Landlord challenges tenants to lip-sync contest aimed at closing the distance during COVID-19

With a clay mask smoothed onto her face and rollers in her hair, Brenda Hibbitts sits on her bed as she silently — and enthusiastically — belts out a favourite tune from her teens.

It's Crazy in the Night, Kim Carnes's 1985 hit single.

She's rehearsing her video entry for a lip-sync contest launched during the pandemic, and the grand prize is $1,000. 

But this isn't for the TV show, Lip Sync Battle. This competition is put on by her landlord in Halifax.

"I'm in it to win it, but I'm in it to challenge my neighbours," Hibbitts said with a chuckle about her creative take on the challenge that may help cure COVID cabin fever. "People are going a little bit stir crazy just being told they have to stay inside."

As the cases of COVID-19 mount in Nova Scotia — as of Saturday, there were 110 cases — some are finding that moments of laughter can ease their fears.

That's part of the reason why landlord Ron Lovett is encouraging tenants to throw down their best lip-sync as a fun distraction during long periods of time holed up in an apartment.

In fact, public health officials have renamed social distancing as physical distancing to emphasize that while people should stay apart, they should still stay connected through phone calls or video chats.

Ron Lovett/Twitter

"The gloom can be viral, it can cause mental stress and bring on mental illness," said Lovett, CEO of RFL Group.

His contest, which includes gift cards for each entry submitted from his 350 tenants, will cost him $4,500. "I have the option to double down and create some hope at a time of worry," he said.

Lovett and his team came up with the idea while he himself was in self-isolation after a trip. After quarantined Italians sang their hearts out on balconies, while others played ping pong between units, he wanted to do his part.

But the silent sing-along isn't just a social exercise. It's also part of the business strategy for his apartment rental company, Vida Living. 

Over the last three years, Lovett has purchased 21 buildings, many were neglected in lower-income neighbourhoods.

He even bought two buildings that were so run down and trashed by tenants, the city condemned them. But after extensive renovations, he's kept rents affordable, even as the city experiences a low vacancy rate that's sending rents through the roof.

Lovett believes if tenants love their homes, they'll keep them up, which in turns keeps his operating costs down.

He's held other contests and events to encourage tenants to be neighbourly. So far, his housing strategy is working, and he hopes to expand his housing portfolio.

Helping to uplift tenants during an anxious time is part of his goal of community-building, he said. To show that he's walking the talk, he lip-synced the song, Wavin' Flag, by Somali-Canadian K'Naan. 

Elizabeth Chiu/CBC

The battle among neighbours doesn't officially start until April 1, but already Lovett has received about a dozen entries.

Hibbitts is using props. A Godzilla toy serves as backup as she mouths Carnes's song — There's a monster on my ceiling, there's a monster on the wall. There are thousands in the closet. Now they're coming down the hall.   "We do need something that's kind of going to lift our spirits, make ourselves be a little bit silly," said Hibbitts, who is without a job but fortunate to still be receiving a salary. "You can only clean your bathroom so many times."

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