number of important areas, including how the program will treat landlords who have agreed to revised rental payment terms for April or May with their tenants, when the loan funds will be available and how this program will be rolled out for each province."
Duda added that municipal relief programs around property taxes and the easing of restrictions could mitigate the need for rent relief for May.
There is little doubt small businesses power the Canadian economy.
The Canada Revenue Agency defines a small business as employing fewer than 100 people. According to Government of Canada statistics, 69.7 per cent of private-sector employees, or 8.3 million people, worked for small businesses in 2017.
Robertson, the Toronto restaurant owner, says some people don't believe landlords will evict during a pandemic.
"The truth is they evicted before this. They'll evict during and they'll evict people after," she said. Building owners who have owned properties for generations in Toronto can afford to ride out this crisis and to wait for tenants with deeper pockets to come along.
She knows of a nightclub that was just evicted and the landlord has already listed the property for $7,000 more a month.
"I'm pleading with the government to not sit back and watch us go bankrupt."