Liberals extend commercial rent relief program for last time

OTTAWA – An underused program to give hard-hit small businesses a break on their rent is getting one more month of service, but without any of the changes critics say are needed to prevent stores from permanently closing their doors.

On Tuesday, one week after rent was due, the Liberals said the commercial rent-relief program will provide help to cover rent and lease costs for eligible businesses for September.

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In a release, the government called the one-month lifeline a ”final extension” for the program.

The general sense from business groups was that the extension would help some businesses, but many more would be locked out because the Liberals didn’t address known flaws in the program.

The rent-relief program provides forgivable loans that cover half of rent for eligible small businesses, and also requires landlords to waive a further one-quarter of what they’d otherwise be owed.

Property owners have to apply for the help, and the Liberals have almost begged them to take part.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which represents thousands of small businesses nationwide, said rent relief will be critical to the survival of many of its members whose revenues remain dampened even as their costs remain at 100 per cent.

”The deep unfairness that has existed in the program since it was launched needs to be addressed as some businesses have been operating for six months without the rent relief they need and others have already made the tough decision to close,” vice-president Laura Jones said in a statement.

The government’s press release from Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Small Business Minister Mary Ng noted that federal officials are looking at other options to help small businesses. No details were provided.

Patrick Gill from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce said ”main street businesses” need to know what comes next after the commercial rent program ends, and they need to know now. He said in a statement that whatever comes next should be easier for small businesses to use.

”The government has an opportunity to make a real difference for Canada’s businesses that continue to suffer from continued restrictions amid COVID-19,” said Gill, the organization’s senior director of tax and financial policy.

”Rent is one of the most significant fixed costs a main street business has, and it should be a focus for the federal government going forward.”

The government said that as of Monday, the rent-relief program had provided over $1.32 billion in aid to more than 106,000 small-business tenants.

Take-up of the program overall has lagged behind expectations and spending is projected to fall far short of the nearly $3 billion the Liberals have budgeted.

”It’s no mystery why less than one-third of the help promised has been distributed,” NDP small business critic Gord Johns said in a statement.

”The Liberals have got to step up for small business owners by fixing the program and actually supporting these people.”

He said extending a ”failed program” wasn’t good enough, especially announcing it a week after rent was due and people needed help.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2020.

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