'Help is on the way' for renters during coronavirus crisis, says B.C. housing minister

'Help is on the way' for renters during coronavirus crisis, says B.C. housing minister

With less than two weeks until rent is due, and thousands of British Columbians losing their jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis, many are wondering how they'll keep their homes.

"Help is on the way" for renters, said B.C. Housing Minister Selina Robinson at a press conference Saturday morning.

"I know that many people are worried about how they are going to make ends meet, put food on the table, and pay rent" by April 1, the minister said.

Robinson offered no details today on what form that relief might take, saying Finance Minister Carole James would make an announcement early next week.

Cameron Thomson will be watching it closely.

He was laid off yesterday from his job as a reporter at the Salmon Arm Observer, which like many community papers, has lost revenue as businesses cut advertising during the pandemic.

"I'm eligible immediately for EI, which is nice, but it's not nearly enough to cover my rent," said Thomson. Employment insurance generally pays 55 per cent of earnings.

He told his landlord he lost his job due to COVID-19, and that he'd be fine for April 1, but asked for leniency in May.

"She just said no, there's nothing we can do." 

Robinson said the government is looking at the possibility of broad measures to prevent evictions, but did not provide specifics.

"We don't want anyone evicted during this very difficult time. It is unprecedented," she said.

Specific measures have been put in place for social and affordable housing. For properties managed by B.C. Housing, a moratorium on evictions due to non-payment of rent was put in place this week, and the government wants similar measures for any properties receiving funding from B.C. Housing.

Meanwhile, preparations are being made to help people who are living on the street or in shelters for the homeless find ways to isolate themselves yet still have enough to eat, said Shane Simpson, minister of social development and poverty reduction.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

May need to move people

Unlike long-term care facilities, where four specific outbreaks have been announced, it's unclear whether COVID-19 has yet taken hold on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, home to many low-income residents living in substandard housing.

At Saturday's housing announcement, officials were repeatedly asked if anyone on the DTES had tested positive for coronavirus. They didn't answer and deferred the question to health officials.

Officials announced steps to take effect in the coming week that would help people without adequate housing protect themselves.

Among them, the delivery of meals instead of having people line up, shoulder-to-shoulder, for breakfast or lunch programs, said B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

Hotels, motels, and 1,000 temporary modular housing units have also been identified in 16 communities across the province, where people can be moved if they test positive and need to quarantine.

"We may need to move one or many people to an off-site location," said Robinson.

A looming issue, said Simpson, will come this week when monthly income assistance cheques arrive on March 25, or what's sometimes called "welfare Wednesday."

"We're going to be seeing those challenges on Wednesday ... we're working to minimize the challenge that will definitely come on cheque issue day," said Simpson.

Riverview property used as supply depot

The former site of Riverview Hospital in Coquitlam, B.C., which is owned by B.C. Housing, will be used as a staging area for equipment, supplies and food to be distributed to housing providers as needed, said Ramsay.

"Next week, we'll complete the setup at some very large freezers, where we can store thousands of meals on a daily basis and distribute them to communities and needy households across the province," he said.

Next week, B.C. Housing will also start arranging delivery services for tenants in subsidized and affordable housing who need it, he said.

Riverview will also be a central distribution point for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment needed by housing providers around the province, which has been a "major concern," he said.

City of Coquitlam

The plans are being developed by a provincial working group that's looking into the needs of people ranging from homeless people on the street to those in encampments, shelters and social housing. A separate task force is also established for the Downtown Eastside.

Ramsay thanked the people who have been working "tirelessly" to help vulnerable people be as safe as possible, amid the pandemic.

"This is a crisis unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes."

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.