As New Brunswick tenants face exorbitant rent hikes, as high as 50 and 62 per cent, more than 30 organizations, including service providers, labour unions, and anti-poverty, Indigenous, multicultural and student groups are calling on the province of New Brunswick to put into place immediate rent caps and support for tenants who are struggling during the COVID pandemic.
“We know that this pandemic exacerbates existing inequalities. In a province so profoundly impacted by socio-economic poverty, and where the social safety net is badly torn, there is an urgent need for housing security while we try to weather this storm,” said Tobin Haley, an organizer with the New Brunswick Coalition for Tenants Rights who is also a sociologist at Ryerson University.
The New Brunswick Coalition for Tenants Rights, Saint John’s Human Development Council and other groups released the open letter to Premier Blaine Higgs and Services of New Brunswick Minister Mary Wilson at a media conference on Tuesday, February 9.
The letter calls for an immediate two per cent cap on rent increases and a moratorium on evictions until New Brunswick returns to the green phase. They also recommend the establishment of a rent bank, the rollout of a Canada-New Brunswick Housing Benefit under the National Housing Strategy, and a provincial affordable housing commission.
The tenant advocates say that rent increases are far outpacing median income in the province and that housing is becoming less affordable. They are also drawing attention to how tenants have little to no protection from rent increases and evictions, a condition they say puts more people at risk of being homeless during a pandemic.
The challenges New Brunswick tenants face were happening well before the beginning of the pandemic, say the tenant advocates.
According to the Canadian Rental Housing Index, 36 per cent of New Brunswick’s renter households experience unaffordable housing where they spend 30 per cent or more on rent and utilities. Fourteen per cent of renter households in the province experience severe unaffordable housing.
Tenant Mel Theriault told the media conference that he saw his mother’s uptown Saint John apartment increase in price in September of 2020 after the building’s change in ownership. In order to find a place she could afford, she was forced to move to an unfamiliar neighborhood, much farther away from where she works. Theriault added that this is not an individual issue.
“This is not just my own experience, but those of everyone around me in this wage bracket. I am trying to speak for everyone in this position,” Theriault said.
Angus Fletcher, another organizer with the New Brunswick Coalition for Tenants Rights, says the statistics and tenant stories like Theriault’s should force the government to act: “Premier Higgs says he needs ‘to understand the facts’ before considering rent control. The fact is that New Brunswickers are being forced out of their homes by out of control rent increases during a pandemic.”
The open letter notes that the province’s vacancy rate has dropped while tenant shelter costs have risen 14 per cent between the last two censuses. The letter goes on to state that this instability is disproportionately experienced by lone female parents, people with disabilities, Black and Indigenous People, and People of Colour.
At the public release of the letter, Randy Hatfield of the Human Development Council noted that vacancy rates in the province are dropping, jobs have not recovered, and monthly rent rates are increasing.
“We’ve been told to stay home and be safe, avoiding the virus means needing a safe place to live,” Hatfield said. “We need to concentrate on homelessness prevention, and getting more people out of the shelter system than are going into it, it’s that simple.”
Haley recommended that the province use the $25 million in unclaimed security deposits to establish a Rent Bank similar to those in other provinces. A rent bank would allow for tenants to apply for small, low interest or interest-free loans to bridge difficult financial periods. Rent Banks like the ones in British Columbia are provincially funded, and their loans are often less than $1000.
“We are asking that tenant money be used to provide tenants with that kind of support. We know that the pandemic exacerbates existing inequalities. I would think that landlords would be in favour of a rent bank because they still get their rent,” Haley explained.
Companies like Historica Developments in Saint John recently acquired Hazen Property Management properties in November of 2020. Hazen was known by tenants for its well-maintained, affordable apartments. Luxury-apartment brand Historica has come under scrutiny in recent months, with tenants voicing concern over formerly affordable listings being advertised as more expensive, sometimes with as much as a 30 per cent increase.
Similar stories are found in Moncton and Fredericton, with tenants complaining of sudden rent hikes from companies like Canada Homes for Rent and Killam Properties, a real estate investment trust that owns approximately 5,000 rental units in New Brunswick alone.
Matthew Hayes, another organizer with the New Brunswick Coalition for Tenant Rights, says the rent hikes are a response to a dip in vacancy while newer, more expensive apartment buildings are being developed.
“Real estate investment trusts are bringing a lot of money to the table and are competing with each other. They realize the supply is limited, it’s increasing but limited. There’s a middle spot in the market that is -from their perspective- relatively affordable, and they can increase their profits by competing with the price of new builds,” Hayes said.
Hayes, a sociologist who studies social inequality at St. Thomas University, argues that beyond the measures outlined in the open letter, broader tenant reform is needed.
“New Brunswick’s Landlord and Tenant Act offers some of the worst protections for tenants in all of Canada. Things like reasonable enjoyment of one’s home is something tenants in New Brunswick cannot rely on. We are at the mercy of whether or not we have a good landlord to do things like hang pictures on a wall. The Landlord and Tenant Act needs to be updated because more people are renting and we want to make sure we have the same protections that are available to renters in other parts of the country,” said Hayes.
At the State of the Province address on Feb. 10, Higgs said he would take 90 days to review the housing situation. The tenants’ coalition fears that this signals to landlords that if they were thinking of raising rents, they had better do it now. In response to Higgs’ announcement, the coalition said, “After all, 90 days happens to be the exact amount of time for landlords to provide notice to increase rents.”
“Why wait 90 days for something that’s urgently needed right now in this emergency?” said Hayes.
The tenant’s coalition also wants tenants at the table when decisions about housing are being made.
“Seeing tenants at the table in policy-making spaces is very important to us. Unless you’ve lived and experienced life as a tenant and you’ve experienced the other side of the legislative framework it is very difficult to understand what it is like. We know that [the government] talks to landlords and developers, we would like for them to talk to tenants in a meaningful and substantive way,” Haley explained.
“We stand amongst organizations who have been doing this work for decades,” Haley said.
Abigail Smith is an event planner, theatre technician, and writer. She works and rents in Saint John.