Dozens of tenants gathered in Saint John’s King’s Square on March 11 to call on the Higgs government to increase tenant protections by implementing a 2 per cent rent increase cap, a moratorium on evictions during COVID and a full revision of the Residential Tenancies Act.
“The New Brunswick Residential Tenancies Act privileges landlords and places the majority of the burden under circumstances of evictions for non-payment, renovictions, and health and safety issues onto tenants,” said Sarah Lunney with the New Brunswick chapter of ACORN, the organizer of the rally.
According to Lunney, the Act, written in 1975, predates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982 and does not follow a human rights framework even though the New Brunswick government claims to follow the UN Sustainable Development Goals that considers safe and affordable housing a human right essential for reducing poverty.
ACORN is requesting a meeting with Service New Brunswick Minister Mary Wilson to discuss the growing housing crisis in New Brunswick.
Lynaya Astephen was one Saint John resident who came out to support tenants. Astephen is running to represent Ward 4 in the Saint John municipal election. “Minister Wilson needs to meet with the tenants rights group,” said Astephen.
Tenants have called for a 2 per cent rent increase cap and moratorium on eviction since last year. Rallies for tenant rights have occurred in the province’s three largest cities, Saint John, Moncton and Fredericton.
New Brunswick does not have rent control regulation to protect tenants from unwarranted monthly rent increases charged by landlords. Low vacancy rates and an increasing housing demand are compounding factors driving rents up.
“Vacancy rates will continue to go down as more people move to New Brunswick and to Saint John,” said Jill Farrar, another ACORN member, at the rally.
“The city is constantly talking about growth, knocking down older buildings to make room for new developments. These new buildings typically do not include affordable housing, and people are already stretched with the wages offered,” said Farrar.
Farrar pointed out that New Brunswick’s minimum wage is only going up 5 cents to $11.75/hour this coming April, far below what has been estimated as a living wage in Saint John of $19.55/hour.
“Blaine Higgs and the current New Brunswick government claim there is no problem with rents rising and current raises are ‘reasonable,’ but there is no way that a person can cover these rent increases of 5, 10, or 15 per cent when minimum wage is going up less than half a percent and many are struggling to make ends meet before the increases,” said Farrar.
So far, the Higgs government has dismissed calls for rent control and an eviction ban with the reason that it would disturb the flow of investment. Higgs has cited a lower eviction rate during the pandemic as evidence that there is no housing crisis.
Anti-poverty and tenant advocacy groups have disputed Higgs’ rationale, stating that the eviction numbers do not include evictions caused by rent increases and renovations.
Katie Dever has lived with her mom and sister in the same Saint John apartment for 15 years. She is one of many tenants affected by what is called a renoviction.
“The day after our building was sold to Property Wise, we received a notice stating that everyone in the building is being evicted and we need to be out by the end of May. In the letter, it also said that if we were out by March 31st, the company would pay us $1,200 and we would not have to pay rent for March. The reason given in the letter for the eviction was that major renovations were going to take place, making the entire building uninhabitable. This is what a renoviction looks like,” said Dever.
Last November, after pressure by tenant advocacy groups in Nova Scotia and a historic low vacancy rate in the Halifax area, the Nova Scotia government announced a ban on renovictions and imposed a 2 per cent rent cap during the pandemic, making it the fifth province in Canada to do so, after PEI, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia.
A report prepared by Halifax Regional Council discussed findings that lack of rent control increases rental rates and reduces options for low-income tenants; while its existence can lessen housing inequality by benefiting low-income households and act as an insurance policy against sharp drops in income.
The report also cited a review by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation on rent regulation in 1993 and a 2011 study in Manitoba that found no convincing evidence that rent regulation has a negative impact on rates, the construction or conversion of rental units, as well as vacancy rate.
Critics of rental caps have said that the caps increase rents in the long-term but Aditya Rao from the New Brunswick Coalition for Tenant Rights says, “A robust rent control regime would apply to both occupied and vacant units. If rent control is not applied to vacant units, it would incentivize evictions so that landlords can increase rents when units are vacated. This is also why a rent control regime must be accompanied by strong eviction protections.”
The Fredericton-based tenant group released a statement on the same day to support Saint John’s protest and questioned the New Brunswick government’s commitment to involve tenant groups in its 90-day rental review.
Dozens of tenants and individuals from organizations like FLIP Saint John and New Brunswick Coalition for Tenant Rights as well as members of the NDP attended the Saint John rally to show support.
Chris Thompson, the New Brunswick NDP interim leader, said he had invited several tenants who have had their rents increased four times since the pandemic began to the rally. However, many did not attend because they were too afraid of being evicted.
Thompson denounced the Higgs government’s refusal to acknowledge a housing crisis in New Brunswick: “What Blaine Higgs meant is that there isn’t a crisis for landlords. If you own multiple properties you are the Conservative government’s priority. Anyone else struggling to make ends meet are met with utter contempt.”
Data Brainata is a permaculturist-in-training with an interest in politics.