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Pause evictions during pandemic, MLAs say

Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, seen in legislative assembly last fall, was an early voice calling for an eviction freeze. Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

Regular MLAs have called on cabinet to freeze evictions while the territory weathers the global health pandemic.

In a motion passed by regular members in assembly's accountability and oversight committee on Monday, MLAs asked government to freeze residential evictions for 90 days and for government to offer some relief to tenants and landlords as well.

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly is one member pushing for such a pause, and to include support for renters and landlords that own a small number of properties in the territory’s developing economic response. He said worried constituents are calling him about it.

“We’re in an emergency situation and extraordinary measures may be necessary to help with landlords, and tenants, in particular,” he said.

NWT cabinet has so far avoided any definitive statements on the issue.

To support some struggling residents, finance minister Caroline Wawzonek announced on Tuesday an income assistance benefit of $500 for individuals, and $1000 for households of two people or more.

Those benefits came into effect immediately, in time to help cover rental costs paying March rent, she told reporters.

The territorial government didn't respond to a request for comment by press time.

However, with the onset of another confirmed COVID-19 case in Inuvik, Tu Nedhe - Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn is another member supporting an evictions pause.

He said that's because it allows residents to better follow chief public health office Dr. Kami Kanodola’s social distancing recommendations. However, Norn added, it would have to be in conjunction with support to property owners.

“This is all unprecedented ground we’re on right now,” he said, adding that the fragility of NWT’s economy meant it had to cover property managers whose tenants struggle to make rent. 

A rent rebate would help weather the storm, he said.

Landlords have mixed response to COVID-19

NWT’s landlords’ responses to the crisis have varied.

In a letter to tenants, Northview REIT, the territory’s largest private property manager, recently promised to “reach a solution” with those struggling to pay.

The letter also said the landlord has scrapped “issuing rental increases, or enforcing increases that were to come into effect on April 1, during this crisis.”

Northview REIT has promised to work with its tenants to find a solution.
NNSL File photo

Midwest Property Management is also telling tenants to contact the landlord’s community site managers and office for options. Both companies have directed tenants to government supports like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

Northwest Territories Housing Corporation has allowed tenants to defer payments. Further, in March 20, it cancelled evictions “unless there is a significant matter including risk to other tenants or the NWTHC’s building.”

Meanwhile, the NWT Rental Office, which services eviction notices, has suspended services for all in-person inquiries or hearings. It continues to offer services by phone and email.

For his part, O’Reilly said he hoped larger landlords like Northview would find a solution with tenants. But if there was a problem, he said it may be subject of regulation or legislation.

That said, he it was time to follow in the steps of other jurisdictions.

“(These circumstances) are particularly problematic for people who have lost their income or are in self-isolation because of possible COVID exposure,” he said. 

As potential options, he pointed to the rental assistance program in Manitoba; a one-time $900 emergency payout in Saskatchewan; and an evictions pause in Yukon

He also referenced varying degrees of eviction freezes put in place in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and British Columbia. 

That’s echoing the calls from other MLAs like Norn and Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, who also called for putting evictions temporarily aside as early as March 16.

Hay River South MLA Rocky Simpson, seen in legislative assembly last fall, was an early voice calling for an eviction freeze.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson called for a pause to evictions prior to the pandemic, citing the extreme temperatures and weather facing tenants in his constituency. 

O’Reilly said he hadn’t seen many programs specifically geared to small landlords who manage one or two properties as a primary source of income. He’s advocating that they be a considered in any territorial response to the issue.

That could mean loans for landlords, or backing tenants entering into arrears and who can’t make timely payments. He also suggested a grant program, or tax deferrals.