Judaism, evictions, tenants rights and freedoms in the age of Covid-19

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Source: Caleb Jones, newsobserver.com

Renting in the age of Covid-19 tenants need more rights and freedoms

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

This Elul as we introspect ask forgiveness from others and Hashem we look to rabbis as our spiritual guides. What happens when a rabbi surprises you and behaves against his position? I rent a duplex from a rabbi emeritus in the Montreal Jewish community. Some of his attitudes during the Covid-19 pandemic shocked me but nothing more than what happened this past week. This pandemic has caused an economic downturn and recession that has left tenants unable to pay rent because of the vast job losses putting them at risk of evictions. According to sociologist Matthew Desmond in his New York Times article, “The Rent Eats First, Even during a Pandemic,” “Today, with unemployment levels unseen since the Great Depression and the expiration of federal benefits along with national and several state eviction moratoriums, millions of renters are at risk of losing their homes by the end of the year.” [1] Landlords are struggling to get tenants to pay rents and they are missing months of rent because of the sheer number of job losses during this pandemic.

The magnitude of the situation caused the Department of Health and Human Services and Center for Disease Control in the United States to halt residential evictions until the end of the year. In Canada, the housing situation is almost as bad but most provinces have lifted the halt in evictions still, tenant advocates are calling for a renewed moratorium. In these uncertain times, my landlord is fortunate to have a tenant that pays even before the month starts but that is not enough.

On the first week of September 2020, two drastically different stories are emerging in the United States and Canada. In the US on Sept. 1, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Center for Disease Control halted rental evictions for residential properties because it increases the spread of Covid-19 when people have to move from houses, move across states, and share dwellings. In Canada on Sept. 3, parents in Montreal are fighting their right to keep their children home from and be eligible for online learning through the school boards.

These two issues relate to what should be the fundamental right to protect oneself and their families during a global pandemic with the basic right to have a home and school their children in safety. The Covid-19 situation in both countries is radically different. In the US, they have had over six million cases and 187,000 deaths in Canada, there have been 137,000 cases and 9,100 deaths. What is not different in the two countries is the fight to survive, protect oneself and their family from contracting the virus. The Covid-19 crisis is reviving the question of freedoms and rights when it comes to housing and schooling.

In the US, the DHS and the CDC issued an order that will halt all evictions for those who cannot pay or are behind on their rent until the end of 2020. The CDC wrote in the press release, “The ability of these settings to adhere to best practices, such as social distancing and other infection control measures decreases as populations increase.” From the start of the pandemic through July Congress made a moratorium on evictions but it applied only to “tenants who receive federal assistance or who live in rental properties with federally backed financing.”[2] The decision was meant to put off a disaster, according to CNN an “estimated 30 to 40 million Americans are living on the edge of eviction, while already struggling with job losses in the coronavirus economy.”[3] The moratorium applies to all that make less than a hundred thousand a year and lost their jobs because of Covid-19. Still, most experts do not think the moratorium is a solution but Congress passing aid to help those in trouble is the solution at the moment.

As the CDC made their monumental decision that will save thousands of families from homelessness, in Montreal, Canada, parents were fighting in court for the right to access a remote learning option for their children. The Quebec government made physical attendance in school mandatory, whereas in neighboring Ontario and most of the US have given students the option to learn from home. As schools reopen in Quebec cases are increasing partially because of the reopening. The government limited the ability of medical exemption to the degree that even sick children with chronic conditions or even cancer cannot receive an exemption. It is impossible for children at risk of transmitting the virus to family members to acquire an exemption. As Grey indicated to the court, “It’s clearly something that is irreparable and harmful and needs to be decided right away.”[4]

The question of freedom from the mandatory and individual rights has been a big question during the pandemic. The lawyer for the plaintiffs, the parents, human rights expert Julius Grey used two Supreme Court cases on the making of medical decisions — R. v. Morgentaler and Carter v. Canada — that decided in favor of “individual decisions in support of his argument. Grey is fighting for an injunction arguing “Quebec is violating the charter rights of parents by forcing them to send their children to school despite the risks of the pandemic.” [5]

Linked to this argument is the right to have a dwelling during the pandemic economic crisis. In Canada, all the provinces stopped evictions for the first two months of the pandemic. In Quebec, on March 17, the government ordered the rental board and housing tribunal, the Regie du Logement to stop evictions. The government provided help to those who lost their jobs because of the pandemic, “offering emergency rent supplements for those who risk homelessness, interest-free loans for up to two months’ rent and support for cities.”

As with the rest of the province, the tribunal closed, they resumed operations at the start of June. With the restart of hearing cases also restarted evictions. On July 7, the government allowed eviction judgments to resume if they ruled on before March 1. While on July 20, eviction judgments from after March 1 were allowed to be carried out.[6] Housing advocate group the RCLALQ, that a large number of Montrealers would be evicted because of non-payment. Spokesperson Maxime Roy-Allard pointed out, “Many people were not able to pay at all and will probably be evicted over the next few weeks. Some people got late just a little bit, and the landlord said ‘Okay, its fine for this time,’ but it really depends on the landlord.” Lawyers want the tribunal judges to be more flexible especially in cases where tenants repaid most the rent or behind just a bit.[7] In Quebec, eviction proceeding can start within three weeks after a tenants fails to pay rent for a month. In the first month of returning, there were some many cases in front of the Regie, the tribunal had to open a second building to ensure social distancing.

With the opening of the tribunal, the board would be listening to new cases and new eviction cases are allowed. The majority of evictions had to do with none payment of rent although in normal times evictions can be other non-compliances with leases and violations. This summer Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia resumed evictions, while British Columbia started back on September 1. In Montreal, Nova Scotia, and Ottawa, tenants’ rights advocates want governments to extend the moratorium on evictions until the pandemic subsides citing the risk of “unprecedented levels of homelessness.” [8] In Ottawa, the advocacy group ACORN wants the evictions to be stopped until the end of the year as they are doing in the US.[9]

With the restart of evictions in Quebec and moving day on July 1, 373 families in were left with affordable housing. [10] As the sales prices in the province are getting higher so is the price of rents increasing and the number of vacancies and available units decreasing, especially in the under $2000 price range for a family-sized dwelling. The Montreal city councilor with the housing portfolio, Robert Beaudry told the Canadian Press, “Montreal is currently in a housing crisis caused by a vacancy rate below one per cent in many neighborhoods.” [11] Margaret van Nooten of Montreal-based Project Genesis, a tenants’ rights organization is worried, “There’s a real shortage of affordable housing here in Montreal — a dire shortage. And also it’s very hard for people, especially people who might have an eviction decision on the record, to get a dwelling.”[12]

Because landlords are pushing out their tenants the prices across the province are increasing. According to the tenants’ rights group, the Regroupement des comites logement et associations de locataires, the average apartment in Quebec now lists for $1,044 per month, 30 percent higher than what tenants now pay for a comparable dwelling, while in Montreal the price is 43 percent more than current rents. As Desmond notes, “Rent — it’s the greediest of bills. For many families, it grows every year, arbitrarily, almost magically, not because of any home improvements; just because. “Demand,” they say, when they hand you a new lease with a stiff rent hike. Or “costs are rising.” What they mean is: “Because I can.” And unlike defaulting on other bills, missing a rent payment can result in immediate and devastating consequences, casting families into poverty and homelessness.” [13]

The higher prices are exacerbating the problem tenants are having during the Covid-19 economic fallout and crisis. In May, 15 percent of Montreal renters were a week late on their rent. In August Canadians are still having trouble paying their rent. According to Global News a poll released on August 17, claims “16 percent of Canadians are worried to some degree about paying their housing costs in August, and one in four renters specifically are worried about making rent.”[14] Canadians in the prairies and in the Atlantic Provinces are the most worried about paying rent, with over 20 percent feeling that way.

Landlords are making the situation worst by doing everything possible to push tenants out of their buildings so they can do widescale renovations. They are finding fault with their tenants and making up violations just to evict them and raise the rent for new tenants. This new phenomenon is being coined “renovictions.” The landlords will make improvements and sometimes not and ask for higher rent in line with the rent increases from new tenants pushing out the previous tenants from their homes. Montreal housing advocate Amy Darwish thinks “the bigger problem is landlords trying to evict tenants whenever possible in order to jack up the rent in a hot housing market.” Darwish told CTV News, “Landlords have been increasingly resorting to strategies such as repossession, evictions to change the size or use of the dwelling, harassment, and intimidation in order to force out long-term tenants and re-rent apartments at much higher rates.” [15]

Suddenly I am facing a situation that intersects the two arguments, against allowing evictions during the pandemic and the right to do what is right for oneself and family when they would be put at medical risk. Earlier this week my mother’s landlord claimed that there is a leak in the master bathroom of my dwelling and that it is dripping buckets in his bathroom. He said he had to condemn his bathroom and neither he nor his wife can use it. It has been nearly a week he has not called a plumber to try to remedy the situation. Ironically, my bathroom which he blames is entirely dry. A few years ago, I experienced flooding from an overflowed bathtub above me; it ruined $5,000 in books, some priceless first editions. The superintendent refused to enter the apartment or close the water pipe without the tenant present; I am the one that suffered.

The house belongs to my mother who is sick and has lost her eyesight in the past year. The bathroom is in her room. I believe during a pandemic everyone should have a right to determine whom they should let in their home or not and when. Quebec rental laws and the laws throughout North America give landlords more rights to access dwelling than to tenants the right to privacy. Landlords have the right to access a dwelling with 24 hours of a request and immediately if there is an emergency repair. A tenant’s refusal can lead to the landlord forcing the issue at the rental tribunal. Some locations in the US have lifted the requirement unless a dire situation, in Canada they are still allowing the landlords to have access to a tenants’ dwelling. But in a pandemic should a tenant be forced to put themselves or family at a health risk? In my case, the landlord does not want to put himself at risk but passes the danger on to my mother.

I spoke with several reputable plumbers in the city that say that if the bathroom is dry then the leak is in his house and is his business. Instead, of taking care of it he wants to pass the blame on me. The landlord has access to plumbers without pay from his synagogue. Less than three weeks before Rosh Hashanah he threatened to evict my mother for not letting someone in, then he threatened to sue me for damages. Still, he does not want to let anyone in his home to fix it for the same reason my mother does not want to, the Covid-19 risk factor. Neither does he want to listen to reason or compromise.

My mother’s landlord claims an inconvenience, for the five years she lived here she has had inconveniences far exceeding those of my landlord. I have my own damages to claim. Three years ago the building was hit by lightning my mother lost $1,000 in appliances and electronics as it hit the kitchen and the telephone/internet lines. The previous tenants claimed in court documents at the tribunal there were electrical issues in this house, the Regie de Lodgement did not believe them. In these documents, they asked for the landlord to “Eliminate all possible electrical problems in the apartment, by rendering electrical utilities working in the kitchen.” They asked for compensation for the “Loss of personal belongings as a result of electrical problems in the apartment,” but the tribunal denied their request. I can attest these problems have never been fixed. Because of those issues, my mother’s electricity and heating bill is astronomical.

This past winter from October to May my mother had a $5,500 electric bill for an upper duplex, which anyone I tell finds unbelievable. The bill is because of faulty electricity in the unit and a furnace that eats electricity and money. My mother is paying double his electric bill and he has two floors. Repeatedly, there is smoke in the house and the smoke detector goes off because they burn food in the kitchen. This is a common occurrence, that happened twice just this past week, and it happens multiple times a year. Have I called the fire department, which I should have for safety? No. But I do not want to put my mother’s health at risk during a pandemic, and he threatens to evict and sue?

Landlords are not always right. Two years ago he had an elderly plumber come replace faucets in the main bathroom, he did not know what the was doing and after a few months the pipe popped, my mother had four inches of water in the bathroom, he was away, and none of his representatives answered the phone to help me. Ironically he had no water damage then, he actually should have.

I took my problem to a Facebook group of Montrealers looking to help each other during the pandemic, their reactions shocked me. While some suggesting local housing advocates that advise tenants on problems with their landlords, some suggested I hire a plumber myself, while others laid down the law insisting my mother had to let the landlord in or his plumber. They seemed to have not understood the point of my quandary; I cannot let anyone do repairs at this time because a sick parent and the Covid-19 risk and the irony that neither does my landlord want to let a plumber into his home for the same reason. We usually see outrage when landlords are not fair or when seniors and the sick are mistreated, ironically there was more outrage towards me for trying to go around a law for safety during a pandemic than towards the inhuman threats towards my mother.

This is not usual times the letter of the law does not consider both sides. We are in special times, as with evictions over rent payments and the option of online learning, tenants need the right to refuse anyone coming into their home upon the landlords’ insistence. There needs to be rights, landlords overuse and abuse that right enough as it, now it can be dangerous especially when the sick and elderly are concerned.

Well, it has been nearly week, and my mother’s landlord has yet to mitigate his problem and have a plumber look over his bathroom ceiling. He had a handyman, who told me he could not even see the dripping and had to look at with a flashlight and then advised the landlord to get a plumber which he refuses to do. The only conclusion I can get from this is my mother’s landlord just wants to evict her and sue for non-existent damages so he can raise the rent to a new tenant, the practice that is dishonest but popular in Montreal. He had already told me when renewing the lease he could much more for the unit then he was charging. It is an unfair case of renoviction that abuses the system.

Magnifying the situation is the Jewish element; we are barely two weeks away from Rosh Hashanah deep into Elul a time where we ask forgiveness of others and of G-d for our transgressions not do more of them. It would not be surprising except it comes from a rabbi whose standard has to be above the average layperson when it comes to compassion and understanding. One person commented that being a rabbi has nothing to do with being a landlord, it does. According to Judaism, rabbis and their behavior are held to a high standard in every aspect of their lives, religious, social. This higher standard includes business deals and being a landlord. They would have to treat their tenants, fairly and not put them in the kind danger they would not want to put themselves in. Rabbi Simon Glustrom notes in his book “I Would Do It Again — Perhaps: A Rabbi’s Memoir,” “A rabbi is different. People hold him\her to a higher standard than most other professionals. Often it’s an unrealistic level of behavior.” [16]

Yair Shavrick writing in the Yeshiva University Observer on the “On the Term Rabbi,” recounts the higher stander a rabbi is held to serve as an example for the community and representative to the outside world. Shavrick notes, “One thing to understand about receiving this coveted title is that people look up to it. Once someone is called a rabbi, they bear the weight of setting an example for everyone else. This means they are to conduct themselves righteously and are held to a higher standard. It may not seem fair, but they reflect the leadership and overall population of Jews.” [17]

My Jewish Learning points out that the Talmud indicates that rabbis are held at a higher standard by G-d.

“While most of us might be readily forgiven for an infraction executed in justifiable pique, not so the symbolic exemplars of God’s will. Nor
is this an isolated case in the pages of the Bible. Throughout, God demands of religious leaders a loftier standard of moral rigor and fidelity, prompting the Rabbis to observe that God permits the righteous no more than a hair’s breadth of deviation (Babylonian
Talmud Yevamot121b). In the same exacting spirit, the Rabbis insisted that when the wicked finally get their just
deserts, the disaster will consume the righteous first for failing to have
reversed the widespread moral decline (Babylonian Talmud
Bava Kama60a). To work for the Lord has its price!” [18]

In Canada, we had several slogans during the pandemic to make the people in isolation and quarantine feel less alone and more part of a united front. The slogans resemble wartime efforts and sacrifices, “We’re all in this together” and “Never Alone.”[19] However, since the economy reopened the government abandoned this all in favor for capitalism, politics, and reviving the economy at all costs. Now it’s become a bitter fight for the survival of the fittest, leaving those less fortunate economically or health wise or both behind. Where is the “in it together” during the pandemic not here, neither is there a fear of judgment from Hashem during the holy month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/29/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-evictions-superspreader.html

[2] https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/02/success/cdc-control-eviction-moratorium/index.html

[3] http://lite.cnn.com/en/article/h_a3adbf74689fb66113c92826f7e99d5e

[4] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/legal-challenge-back-to-school-quebec-heard-1.5709241

[5] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/legal-challenge-back-to-school-quebec-heard-1.5709241

[6] https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/quebec-evictions-to-restart-this-month-tenants-group-warns-of-wave-to-come-1.5014482

[7] https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/quebec-evictions-to-restart-this-month-tenants-group-warns-of-wave-to-come-1.5014482

[8] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-foundation-covid-19-brief-housing-homelessness-evictions-1.5592404

[9] https://www.orilliamatters.com/around-ontario/canada-as-coronavirus-eviction-bans-end-advocates-worry-homelessness-will-rise-2636887

[10] https://globalnews.ca/news/7132148/quebec-montreal-housing-shortage-july-2020/

[11] https://www.kamloopsthisweek.com/covid-19-surge-in-renovictions-complicate-montreal-s-traditional-moving-day-1.24163327

[12] https://www.orilliamatters.com/around-ontario/canada-as-coronavirus-eviction-bans-end-advocates-worry-homelessness-will-rise-2636887

[13] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/29/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-evictions-superspreader.html

[14] https://www.barrietoday.com/around-ontario/canada-as-coronavirus-eviction-bans-end-advocates-worry-homelessness-will-rise-2636887

[15] https://montreal.ctvnews.ca/as-evictions-restart-rental-board-opens-second-montreal-building-to-hear-more-cases-1.5033765

[16] Simon Glustrom, “I Would Do It Again — Perhaps: A Rabbi’s Memoir,” Xlibris Corporation, 2000, 10.

[17] https://yuobserver.org/2020/04/a-discussion-on-the-term-rabbi/

[18] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/being-held-to-a-higher-standard/

[19] https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/we-re-all-in-this-together-the-phrase-uniting-toronto-in-long-lonely-battle-against-covid-19-1.5508850 https://www.thestar.com/opinion/letters_to_the_editors/2020/04/22/onslaught-of-new-slogans-as-frustrating-as-restrictions.html

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a professional librarian, historian, and journalist. She is the author of Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896, The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South, and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval & Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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