Ottawa offers rent relief for businesses as some provinces prepare to reopen economies

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today announced a new rent subsidy program to help businesses forced to shut down due to the global pandemic, as some provinces begin to lay out plans to reopen their economies.

The rent relief plan, to be funded jointly with the provinces, will provide non-repayable loans to commercial property owners to cover 50 per cent of rent payments for April, May and June.

The loans will be forgiven if the property owner agrees to cut the rent by at least 75 per cent for those months and promises not to evict the tenant. The small business tenant must cover the remaining portion of the rent, which would be up to 25 per cent.

To qualify, small business tenants must pay less than $50,000 a month in rent. They also must have experienced a revenue decline of at least 70 per cent from pre-COVID-19 levels, or they must have been forced to close down because of pandemic restrictions.

Non-profit and charitable organizations are also eligible.

The NDP has been pressing the government to deliver rent relief. In a statement Friday, the NDP said loans alone “are not going to cut it.”

“Businesses can’t afford more debt,” the statement said.

The NDP said the proposed rent support should be extended to residential rent.

Small and medium-sized businesses, most of them shuttered since mid-March, have been calling for relief as the May 1 deadline for their next rent payment looms.

Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIC) president Dan Kelly told the House of Commons finance committee on Thursday that he was expecting an announcement as early as today.

Kelly said 70 per cent of the CFIB’s 30,000 members pay monthly rent for their business premises and, of those, 55 per cent report that they can’t afford to pay their rent next month.

Struggling businesses need a non-repayable rent subsidy, not loans or deferral of rent payments, he said.

Kelly said he was hoping the federal government would pick up the tab for at least 75 per cent of the monthly rent owed by businesses that have been forced to close in order to slow the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

He urged the government to make the rent relief “broadly applicable” to all small- and medium-sized businesses, without imposing a lot of cumbersome eligibility criteria that he predicted would cause some business owners to “give up.”

“If we do that, I think we have a fighting chance of having the majority, not all, but the majority of our small business community make it across the emergency phase of this [pandemic],” he told the committee.

“Remember, businesses have been ordered to shut down in order to protect society, and it is deeply unfair that they would have to pick up the costs of keeping real estate open and paying those bills while they are essentially unable to earn an income.”

Trudeau, premiers holding weekly call

Trudeau is scheduled to hold a conference call with provincial and territorial premiers this afternoon; reopening the economy will top the agenda.

Today, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs will outline his four-phase plan to reopen his province’s economy.

On Thursday, Saskatchewan released its plan to gradually restart economic activity.

Trudeau said yesterday it’s up to the provinces to decide how best to reopen their economies, adding the federal government would offer a set of guidelines.

“What we’re doing at the federal level is attempting to pull together and co-ordinate all different provinces so that we are working from a similar set of guidelines and principles to ensure Canadians right across the country are being kept safe as we look to those next steps,” he said.

The premiers are also expected to discuss another issue that is under provincial jurisdiction — the tragedy unfolding at under-staffed long-term care homes, where more than half of Canada’s deaths from COVID-19 have occurred.

Trudeau last week promised the federal government would top up the wages of front-line workers in seniors’ facilities but said it would have to be done in consultation with the provinces. The issue was discussed during last week’s first ministers conference call — but there was no agreement since not all provinces are experiencing the problems plaguing long-term care homes in Quebec and Ontario.

The situation has deteriorated since then, with the two largest provinces calling on the federal government to send in the military to help care for people in long-term care facilities.

At his daily briefing Thursday, a visibly upset Trudeau called the situation “unacceptable.”

“We are failing our parents, our grandparents, our elders, the greatest generation who built this country. We need to care for them properly,” he said.

“In Canada, we shouldn’t have soldiers taking care of seniors. Going forward in the weeks and months to come, we will all have to ask tough questions about how it came to this. We will all have to do more to get through this terrible situation.”

Trudeau is also expected to take part Friday night in a virtual vigil for the 22 people police say were killed by a gunman masquerading as an RCMP officer in northern Nova Scotia last weekend.


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