Op-ed: Tips for Ottawa landlords and tenants in trying times

By showing compassion and practicality, property owners and renters will find a way through the COVID-19 crisis, Bruce Firestone writes
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Since the dawn of the industrial age in the early 1700s, there had never been a major economy that contracted by 40 per cent in a single quarter – until this year. It happened in China during the first three months of 2020 due to a lockdown of much of that nation after the COVID-19 outbreak

Not even the Great Depression years of 1929 to 1933 can compare. It took nearly four years for industrial production in the United States, Germany and Canada to match that drop.

Yet now, with this country in the throes of its own coronavirus crisis, it’s possible that Canada’s GDP and employment could fall by 40 per cent in the next three months. 

Despite these bleak projections, I am absolutely confident that Canadians will find a way through this. To quote my late father, Prof. O.J. Firestone, we must “stick together.” 

That advice most certainly applies to landlords and tenants of both commercial and residential buildings. With tens of thousands of Canadians already out of work and business owners across the country forced to shutter their stores, it’s vital that landlords and tenants find a workable way to navigate through the current situation. 

Landlords, for example, will need to show leniency during what is likely to be a very tough time for many of their tenants. Tenants, meanwhile, will have to do what they can to conserve money, and I encourage them to take advantage of some of the emergency income programs the federal government has implemented.   

Here are a couple of examples. A client of mine rents an apartment to three young people (all servers) who lost their jobs in late March. None of them have any income now. However, my client reduced their rent for the next four months by half, meaning they should be able to catch up over the following year by paying a bit more each month. 

Another client of mine, a dentist, recently opened a practice in west-end Ottawa. Her fitup cost? Close to $2 million. Now she, like all dentists across Ontario, has been ordered by her regulator, the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario, to close (except for emergencies). She now has no income. 

Distraught, she reached out to her landlord, who readily agreed to defer her monthly rent payments until the crisis is alleviated. Bravo.

Meanwhile, tenants in dire need of help can turn to the recently approved Canada Emergency Response Benefit, a federal program that will provide $2,000 monthly for the next four months for those who have lost their incomes because of the pandemic. 

The two-question, no-hassle application form should be available online as of April 6, with funds flowing 10 days later, according to Canada’s finance minister. Those who are eligible include wage-earners, contract workers and self-employed people who don’t qualify for employment insurance.

I am encouraging everyone to do what you can to help yourself, your family and your fellow citizens protect our collective finances as much as possible during this time by:

  • Preserving cash and putting as much discretionary spending as possible on hold
  • Arranging for a home equity line of credit or other form of mortgage or credit financing
  • Deferring tax payments
  • Negotiating mortgage payment deferrals (not to mention rent deferrals or reductions for both residential and commercial tenants).

Even though some of the first Canadians to ask their banks for mortgage deferrals were initially refused, I cannot foresee any circumstances under which tenants will be evicted from their apartments or stores while this crisis continues, nor can I imagine any foreclosures or powers of sale initiated by lenders in Canada against homeowners or apartment building owners being successful at this time. 

Do we want to make 40 per cent of Canadians homeless? Not a chance. 

What will the future bring?

No one really knows. But one thing occurs to me: It’s time to make our nation, our cities and ourselves more resilient and self-sufficient. 

How do we do that? For one thing, we need to change Ottawa’s Official Plan (a new one is due out in 2021, but that may be delayed). 

Perhaps we should follow the example of Barcelona, which is aiming to become completely self-sufficient by 2050 in the production of energy, food, textiles, many manufactured goods and medications. The city is even proposing its own Barcelona currency to promote buying locally. 

We also need to be more humble about human frailties and capabilities, and treat each other and the planet with more respect and love.

Be well, everyone.

Bruce M. Firestone is a co-founder of the Ottawa Senators, a broker with Century 21 Explorer Realty and a business coach. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce or email him at bruce.firestone@century21.ca.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the landlord that offered to defer their tenant's monthly rent payment.