An urgent call for relief; a message from a group of community and business leaders

By a group of community and business leaders

April 1 is just around the corner. May 1 is coming soon after that.

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We don’t know how long this pandemic will last. But we know that many of our small and medium sized businesses need help to pay their rent on April 1 and will likely need the same assistance in the coming few months.

Many businesses were directed to close to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to reduce the burden on our health-care system. Many others have done so voluntarily. We acknowledge their sacrifice.

As a group of community and business leaders who have been meeting twice weekly since the pandemic began to impact Victoria, we are calling on federal and provincial governments to immediately put in place rent relief measures to keep our local businesses afloat. They are the heart of our community.

We’ve been hearing about the need for rent relief from businesses for a couple of weeks now. And we’re listening closely and watching for federal and provincial measures designed to help them.

The tax deferral measures announced by both the provincial and federal governments certainly help. As does the 75 per cent wage subsidy program for small and medium business.

The $40,000 interest-free loan available to business for one year will also help, and could be used to pay rent. But we also know that in a time of such uncertainty, debt, particularly debt that collects interest, is not an appropriate solution for businesses facing an unknown road to recovery.

Real estate is typically a long-term investment and is often less volatile than other investment options. Small- and medium-sized businesses, on the other hand, can feel declines far more acutely, especially when revenues go to zero in a matter of days.

Restaurants and cafés have lost food, food retailers have best-by dates to contend with, retailers have seasonal items that will not sell in the future, all kinds of contracts for services are cancelled, and insurance and hydro bills don’t stop. All of this leads to huge challenges affording rent and justifiable angst about borrowing more money to do so.

We know some landlords have offered rent deferrals to their restaurant and retail tenants. We’ve heard that there are even some who have waived rent payments altogether for April and are prepared to do so for May. We appreciate these measures and we call on all landlords to consider some kind of rent relief for their small- and medium-sized business tenants for the month of April.

But we also know that in an economic crisis we can’t rely on the benevolence of individual property owners. We are also aware that some commercial landlords do not have the means to offer rent relief. We need government action.

The provincial government’s rent relief program for residential tenants could be scaled up for commercial tenants hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Or Canada and British Columbia could follow the lead of other countries.

Germany passed a law on Friday that prevents landlords from cancelling commercial leases due to rent debts for three months if the debts are due to COVID-19. Tenants must demonstrate they can’t pay rent due to losses caused by government requirements related to COVID-19.

The United Kingdom passed a similar law on March 25. It suspends a landlord’s ability to evict a commercial tenant for non-payment of rent due to COVID-19 related causes for three months.

Denmark provides compensation for some corporate-related expenses including rent and leasing expenses. France has suspended water, gas, electricity and rent bills for small business.

Clearly, there are examples to draw on. We’ll leave the details to the federal and provincial policy makers to work out. Our request is that they act quickly.

The future of our retail and service economy in Victoria, and across the province and country, depends on bold steps being taken right away. Supporting businesses now is an investment in recovery.

• Jeff Bray, executive director, Downtown Victoria Business Association

• Elysia Glover, executive director, Community Micro Lending

• Lisa Helps, Victoria mayor

• Catherine Holt, CEO, Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce

• Stephen Pearce, president, Think Local First

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