VANCOUVER -- British Columbian landlords, tenants and small business owners are united in their growing calls for the federal government to intervene in order to make some form of rent and mortgage relief a reality.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw nearly one million Canadians file for unemployment in a single week in March as many businesses cut back on operations or shut down completely, leaving commercial and residential tenants alike struggling to make rent on April 1.

“There is about a million people calling for rent cancellation and many of those people are calling for mortgage cancellation, and that would relieve a lot of pressure on tenants as well,” said Vancouver Tenants’ Union spokesperson David Hendry. “We don’t think the big banks should be making a profit off of this crisis and they are in some senses with deferred mortgage payments and accruing interest for homeowners and landlords in that case”

He says that while the province announced a renters’ rebate of up to $500 a month, plus a freeze on evictions, his group is anxious to see more details — especially further protections for renters.

“The mom and pop landlords are actually looking at giving some forgiveness but when it is a large corporate landlord, the instruction has been business as usual and some have even been looking at garnering late fees,” said Hendry. “We do think the provincial government is going to need to step in at some point.”

While some tenant advocacy groups are urging a large-scale rent strike for April and beyond, the Vancouver Tenant’s Union is suggesting tenants in larger buildings organize and unite to negotiate favourable terms, while those renting directly from a landlord should have an honest discussion.

According to LandlordBC, more than two thirds of landlords are small-time property owners, who often count on modest rental income to make ends meet.

“That’s the harsh reality and those people have mortgages, they have to make those mortgage payments and everyone is in a real bind here,” said LandlordBC president David Hutniak. “Nobody wants to see anyone unhoused and we’ve been saying from the beginning, landlords should work with their tenants — everybody’s in this together.”

Hutniak points out while the federal and provincial governments have urged banks to be accommodating of homeowners who may have lost their jobs or a tenant’s rent money, there’s been no directive or obligation for them to ease up on lending practices or provide mortgage relief.

“[Rent relief] cannot be done on the backs of landlords, most of which are small landlords,” he said.

Small businesses see no rent relief or eviction moratorium

Commercial tenants have neither the protection from eviction nor the subsidy available for residential renters, even though it’s been criticized as being too small for a region as expensive as Metro Vancouver.

The owner of a small cafe chain tells CTV News he closed all eight locations earlier this month when he realized his staff couldn’t maintain the two-metre physical distancing requirement set out by health officials in the cramped space manu food-service establishments have.

“This month, without any income I’m paying 52 per cent of my rent overall, which works out to $22,000,” said Prado and Spade Coffee founder Sam Piccolo. “Some landlords want full rent but will defer payments to another time, others want a percentage, one landlord wants full rent no matter what. A few want to defer, which I’m grateful for, but deferral remember, means I have to pay it. Only one offered to not charge me rent other than my triple net payments.”

Piccolo’s situation is not unique according to the BC Restaurant and Foodservice Association, which has now partnered in the #onetable campaign urging policymakers to provide supports for the decimated industry, where mass layoffs have been necessary since no one can work from home and table service was ordered closed by health officials.

“Landlords may need to take a haircut because businesses have essentially been ordered to close down,” said BCTFA president Ian Tostenson. “Should the landlord take a hit? Maybe a little bit, but they have mortgages and maintenance to do.”

But he notes the #onetable campaign is looking for three phases of support from government, the first being “Immediate relief” in the form of delayed tax, government grants, and first and foremost, rent abatement for three months.

“We don’t want to take a sector that is in trouble and cascade that onto landlords, but landlords need to be fair too,” said Tostensen, who praised government’s quick response to industry feedback, most notably boosting the wage subsidy from 10 to 75 per cent.

“Most of us can’t open safely [with physical distancing], and though the wage subsidy comes from a good place, it doesn’t really help the hospitality industry and that’s a million employees laid-off Canada-wide,” pointed out Piccolo. “I don’t know how to get this fixed but rent has to be forgotten or there has to be someone who looks out for us.”

Hutniak acknowledges it’s a complex problem from landlords and tenants alike, whether they’re in commercial or residential situations, and that’s why he believes the federal government has to take the reins for a solution.

“Are the banks part of the solution? Perhaps, but really the scale of this is massive” he said.

“Let’s not be naive here: it’s massive.”