Renting in the time of Pandemics

This week, I helped setup the apartment where we live in East Vancouver with an email group. It’s really been something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, and of course the pandemic ended up being the thing to make it happen.

I want to talk about what we’re doing, ask some questions about support for renters during this time, and make a call for more shared communication around the topic of Renting in the time of Pandemics (yes, that’s a call back).

Shared Communication

I thought of a bunch of different ways that we might communicate. I didn’t seriously consider anything other than email or some sort of text group, but here are some tools that could work.

Bonus: we’re all a little more connected and aware of each other – including the names of all of the cute indoor cats!

The actual feeling that you have a group of people that you can potentially lean on and get support from is very powerful.

Google Groups

This is what I ended up choosing. I set this up as a mailing list, made it so anyone can post (with moderation) and that members post without moderation. This meant that I could just post the NAMEOFGROUP@googlegroups.com, have tenants email it, I’d moderate it to allow it through, and then add their email address to the group as members. After that, they would receive all messages and be able to reply without moderation.

It also means that you can give that email address to an external service provider or property management or landlord and have them send messages to the group, without having them be members of the group.

You can also share documents in Google Drive by giving access to the group address, and then all of the members of the group can share / edit documents as needed.

Basecamp

Basecamp Personal is a free version of the Basecamp project management and communication tool. It can be used almost exclusively just through email, while more advanced members who run it can collaborate using the app or website.

Next Door

I wouldn’t actually recommend using this for communications for a building, but I just signed up for it to try it out.

It’s a local neighbourhood based social network that has been around for a long time in the US, and is now available in Canada, but not as highly used here yet. It does mean that you see a broad section of neighbours. It added me to Lynn Valley as well as more local Commercial Drive areas, so I think it’s tuned for car-centric US cities :)

Downside? It has an advertising based business model, and you really are very directly telling this app where you live.


Action: setup a digital communication system with your apartment or strata building for just the tenants to discuss supporting each other.

Social Distancing

We met in front of the building the other evening and sat around discussing.

We talked about restricting any visitors to the building. So no visitors or dinner parties. As far as the tenants go, we are constantly moving through shared spaces, so we have to treat the combined health of the whole building as one unit.

We will keep in touch with each other and let each other know if anyone gets sick. If they do, we’ll help support them while they quarantine in their own unit.

If the building is having any outside workers into the shared spaces, they should practice social distancing, and ideally wear masks and gloves. This goes double for property managers and cleaners, who are presumably moving between buildings.

Cleaning

It’s the responsibility of your landlord to clean the building. Ask if they are going to increase cleaning, and insist that cleaning staff wear personal protective equipment (PPE) – gloves and mask – while they are cleaning. You don’t need MORE vectors of potential infection coming into your building.

At the same time, we’re all in this together. If you’re opening the front door of your building or laundry room door or any other shared spaces (hand rails! elevator buttons!), you’re basically high fiving everyone who lives in or enters your building with a sweaty palm.

We’re just 10 units on 3 floors, so we made a day by day, floor by floor schedule (thanks Danielle for whipping that up!).

Larger buildings might organize with just their local floor or wing, but really multiple daily cleanings by professional cleaners is probably justified.

Hydrogen Peroxide or Bleach diluted 1:9 is the guidance I’ve seen for what to use. Sorry, “natural” cleaners aren’t going to be helpful here.

Action: For smaller buildings, organize a cleaning schedule to disinfect shared spaces. Communicate with building management about increased cleaning and what the plan is.

Communication with Property Management / Owners

If you’re in a small building, you may have quite basic property management. For a lot of these topics, you want to make sure the owners of the building are looped in. Ultimately, property managers are service providers, but your agreement is with the owners / landlords, especially when it comes to financial topics around required services and rent.

Action: I would love to see the Residential Tenancy Board of BC and/or health authorities issue directives directly to multi-family homes (MFH) – whether strata-owned councils or rental apartment units – especially about cleaning and service providers.

Rent Relief

In Vancouver, which has extremely unaffordable housing, and many food services, film & TV, and other workers who are laid off and can’t “work from home”, AND a high percentage of renters, we’re very directly impacted by anything around rent.

This Twitter thread from Jon Shell, a landlord in Toronto, is very inspiring – landlords, if you can #waiveaprilrent, by all means do so!

But:

To be clear, the mortgage relief currently offered by the big five banks is NOT ENOUGH! It will help some owners of property, but it will not help renters, who are most in danger in this crisis. We need to target temporary reduction or elimination of all rent. #waiveaprilrent – Jon Shell @jonrshell

Unfortunately, all of the communications I’ve seen cover two ends of the housing spectrum. Those in extreme poverty and different kinds of supportive/social housing, and home owners. I guess in the Vancouver area that would be both single family home owners and lots of strata condo owners.

What about the vast middle of people who … just don’t own homes, and would prefer non-precarious rental?

In BC, the opposition leader made some comments a while back about how renting is for that wacky time when you’re a student or young.

Well, back in reality land, many renters in Vancouver pay more than the 30% of monthly income, and do live paycheque to paycheque. If they’ve been out of work since last week, they either may literally not have enough to cover rent (since they missed two weeks of work), and/or it would leave them critically short of being able to buy food and other necessities.

Suggested Action for Rent Relief in Vancouver / BC

  • Immediate “no evictions” for anyone, not just those who are already in social housing. Landlords can apply to the Rental Tenancy Board for special cases, but the default is, evictions are no longer valid until this is lifted.

  • Rental Tenancy Board provides standard documents that renters and landlords sign regarding any rent relief. These need to be completely standardized and extremely clear.

  • Government (provincial / federal are likely the only ones that can do anything about this) provides directives to landlords to document mortage relief. This could be done through local banks. In Vancouver, perhaps Vancity, our local credit union, can spin up a task force to run the whole thing.

I know there are all sorts of issues with mortgage deferral (does interest still go up?), but now is the time to keep people safe.

What we know so far is that the latest announcement from BC’s housing minister was that “help is on the way”, so it sounds like there will be an announcement this coming week (week of March 23rd).

The Vancouver Tenants Union is also looking to collect information from anyone that doesn’t think they will be able to pay rent on April 1st.

Update March 26th, 2020 - Province of BC Rent Relieft

Yesterday, on Wednesday March 25th, the Province of BC made their announcements for rent relief. I had to life that the title of the release is Support for renters and landlords – as I don’t actually see landlords taking any risks here.

My commentary:

Rent freeze & eviction moratorium are great. Neutral actions which give landlords cover to not have to proceed with eviction based on non-payment.

$500 per month per renter, eligibility based on federal EI — links into same rules at fed level, which includes freelancers and all the extended EI support categories. Good, although that just puts more on the choke point of federal processing and rules. The province of BC then needs to wait on the feds.

$500 goes direct to landlords. Bad. So it’s 100% on the renters to uphold the entire system. Landlords are doing … nothing?

Talk to your landlords about getting mortgage deferral and waiving rent completely. Not deferring. Waiving. That would be true shared risk. Or something nominal that covers operating costs.

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