Thousand of businesses will go bust within months and tens of thousands of jobs will be lost permanently if government doesn't block landlords who are piling pressure for rent payments on companies which have closed their doors.
That's the view of real estate expert Conor Devine who has raised his concerns with Finance Minister Conor Murphy in a bid to get him to use his 'bully pulpit' to rein in the landlords.
A principal with GDP Partnership in Belfast, Mr Devine warns that landlords are being allowed "to overstep the mark" and demand rent from retailers who are not trading. "It is getting out of hand and next month will be much worse," he says. "People are now on the edge of bankruptcy."
A great contribution bh John Moran in todays @businessposthq Businesses now need a bail out to avoid a deep profound recession. Helicopter money needs to find its way to the SMEs urgently 🚁https://t.co/FPBTxOn3kQ— Conor Devine🌾 (@Conor_Devine) April 26, 2020
And Mr Devine says there is a big question mark over whether leases are valid during a global pandemic and a government lockdown. "My view of the law is that if businesses can't trade due to a government edict, then they are not obliged to pay rents at all."
The real estate adviser who has several struggling tenants across Belfast say businesses which aren't trading can't afford to pay their rents but, regardless, landlords are piling on the pressure for payment and threatening evictions and court action.
"Small to medium sized businesses out there don't have cash reserves and they need to trade to pay their bills," he says.
The solution, says Conor Devine, should also be welcomed by landlords who claim they need their tenants to pay up in full to satisfy the banks: a government holiday for all commercial lending mortgages and loans now. However, the real estate businessman also accuses landlords who have won a three-month loan reprieve under the government's coronavirus relief scheme of failing to pass that holiday on to their tenants.
"If the government doesn't do this, then hundreds and thousands of businesses will go bust this week and over the next six months across the island."
Meanwhile, jewellery chain owner Pete Boyle predicted his own Argento business would go to the wall if landlords insisted on being paid for the period when he has been unable to trade.
"The government should insist that all commercial rent payments which become due to be paid for a three month period forward on 1 May should be moved to be paid retrospectively at the end of this three-month period on 1 August.
"That at least would give us a fighting chance."
Mr Boyle says his 25 shops received just £1,000 on average per store under the Stormont rates relief initiative. In Britain, he would have received over £400,000.
The Andersonstown News reported last month that enterprise parks Ortus and WorkWest were both insisting all tenants pay full rents even if closed during the Covid-19 crisis.
The Federation for Small Business has called for the British rates relief scheme to be extended to the North.