Small business owners are calling for the federal government to extend and expand its commercial rent relief program as the measure is set to expire.
The Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program
to help small businesses struggling to pay rent due to the economic effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government has funded 75 per cent of the $2.5-billion program, with 25 per cent coming from the provinces.
It covers half the monthly rent costs for eligible small businesses. The commercial property owner is then expected to pick up 25 per cent, while the tenant pays the remainder.
But with no extension into September announced, the program is set to end on Aug. 31.
“The big question now, is whether the new finance minister (Chrystia Freeland) will give business owners some hope that she will fix the crazy-making unfairness built into rent relief,” said Laura Jones, executive vice-president of Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
“For many, the survival of their businesses depends on it.”
Rob McLeay, who owns an indoor golf facility in Calgary, said qualifying for the rent relief program “has really made all the difference in the world.” Without that assistance, “it’s going to be tight,” he said.
“Our busiest months are March, April May, so we figure we lost about a quarter of a million dollars in just that little span,” said McLeay, owner of Riverside Golf Centre, who added the program helped save his business around $60,000 in rent.
“As it sits now, I’ve got a pretty hefty rent, so when it starts out I guess on Tuesday, that’s going to empty my offers pretty quick because we won’t be really open yet for another couple months.”
The CFIB is advocating for the program to continue, with key modifications.
The lobby group said it has left too many struggling small businesses
, as it depends on landlord participation and requires businesses to have lost an average of at least 70 per cent of their April to June revenues to qualify.
“The unfairness of this program is off the charts, with established businesses from coast-to-coast being shut out of accessing help they need in order to keep their businesses going,” said Jones. “Does it make sense for a drycleaner on one side of the street to survive while the one on the other side shuts down simply because one landlord was able to apply for the program and the other one wasn’t?”
Tenants should be able to access rent relief funds directly, regardless of their landlord’s participation, according to the CFIB.
That would come in handy for business owners like Ursula Wegen, owner of Under the Bridge Specialty and Fashion Shop in northeast Calgary.
Wegen, whose ladies’ and children’s boutique has been in business for 19 years, said she was unable to secure cooperation from her landlord to qualify for the program. Despite her business being hit hard because of the pandemic, she also said she would have narrowly missed out on meeting the revenue requirement to qualify.
“That’s been very, not only frustrating, but depressing,” said Wegen, who deferred the mortgage on her house to be able to continue affording rent.
“It’s been tough, struggling through the downfall of the Alberta economy and then to have COVID hit just at that time.”
Wegen said she’s worked hard since the spring to kickstart online sales, which the store has relied on to survive.
With rental assistance, “I wouldn’t have had to struggle so much,” she said.
“We could’ve eased up, I don’t think we would’ve totally shut down because it’s just not who we are. We were kind of knocked right out and fell through the cracks.”
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