Most weeks, Janna Ingeberg works 30 hours as a cleaner for one of the city’s largest cleaning companies. Cleaning is hard work, but it’s stable, and at $17 per hour, Ingeberg was making enough to pay the $300 rent on her room in a four-person home in the North End, along with other expenses.
Thirty hours a week, $17 per hour. Do the math, and it comes to $510 per week. It isn’t a ton, but it’s enough, she says.
But what happens when 30 hours a week becomes nine, as it did last week? And what happens when nine becomes seven, as it will this week? In a matter of days, many of her company’s regular clients cancelled cleaning services, reducing her hours and thus increasing the burden on her as a tenant.
Her most recent paycheque, which covered two weeks, was $476. With seven hours of scheduled next week, Ingeberg is in line to earn $119, before expenses. That’s 77 per cent less than her usual weekly pay.
Through no fault of her own, Ingeberg — along with thousands of workers in the province — has seen her employment reduced as a result of COVID-19. Restaurants, retailers, and service companies have laid off workers or cut their shifts, and across the country, hundreds of thousands of affected workers have applied for EI.
Her other roommates are still employed, but that could change quickly. "It’s a panic, absolutely," she said Saturday. "I’m waking up worried if work is going to cancel... I’m wondering, ‘How am I going to pay my bills?’"
At a time when all Manitobans are being encouraged to stay home, many renters across the province might soon be unable to afford to do so. In Manitoba, roughly 11 per cent of all residents are in core housing need, meaning the residences are either unsuitable, unaffordable, or inadequate. In Winnipeg, according to the 2016 census, two in five renters spend 30 per cent or more of their income on shelter costs. With incomes shrinking, that percentage will grow.
COVID-19 has hurt every facet of Canada’s economy. Low-wage workers face even more uncertainty, and although the federal government has extended mortgage relief to homeowners, and while some provinces have implemented eviction freezes and revamped rental assistance program, the Manitoba government has yet to lay out any substantive plans for renter-relief.
Josh Brandon of the the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, says that needs to change now, not later.
"This is an unprecedented economic crisis," he said. "We need all levels of government supporting renters."
Brandon sits on the board of Make Poverty History Manitoba, an advocacy organization that is demanding the provincial government take swift action to protect renters during this time of instability.
The organization is calling for an immediate moratorium on evictions, something the Ontario government implemented last week. Another demand is the guarantee that utilities won’t be turned off to any residence, and the third is a retooled Rent Assist program to help with short-term financial instability as a result of COVID-19.
Brandon said those changes are necessary: without a place to live, how can one follow recommendations to stay home? Without guaranteed water, how can one frequently wash their hands? Without sufficient income support, how can one who has lost work afford emergency supplies, food, diapers or pay their phone bill?
"It’s a public health concern if people are losing the place they should be self-isolating or social distancing," said Michael Barkman, chairman of Make Poverty History Manitoba. "(These changes) are immediate measures that are needed, and they feel like an obvious choice."
Rental agencies across the province are still anticipating cheques will arrive for the end of the month. Julia Michaud, a freelance graphic designer, says she received a note from her rental company reminding tenants that direct deposits can be taken and that rent must still be paid.
Michaud, who lives in a $1,050 per month unit in Wolseley, said this month’s rent and next should be manageable. But in May, who knows? "It’s going to be a day by day thing," she said, with freelance payments already notoriously slow to arrive. She has some steady clients, but in an unsteady time, that could change.
"There are going to be thousands of people evicted if the province doesn’t do anything," she said. "I don’t know why we’re so slow on this."
Taylor Hill, a 24-year-old student and server, says her restaurant’s management has agreed to pay employees for the last two weeks of March before laying them off so they can apply for Employment Insurance. So far, she hasn’t had luck registering. For March, she has enough to pay rent. For April, she’ll have to dip into her savings. After that, she’ll need to make tough decisions about what to pay for.
She says renters need more support, and rental agencies should be prepared to make concessions and compromises to allow renters to stay put. Asked whether a freeze on evictions and added rental assistance should be implemented, Hill said, "It’s a no-brainer."
"We have mortgage freezes, why not rental freezes?" she asked.
The Free Press reached out to the provincial government to ask about assistance for renters, but hasn’t received a reply.
For her part, Ingeberg believes the government is pulling out all the stops, but said she needs assurance that help is on its way.
"I’m OK until April, but after then, I don’t know," she said.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Sunday, March 22, 2020 at 9:56 PM CDT: Edited