Montreal rent strike movement calls for solidarity

Montreal rent strike movement calls for solidarity
At a time when everyone is asked to stay home, housing isn’t necessarily a guarantee. Rent is due this Wednesday, and despite appeals from Premier Legault and Mayor Plante for landlords to be lenient with tenants in a financial crunch, many Montrealers are facing eviction — whether that be after the temporary suspension on eviction hearings at the Régie du logement is lifted, or earlier, making evictions illegal but no less real for those being forced into the street. A rent strike movement has arisen in Montreal, in Quebec, across Canada and globally to appeal to the governments and the banks to step in and declare a moratorium on rent and mortgage until the COVID-19 crisis has passed.

“We came together when we realized that a lot of people were falling through the cracks of the federal and provincial emergency help that’s being provided and … that a lot of people around us would be struggling to pay their rent and their mortgages,” says Montreal rent strike advocate Sunny Doyle.

Despite an impressive amount of COVID-19 relief for individuals and businesses coming from all levels of government, many gig workers, people whose declared income is under $5,000 (like those who depend on tips or other under-the-table income) and anyone who’s not a Canadian citizen are ineligible for most of the aid being made available. And even those who can access these funds won’t get it in time to pay rent on Wednesday. The promised $2,000 per month in federal aid can only be applied for after April 6. And with increased costs for utilities, childcare and other day-to-day expenses on top of income loss in many households, the burden of paying rent could be a breaking point for many Montrealers.

“In a public health emergency, anyone who can’t access those funds is at risk of contaminating everyone else,” Doyle says.

Doyle is a Hochelaga resident, self-employed translator and set and costume designer. Like many gig workers in the cultural sphere, she has seen work dwindle to almost nothing. Although she does qualify for some of the available government financial aid, the rent strike movement is asking even those who will receive funding and can afford to pay their rent to join the strike. In an additional symbol of solidarity, supporters are asked to hang a white sheet from a balcony or window.

“It’s one of those poetic ideas that just emerged — a symbol of truce, a symbol of care,” Doyle explains. “We felt that [the sheet] is something that’s readily accessible in people’s homes. There’s something beautiful about it. It’s a peaceful symbol — we need a ceasefire.”

Doyle also stresses that the strike doesn’t aim to pit tenants against landlords — that’s something the current crisis is already doing — but asks for solidarity from the landlords themselves.

“I’m in contact with my landlord — she’s a 90-something-year-old woman, she needs support, too,” Doyle says. “We live in the same building, and she let me hang my white sheet. She agrees that it’s an unprecedented situation and it’s not fair to be putting people in these individualized fights with their landlords, especially when the power differential between landlords and tenants is really not the same.

“We welcome the landlords to put pressure on the government, too, and we’re with landlords,” Doyle continues. “On one hand it’s a government responsibility but also, in many cases, rents are many times over the cost of mortgages. There is a lot of abuse. Landlords will be losing income that is sometimes price-gouging, sometimes excessive.”

The movement also supports home owners who have struggled with the six-month mortgage deferrals promised by Canada’s big banks. These deferrals are not available to everyone, and carry penalties including accruing interest and bad credit.

“There’s a (discrepancy) between official discourse and what’s actually happening,” Doyle says. “Interest rates are being lowered but somehow the banks aren’t lowering their interest rates. The banks don’t seem to understand the scale of this crisis.”

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has said that his government “will make sure no one gets evicted” for failure to pay rent. Tens of thousands of Canadians have signed rent strike petitions. Internationally, even businesses like Burger King U.K. and Cheesecake Factory in New York State have announced their intention to skip their April payments — Burger King says it will use the funds to pay employees instead. The local chapter of the rent strike movement is asking for the Quebec government to cancel rent and mortgage officially. 

“When we’re all asked to stay at home and we’re all being fired,” Doyle says, “we’d appreciate that these (emergency) measures go to their full extent. If there’s a hold on the economy, let’s do it for real.” ■

To pledge your support and participation in a nationwide rent strike campaign, visit CancelRent.ca. Join the Montreal rent strike Facebook group here and see more about the white sheet campaign here.

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