A pandemic is a tough time to be a renter, and it was already difficult being one before COVID-19 started.

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A pandemic is a tough time to be a renter, and it was already difficult being one before COVID-19 started.

Over the past 10 months, renters in Manitoba — whose median household income before taxes is less than half that of homeowners — have faced tenuous conditions, with thousands losing paid work and facing potential evictions because of it.

The federal CERB program and provincial bans on residential evictions for non-payment and rent increases helped, but those lifelines ended several months ago, though the pandemic rages on. Since then, tenants continue to face an uncertain future.

"Rent increases are now happening. Evictions are now happening," says Ella Rockar, housing co-ordinator for the West Broadway Community Organization. "These factors together create a situation where folks find themselves really needing information about their rights."

Over the past two weeks, the organization has held a number of online workshops geared toward giving tenants exactly that, with updated resources about topics such as tenant organizing, rent increases, evictions and tenant solidarity. Workshops are a staple of the organization’s work, but they’ve had added value throughout the pandemic.

Those areas were complex enough as it was, but owing to COVID-19, rules have shifted and new questions have arisen, Rockar said. "What we’ve seen is a need to get information out quickly and in new ways."

West Broadway is one of the city’s highest density areas for renters, with 92 per cent of its residents living under rental agreements, and one of the lowest median household incomes in Winnipeg, Rockar said. But the pressures facing the neighbourhood permeate the city, with community housing organizations like West Broadway, and Legal Aid Manitoba’s Public Interest Law Centre, working to ensure tenants get the help and resources they need now.

Dan Gilson, an advocate for the law centre, recently hosted for West Broadway a workshop centred on evictions, a particularly pressing and stressful topic.

"One of the most common questions that I get right now is, ‘Can they evict me? It’s a pandemic,’" Gilson said during his workshop. "And I can tell you that as of right now, it’s business as usual for evictions."

But business as usual also means tenants have certain rights and expectations that, as always, are legally protected, Gilson said.

"If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this talk, it’s that landlords are not the ones who make the decision about whether someone is evicted," he said. That would be the Residential Tenancies Branch, who make the decision based on evidence and information from both the tenant and the landlord.

Sometimes, landlords threaten to throw tenants’ belongings out, or to change the locks, or that tenants have to leave immediately, Gilson said.

"People are often interested to learn that’s not how any of this works. It’s not until a landlord goes through all steps at the tenancies branch that they can legally take away that tenant’s right to go and use their rental unit." Tenants also have the right to appeal and dispute.

As Gilson’s talk went on, attendees popped in with questions: Are tenants entitled to a written warning letter before getting a notice of termination in a for-cause eviction? (Yes); Are termination notices valid if they’re slid under my door or into my mailbox? (No, they must be hand-delivered to an adult).

Gilson also explained the different common reasons for eviction: non-payment of rent, for-cause (for instance, a tenant not living up to what is expected of them), and Form 11 (the landlord wants their unit back), along with the order of events that must happen for an eviction to move forward in each situation. Non-payment evictions were paused for several months, but as Gilson said, are now in full-swing.

Non-payment evictions must start with a "Form 8" notice, which can be given on the fifth day of the month if rent can’t be paid in full on the first, assuming that’s when rent is due, he said. If tenants get that notice, then pay in full by the date on it, and the landlord accepts rent, the notice is automatically cancelled, Gilson explained.

But even if that doesn’t happen, he said, there’s still a proper course of action to be followed through the tenancies branch. "Just because the landlord says somebody owes rent, puts some numbers on a piece of paper, and says you’ve got to go, does not make it true," he said. "Everybody always has the right to go to the tenancies branch and fight."

In for-cause evictions, Gilson said, warning letters must clearly identify the problem in question and give tenants reasonable time to fix it or stop engaging in certain behaviours. The warning letter doesn’t need to be hand-delivered, he said.

Access to information like this, which the law centre offers for free, said Rockar, can make a major difference for tenants. "There are a lot of new stresses," she says.

Other key tenant resources are available through organizations like the Tenant Landlord Corporation (TLC) program, North End Community Renewal Corporation, and Spence Neighbourhood Association which regularly share information with tenants and have continued to do so during the pandemic.

Upcoming free workshops run by the West Broadway Community Organization include three-hour-long sessions with Alana Ring-Woodard, a RentSmart educator, which includes a free information booklet along with a letter of completion to attach to their next rental applications. (Feb. 16, 17 and 18 at 1:30 p.m.) To register, email housing@westbroadway.mb.ca.

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Waldman

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