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Small businesses need better relief


BY SHELLEY CARROLL

When I’m in a hurry and I want to describe the boundaries of Don Valley North to someone from other parts of Toronto, I just say: "We're north of the 401, from Bayview Village Mall all the way east to Fairview Mall and Victoria Park." People who don’t live around here might not know the exact name of our subdivision but they know the businesses.

It’s not unlike the downtown neighbourhoods defined by the avenues of shops and services that run through them. Whether they're housed in malls or on a busy street, small businesses are hurting right now. It’s truly a terrible consequence of this pandemic because Toronto was just experiencing a resurgence of small retail. Lately, department stores have been struggling to reinvent themselves to keep up with the trendsetting that local businesses are best at. Brand-conscious shopping enthusiasts tend to prefer brands exclusive to one store rather than a multi-label institution. That’s why sections of Queen Street, Bayview Village and Mount Pleasant were doing so well; it’s why we would see small boutiques full of customers while anchor stores like Sears disappeared.

Rent relief Most of these unique small businesses are now shuttered and left wondering if they can hang on long enough to re-open. A rent relief program jointly offered by the Ontario and federal governments was meant to be the solution to these business owners' biggest worry: rent. But this relief program, called the Canadian Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA), comes with too many strings attached. In fact, it's really just a loan program with a forgivable payment schedule. Shop owners are nervous about being able to pay off these loans in an uncertain economy down the road. Their commercial landlords have been very reluctant to take part at all.

It's not unusual for Toronto businesses to pay anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 a month for a small storefront in a prime location. In an out-of-the-way strip mall, a store may only need to pay $3,500 a month. No matter the amount, locked doors still mean zero dollars coming in. Business owners hoped CECRA would help them through at least April, May and June. A forgivable loan program that only their landlords can apply for was not what they were hoping for. How it works Here's how it works. If a commercial landlord:

  1. Owns a property

  2. Holds a mortgage on it, and

  3. Has commercial tenants who pay less than $50,000 a month

Then, and only then, can he apply for a government loan to receive 50 per cent of the rent his commercial tenants were supposed to give him. But there is a catch: this landlord has to agree to absorb 25 per cent of the rent out of his own pocket and the tenant, whose business is in lockdown, must still pay the other 25 per cent.

Not surprisingly, most Toronto landlords are not interested in signing up for CECRA. Many of them have long hoped to empty their properties to sell to condo developers for a lot more cash. Some mall landlords are reluctant because they believe chain boutiques should get their own financing and their smaller, independent tenants who aren't the mall's biggest draw lose out, altogether. In my own experience, the small business in the mall can be what draws us. My family bought generations of baby shoes at The Three Little Pigs in Bayview Village — and who can forget Ye Olde Cheese Shoppe in Fairview Mall! In fact, a survey of landlords done by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) showed only a quarter of eligible commercial landlords are planning to apply for CECRA.

Stepping up The CFIB and I very seldom see eye-to-eye. They have some funny ideas about property tax and have opposed Toronto City Council over the years. I had the CFIB in my office once and said: “I sometimes wonder whether you work for small businesses or their landlords. We have created a small business tax rate and kept their property tax increases lower than homeowners’ as you asked. But we still see landlords gouging their tenants for whatever rent the market will bear without ever hearing from the CFIB about it." This time, however, the CFIB has been properly vocal in a crisis. Here’s an excerpt from their recent interview with the CBC: "The CFIB wants more businesses to have access to CECRA and says if it doesn't work, restarting the economy will stall. They think the tenant needs direct access to CECRA funds. 'Reopening and rent relief are very closely tied. If you don't get the rent relief you need, how are you going to reopen?' says Laura Jones of the CFIB. Then Jones adds she’s, 'disappointed that the provinces haven't done more in this area, to be frank, stepping up to stop evictions from happening.'"

Speak up I’ve discussed this issue with both your MP and MPP. They have also been reaching out to local business owners to understand the issue better. Over the next few weeks, if you are in touch with them, let them know that not all of our Don Valley North businesses can live online forever. We want all of our favourite businesses to be able to open their doors again when the time is right.

 

ACTIVETO Walking, running and biking outside are great ways to stay active as the weather warms up. To encourage this, the City recently launched ActiveTO. The program is designed to make physical distancing easier by creating more space in your neighbourhood for pedestrians and cyclists. The first ActiveTO locations were determined by City Transportation staff. Starting today, Shaughnessy Blvd (from Van Horne Ave to Havenbrook Blvd) will be the one of the first areas to see these temporary changes.

What will ActiveTO look like?

  • Temporary street calming installations (concrete blocks at major intersections; barrels at minor intersections) with information and signage

  • Leaving enough clearway for motor vehicles and city/emergency vehicles to pass, and encourage slow, local vehicle access only

  • Limiting traffic volume and providing a safer environment to enjoy public space

Although City staff did not consult with us about the first round of ActiveTO streets, I have confirmed with Transportation staff that additional locations will be considered based on their criteria as well as feedback from the community. As we move to the next phase of ActiveTO, I want to hear from you – where in Don Valley North would you like to see ActiveTO implemented next? Email my office with your suggestions so we can work together on creating a less congested and more connected neighbourhood.

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