Student tenancy hanging in the balance during COVID-19

The coronavirus is complicating the already complex politics of rentals in the student district

As fall semester moves online, there's added pressure on landlord-tenant relationships.
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Eric* and his four housemates had a plan for their Kingston housing this summer. 

They were renting a six-person house, with the plan to split the cost of the sixth tenant until they could find another housemate in August. But after one of Eric’s housemates lost his summer job due to COVID-19, he dropped out before the group signed their lease. 

With only four paying tenants, rent increased to $900 per month, excluding utilities. The original cost of rent was $600 per month without utilities.

“[The landlords] said if we didn’t have $900 paid each, for first and last month, by the middle of May, that they’d start the eviction process,” Eric said. At that price, they wouldn’t be able to afford rent. 

Eric and his housemates drafted a letter to their landlords saying they couldn’t pay the amount. Since they hadn’t signed the lease, Eric felt they had leverage to ask the landlords to renegotiate. 

“In the email we said, ‘if we leave, good luck finding people to take the house in the middle of a global pandemic. Good luck finding students when everything’s online in the fall.’”

They were able to renegotiate the rent back down to the initial cost of $600, and Eric’s housemate returned to sign the lease at that price. However, despite the eventual resolution being positive for Eric and his friends, he said he was surprised by his landlords’ insensitivity to the situation the pandemic has put students in. 

“They were just concerned about keeping the price the same, and not taking into account that a lot of people are under financial stress right now,” Eric said about his landlords. 

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The month of May often brings action to the University District as students move out of old places and into new houses. But financial hardship brought on by COVID-19 has raised tensions between both tenants and landlords.

John Done, executive director of Kingston Community Legal Clinic (KCLC), is familiar with disputes like Eric’s. In an interview with The Journal, Done said legal challenges have continued while adapting to distancing restrictions.

“The Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) is alive and well, but doing hearings differently,” Done said.

During COVID-19, debate has sparked throughout the province surrounding the rights of tenants to withhold rent as a result of lost income, as well as the right of landlords to demand it. The case is no different for students. 

Done said the LTB in particular can be harsh on students because “there’s an image of Queen’s students as privileged kids.” 

The University is often seen as a cause of the region’s low vacancy rate and extremely high rent growth. The post-secondary student population, which is comprised of students from Queen’s, St. Lawrence College, and RMC, totalled 28,500 in 2016. In the same year, it was estimated 16, 700 of these students—over 13 per cent of Kingston’s population—lived off-campus in rental housing, occupying approximately 4,050 units. 

The city is home to several landlords that frequently apply to the LTB to evict tenants. The impacts of COVID-19 are only worsening tenant-landlord relationships, with many tenants experiencing difficulty paying rent on time and in the full amount. 

While the province has halted the enforcement of all evictions indefinitely, it hasn’t provided concrete guidelines for how the withholding of rent should be handled by either landlords or tenants. 

For instance, though the provincial website makes clear that many tenants will be unable to pay rent as a result of lost work, it doesn’t outline whether tenants will be legally expected to pay their rent at a later date, or whether they may face consequences for failing to do so. 

Without outlining the legal consequences for either party where they’re unable to do so, the province website encourages “landlords and tenants to work together during this difficult time to establish fair arrangements.” 

As well, the Ontario government has mandated that landlords can only enter a tenant’s unit if they provide 24 hours’ notice, state the date and time they will enter, and the reason for entering. These rules have also increased tensions between students and landlords. 

Callum Linden, ArtSci ’20, experienced this first-hand while attempting to move out of his house in May. Despite his housemates having agreed with the new tenants that they’d be out by noon to allow space for a socially distant move, Linden said his landlord came in to do construction on the morning of May 1. He began demolishing the kitchen while Linden and his housemates attempted to move out. 

“He couldn’t find any contractors [due to COVID-19], so he came in with his three children and started ripping out the kitchen. It was a complete s—t show,” Linden said in an interview with The Journal

Linden worried about the process of moving exposing his parents, who care for his grandmother, to the virus. “Our families were close to his family and the new tenants. There were at least 20 people in there all together.” 

Linden’s family contacted lawyers after the incident on May 1. According to Linden, when the lawyers reached out to his landlord, “he said ‘what I do with my family is none of your business.’” Linden didn’t say whether they’d reached a resolution.

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COVID-19 has created financial hardship for Canadian students. Students may depend on their summer income to cover living expenses during the school year, with 49 per cent of students who previously had job prospects for the summer saying they lost those opportunities, according to StatsCan.

In light of these circumstances, some resources have been made available to students experiencing financial difficulties as a result of COVID-19. 

Queen’s students are able to apply for Queen’s Bursary Assistance for COVID-19 related extenuating circumstances, which can be used to cover rent expense. The Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) is also available from May to August. Under special circumstances, The Kingston Salvation Army also provides temporary rent assistance to low-income households. 

For students who are unable to pay rent and choose to withhold it, Done doesn’t “see a happy ending.” 

Regardless of the circumstances of COVID-19, withholding rent is a breach of the Residential Tenancies Act, he said. While evictions are halted, students may still be served eviction notices post-pandemic or be held accountable through other means. 

Done doesn’t predict that many landlords will seek to evict, but anticipates they may seek out money judgements where tenants are ordered to pay an interest-bearing amount, with terms established on a case-by-case basis. 

As more faculties announce remote delivery of fall 2020 courses, the question also remains about how students can approach getting out of full-year leases in cases where they’re not returning to Kingston in September. 

Done said that, in these cases, terminating a lease early is possible, but often quite difficult. In the event of lease termination, both parties must terminate the contract on consent. 

In the case of Queen’s tenants, Done said the typical process is students will offer a specific amount of money to landlords so they may release them from the remainder of their lease. The parties will continue to negotiate this amount until it’s deemed sufficient by both.

However, Done said negotiation skills among students are “somewhere between zero and nothing,” leaving them vulnerable to overpaying to end leases, or being unable to reach an agreement altogether.  

*Name changed for anonymity on the basis of employment restrictions.

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