The NB Coalition for Tenants Rights is asking Premier Blaine Higgs for relief for tenants in the form of retroactive rent caps, a moratorium on evictions, and a rent bank fund for people struggling to pay the rent.
The coalition called for rent relief in a letter to the premier it released on Tuesday.
The organization was formed by a group of renters last year to help people navigate the rules and regulations of renting and to work to change those rules.
Issues related to tenants' rights in New Brunswick have come to the forefront after a number of buildings in cities across the province have been bought up, only to see rent increases.
Group member Tobin Haley said the item on the wish list that seems the most promising is the idea of a rent bank.
At a meeting with Service New Brunswick staff, Haley said, officials "did not seem hostile to the idea of a rent bank and in fact were quite interested."
The NB Coalition for Tenants Rights proposes a rent bank that would provide grants to tenants who are unable to pay rent "in this time of crisis," said Haley.
The money would come from a growing war chest that in 2015-16 was closing in on $25 million. CBC News reported in 2017 that the province had thousands of unclaimed security deposits sitting in a trust account.
"We know that the pandemic exacerbates existing inequalities, we know that the safety net in New Brunswick has giant holes in it," said Haley.
"This is a way to ... use the money, tenants money, in order to provide people with support."
Haley pointed to other places in the country where this has already been done, including British Columbia, where interest free loans are given out to tenants in need.
Other requests in the letter have been made to the premier in the past and denied.
The group recommended that a two per cent rent cap retroactive to Sept. 1, 2020, be put in place until the COVID-19 Vaccine is available to all, and the province reaches the green phase of recovery.
Another request is that the province restore a moratorium on evictions until New Brunswick is in the green phase. The eviction of tenants unable to pay rent was halted by the Higgs government in the early days of the pandemic last March, but those restrictions were lifted in June.
Higgs said in January that there were no plans to implement rent controls during the pandemic, but he added he has asked for a report to see if rent increases are a widespread issue.
And the lack of reliable information is part of the problem, according to Haley.
Higgs has said Service New Brunswick had received fewer eviction requests in 2020 compared to previous years, but SNB doesn't track lease terminations.
"Tenants being notified of a rent increase that they can't meet and then choosing to move, that's not counted as an eviction by the government", said Haley, making it hard to know how many people are being forced out for economic reasons.
Other requests include the province implementing housing benefits for low-income renters using money from the National Housing Strategy, and the group would also like to see the province establish a New Brunswick Affordable Housing Commission.
"It's gross negligence to not have acted on this already," said group member Mathew Hayes.
He said the province has 20,000 rental units built before 1980 that are considered affordable, and a rent cap will only ensure "that people earning modest incomes in this province still have access to it."
Randy Hatfield, executive director of the Saint John Human Development Council, said there are three things that need to be taken into account by policy makers.
"First, vacancy rates are declining throughout principal cities in the province. Secondly, monthly rents, median monthly rents are increasing," said Hatfield.
"And thirdly, COVID is a game changer."
He said people making less than $15 an hour, single parent families, people with disabilities, people on a fixed income, and people who didn't qualify for the Canada emergency response benefit are the hardest hit.
It's gross negligence to not have acted on this already. - Matthew Hayes
"We're heading into the coldest time of the season, and I think it's important to understand that what we are asking for today is not unprecedented," said Hatfield.
The Nova Scotia government put a two per cent cap on rent increases and a ban on so-called renovictions in November of 2020.
Last month, Higgs said his government was talking to landlords to better understand the situation.
But Haley suggested the province take a different approach.
"We know they talk to landlords, we know they talked to developers, we would like for them to also talk to tenants in a meaningful and substantive way, not just a one–off consultations," Haley said.
Service New Brunswick Minister Mary Wilson said she is aware of the concerns about the lack of affordable housing and about homelessness and is working with colleagues to address them.
"The Residential Tenancies Tribunal is there to protect the rights of tenants, and we encourage anyone facing a rent increase to contact the Tribunal," Wilson wrote in an email.
The Residential Tenancies Act has a tribunal that can review rent increases when tenants apply. Valerie Kilfoil, director of communications with Service New Brunswick, said between January and October last year, 30 people applied for a review.
When asked for the outcomes of these, Kilfoil said the information is not available.
In her email, Wilson said, "We will have more to say on this in the coming weeks," but she didn't elaborate.