'Starting to panic': Landlords fear they won't be helped if tenants don't pay rent amid COVID-19

When Margret Curlew found out that Canada's big banks were offering mortgage deferrals of up to six months, she reached out to her lenders, knowing that some of her tenants were going to have trouble making April's rent amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, she says, the banks denied her. 

"They all said, 'Oh no no' this is only for your principal residence," said Curlew, who owns several homes around the Golden Horseshoe.

Last week the federal government announced that it worked with Canada's largest banks to give homeowners the option to postpone their mortgages for up to six months if they're affected by the COVID-19 crisis. 

The problem for Curlew and many others: The deferrals aren't as easy to get as they seem. They're being given out on a case-by-case bases, and sometimes those who need the most help say they aren't getting it. 

CIBC, RBC, TD, BMO and Scotiabank all said that landlords have the option to defer their payments regardless if they carry insured or uninsured mortgages. A few banks, including Scotiabank, give the option to postpone mortgage payments for up to three non-principal residences.

Curlew says the only reason for refusal she was given was that she was trying to insure her rental properties, not the home she lives in. But now that banks have stated rental units are included, she's going to call her lenders again.   

As it stands now, Curlew says she's beginning to worry, because many of her properties are rented by low-income families. And though she has emergency funds, no one knows how long the COVID-19 crisis is going to last or what impact it will have on the economy. 

Landlords could lose properties

"Now I'm starting to panic," said Curlew.

"I don't want to evict anybody, but if you're not protecting [landlords], then by the end of this we might lose some of our properties," she said. "Where will that leave tenants?"

Philip Kocev's family has three rental properties in the Greater Toronto Area, he's also a real estate broker. 

Although he hasn't heard from all of his tenants yet, one of his biggest concerns is how messaging from the government is being perceived. 

The federal government hasn't announced any aid directly attached to rental units or renters. Premier Doug Ford has said that no one will be evicted for their inability to pay rent, but the Ontario government has not waived rent for the province. 

But Kocev says online renter groups think rent doesn't exist for the month of April. 

'Compassionate relief is not amnesty'

"There's some tenant groups getting together saying, 'Hey everybody don't pay your rent just for the sake of it,'" said Kocev. 

Parkdale Organize for instance is urging people to keep their rent, even though a statement on its website points out that "it's against the rules."

"There's also this idea that mortgages are going to be postponed right away. That's not the case. The deferred amount is going to get added to your principal and accumulate interest," said Kocev.

What Kocev is telling his clients, is to call their bank and see what they can negotiate.  

Dan Taekema/CBC

One Kitchener couple says their lender told them their properties likely won't be eligible for deferral because they're retired. Like many other landlords, they're worried about what this is going to do to their savings, especially since they rely on these housing units as their retirement income.  

'Pay the bills you can'

This is not just happening to landlords, homeowners across the country have been denied for various reasons including, being told that their mortage is too new. 

CBC Toronto reached out to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation asking whether it would consider pushing lenders to be more lenient. A spokesperson responded saying, "CMHC has provided increased flexibility for lenders to defer mortgage payment," but wouldn't say whether additional measures would be taken outside of those announced March 18.

In a tweet on March 21, CMHC president Evan Siddall said, "Compassionate relief of mortgage and rent payments is NOT an amnesty nor an opportunity to save money. We must all pay our bills wherever we can." 

Most tenant advocates agree, saying if you can pay your rent on time this month, do so. Otherwise unnecessary late payments could have a big effect on the market. 

When talking about the options available to renters last week, Dania Majid, a staff lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, said renters should contact their landlords. Ask about setting up a payment plan or even using your last month's rent for April.