September rent due as small businesses face holes in government support

 

TORONTO -- With rent coming due for another month, Ginger Robertson's daily walk through Toronto's Danforth neighbourhood is increasingly filled with empty storefronts.

Robertson says that government programs have so far stopped short of helping her pay the bills for two restaurants she co-owns, The Edmund Burke and Off The Hook. While both venues have reopened, they are running at about half capacity with minimal wage subsidies and loans, meaning today's rent payment will come from savings once again.

"We were closed for three months ... we had to pay insurance, rent, hydro, gas. Those things are still being used and we (weren't) open. How do you expect us to pay for that?" says Robertson.

On Monday, the Liberals announced an extension of the Canada Emergency Business Account until the end of October, as well as plans to expand eligibility. The government did not, however, extend the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program to help small businesses make their monthly payments, although Small Business Minister Mary Ng said she was working on a way to adapt future aid programs.

Robertson says more of these government programs need to expand eligibility or allow appeals processes for those who have been denied help if the government wants small businesses to recover.

Robertson's second restaurant, which was purchased at the beginning of March, hasn't qualified for some of the existing government programs because of decisions made by the previous owner. While Robertson has some wage subsidies and a loan, she doesn't think she'll be able to take advantage of the emergency loan forgiveness program, due to eligibility requirements. Meanwhile, her landlord for both venues will not apply for the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, which ended Aug. 31.

The parliamentary budget watchdog said on Monday that CECRA will cost just under $1 billion this fiscal year. Robertson said more of that money should be paid out to those who need it. She echoed criticisms by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which said last month that the program needs to be replaced with a version that allows tenants to apply for relief directly.

"The general public thinks we are being helped with the announcement of all these measures," she said, noting that almost $3 billion was budgeted for the program.

Up the road, Lori Parker of Treasure Island Toys said the government's wage subsidy program has helped "significantly" with managing expenses, but she, too, was unable to qualify for the rent relief program.

With a lack of kids' birthday parties and uncertainty around the usually busy seasons of back-to-school and Halloween, Parker is hoping that locals and online buyers can see the store through until Christmas.

"Paying rent is one of our largest priorities. We have managed expenses in other ways, as far as tightening our receivables ... looking at our hours of in-store operations and keeping costs as low as possible," said Parker.

Charles Fajgenbaum, owner of nearby shop Fermentations, said he doesn't have the option to just close up shop and walk away given the terms of his lease, and the long-term nature of his business. As his contingency plans stretch thin, he is feeling more and more pressure to retire, but says he doesn't want to let down his suppliers and staff.

"The question really becomes: How long do I want to pay everybody else -- but not me?" he says.

Eventually, Fajgenbaum's landlord did apply to the rent relief program and was successful, says Fajgenbaum. But with his full-time staffers scheduled to return this month and rent coming due, he said he can't continue on working "25-hours a day" forever, all while trying to be a smiling face for beleaguered clients.

"My landlord, his business is renting properties. My business is being a facility for people to make wine or beer. I can't fault him for wanting to try to run his business as I'm trying the best I can to run mine," says Fajgenbaum.

"I don't think anybody is satisfied with where we are (on the rent relief program), but quite frankly, I'm not sure what can or should be done. I run a business, but I also pay taxes and I'm a citizen, and I know there's not an absolute bottomless pit of money to keep on throwing at situations, hoping that something eventually sticks and works. But on the other hand, some version of keeping the economy running has to be out there."

Anita Balakrishnan, The Canadian Press

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