CERA’s Submission to the Ontario Government on Increasing Housing Supply in Ontario

To: Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Government of Ontario

Subject: Increasing Housing Supply in Ontario, Consultation Process

January 25, 2019

CERA’s Human Rights Based Perspective

The Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (“CERA”) is a not-for-profit charitable organization dedicated to preventing evictions, ending housing discrimination and addressing human rights violations in housing across Ontario. CERA was founded in 1987 as the only organization in Canada with a primary focus on promoting human rights in housing, and for thirty years we have used human rights tools to promote housing security for all Ontarians.

CERA has provided direct support to renters in Ontario for 16 years. Through this program, we provide legal information and assistance to 1500 tenants across Toronto every year who are facing eviction or human rights challenges in their housing (such as the need for accommodation for a disability). The high volume of clients gives CERA unique and current insight into the issues faced by renters across the GTA. CERA has a long history of immersion in the eviction system. Our model also involves public engagement, education, and legal initiatives. We work with tenants, landlords, post-secondary institutions, community partners and the public to deliver public education to communities and vulnerable individuals to build the capacity of Ontarians to recognize and claim their rights.

CERA has worked to prevent homelessness by assisting and educating renters about their housing rights, advocating to, educating and working with landlords, and actively participating in women’s groups to protect human rights. To strengthen our impact, we work in partnership with many groups across Ontario and have consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

Our thirty-year history of engaging in litigation, providing direct support and engaging in community responsive projects to advance human rights in housing gives CERA a unique perspective on the experiences of renters in Ontario, particularly vulnerable renters, including seniors, newcomers to Canada, racialized individuals, persons with disabilities, and families.

The Current Need for Affordable Housing In Ontario

As an organization dedicated to promoting housing security for all, CERA maintains that the government has an important role to play in ensuring that affordable housing is available to all Ontarians regardless of economic status. We believe that housing is a human right, and we support a Housing First response to homelessness. Studies have shown that providing stable housing to vulnerable groups actually saves governments money across the health, incarceration, and social services systems.[1]

Across Ontario rents are high, vacancies are low, and homeless shelters are full. The province’s current average vacancy rate is 1.6%, while in Toronto it is 1.1%, and the City of Toronto has committed to providing 1,000 new shelter beds. In this context, it is clear that there is a housing supply crisis and action must be taken. There is a significant shortage of affordable and secure housing for renters who make up 30% of Ontario residents. CERA believes that a crucial component to addressing housing insecurity in Ontario is to increase the supply of purpose-built rental housing and amend current laws both to facilitate construction, and to improve housing stability for renters. CERA supports the efforts of the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to take proactive steps to tackle the issue of housing supply in Ontario.

CERA is also encouraged that the Ministry has asked questions related to the adequacy of protections for tenants and the challenges facing landlords. The broad problem that this consultation and the government’s Housing Supply Action plan is seeking to solve is the fact that high prices have made it difficult for people to afford the housing they need. Protections for renters are a crucial component of the supply question for several reasons. First, when a rental market has an unhealthy 1.1 percent vacancy rate, the rights of renters are often not respected because they can be afraid to make requests of their landlords in line with the rights they have. This has a disproportionate impact on vulnerable renters, including seniors and persons with disabilities. Second, individuals who rent for long periods typically pay rent at a lower level than others who have more recent rental agreements. In the current rental market, where there is increased competition for limited housing options, landlords often jump at the opportunity to evict tenants for minor infractions which would typically be overlooked in a less competitive rental market.[2] Seniors in particular can be vulnerable to this predatory behaviour, as they have typically been in their housing units longer than others. Alternatively, landlords resort to “renovictions” or Above Guideline Increases with the result that lower income renters are pushed out and unable to find adequate alternative housing. Renters in Ontario must be protected from this behaviour.

To complement our extensive experience in the housing and homelessness space, in order to inform the below recommendations, CERA organized a community consultation workshop on January 21, 2019 in Toronto where we gathered input from people with lived experience of housing issues, housing workers and other front-line staff at organizations that serve clients who bear the brunt of the impact of the lack of housing supply in Ontario. What follows is a summary of CERA’s recommendations based on this collective insight.

Rent: It is too hard to be a landlord in Ontario, and tenants need to be protected.

Over the past five years, CERA has heard from approximately 6,500 tenants through our direct service program. One thing we have learned through our work is that landlord-tenant relationships are complex, and both groups face challenges. CERA works to promote harmonious relations between landlords and tenants and stable tenancies, which are good for everyone.

There are significant protections for tenants in the Residential Tenancies Act (“RTA”) and the Ontario Human Rights Code (“OHRC”); however, we know that in practice, human rights violations, discrimination, and illegal evictions are common. There are several areas where tenants’ legal protections can and should be expanded, where tenants face gaps in being able to access the rights they have on paper and where landlords could benefit from education and support. All of these recommendations would contribute to more dynamic and sustainable use of existing housing and pave the way for more housing stability as housing stock increases.

1) Enhancing enforcement of existing rights for tenants

Tenants have many legal rights, but in practice they continue to face systemic barriers to enforcing their rights, a situation that stems from the inherent imbalance of power in the landlord and tenant relationships in favour of landlords. For example, landlords may subject tenants in rent-controlled units to eviction attempts for very minor infractions in a low vacancy and high rent market, a situation that CERA hears about often in our eviction prevention work. This means that in effect, tenants who benefit from rent control can be at greater risk of eviction attempts by landlords for the very reason that rent is controlled. Additionally, landlords are responsible for maintaining units and making necessary repairs, and CERA hears very often from tenants living in sub-standard units where maintenance requests are ignored.

Many individuals also face barriers to accessing much-needed housing when they encounter illegal discriminatory treatment by landlords when applying for units. Under the OHRC, landlords are not permitted to discriminate against applicants for various reasons, including their age, receipt of social assistance, or disability, but from our direct work with clients, CERA knows this happens often, especially when vacancy rates are unhealthy and competition is high. The OHRC also contains special protections for tenants with disabilities, wherein landlords are obligated to accommodate disabilities. However, in an environment where tenants are afraid that claiming their rights could lead to retaliation from landlords, they are less likely to ask for even basic and essential accommodations such as ramps or automatic doors.

The Landlord and Tenant Board (“LTB”) makes decisions related to housing enforcement, but in order to enforce an order if a landlord is unresponsive, tenants must file an additional complaint. This can be contrasted with the Court Enforcement Office, which enforces LTB orders for eviction of tenants, but not orders on tenant applications for issues such as maintenance, repairs or harassment. This contrast highlights the discrepancy in the ease of enforcement between landlords and tenants. We recommend including stronger enforcement mechanisms for tenants built in to the Landlord and Tenant Board process.

Related to this is the need for increased resourcing at the Rental Housing Enforcement Unit (“RHEU”), a body that has the purview to enforce offences under the Residential Tenancies Act, 2006. The RHEU has the ability to enforce LTB judgements, but cannot enforce agreements made in the mediation process provided at the LTB. Based on the consultation, we hear that there is a need for greater public awareness of the RHEU, increased jurisdiction to ensure that RHEU can enforce mediated agreements, and an increased number of compliance officers to address a reported lengthy response time.

Access to justice remains an ongoing issue for tenants at the Landlord and Tenant Board, with 90% of applications being filed by landlords.[3] There are few avenues for low-income tenants to access legal advice and representation, as the income cut-off at Legal Aid Ontario Clinics disqualifies many who need legal support from accessing assistance. We recommend an increase in resources for Legal Aid Ontario clinics to assist renters who have been served with eviction notices, are facing above-guideline increases or who have been denied disability-related accommodation requests.

At present, it takes several months for complaints to be resolved at the Landlord and Tenant Board, and up to two years at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Speeding up these processes is necessary in order for tenants to have meaningful access to justice. Government should support the LTB by funding additional staff and building their capacity to resolve issues in a timely manner.

Above Guideline Increases and “renovictions” both involve landlords implementing improvements to buildings and then seeking to download the cost of improvements to their property onto tenants. “Renoviction” is a term that was coined to describe a situation wherein a landlord has a tenant vacate the unit, performs cosmetic upgrades to the unit and then significantly raises the rent. Both of these situations put the homes of many Ontarians at risk. These processes should be re-examined to ensure that tenants (often seniors) are not “economically evicted” from their homes when landlords seek to improve their property.

From our work with tenants, we have learned that many landlords are unaware of their legal rights and obligations and in some cases are unaware that as a housing provider they are running a business which is governed by legislation. The creation of a provincial landlord licensing body that requires mandatory licensing for all landlords regardless of size would benefit both landlords and tenants. Current landlord licensing is determined by municipalities and is non-existent in many parts of the province.

2) Eliminating gaps in legal protection for tenants

Tenants have many rights written into the law in Ontario, but even so, there are still significant gaps that CERA hears about when working with tenants who are facing discrimination, harassment, and eviction. Above Guideline Increases allow landlords to download the cost of capital upgrades to tenants by applying to raise rents higher than the annual standard percentage determined by the municipality. This can put the housing stability of lower income renters, often seniors, in jeopardy.

Other significant and problematic gaps that lead to housing instability for tenants include above-described “renovictions,” vacancy de-control, the removal of rent control, and the fact that it can be very difficult for tenants to enforce maintenance requests and orders. Tenants in rooming houses are often especially vulnerable and unable to enforce maintenance requests due to the fact that this much-needed, lower-income housing is not legally recognized in some areas.

Tenants who share a kitchen or bathroom with their landlord are currently not legally protected by the RTA or OHRC, meaning that their housing is very precarious. CERA would like to see this outdated law changed and legal protections extended to those sharing accommodations with their landlord.

Rooming houses provide necessary homes for many low-income people, but they are legal only in certain parts of Toronto. It is well understood that rooming houses exist in areas where they are not legal, and tenants in these illegal rooming houses cannot report unsafe living conditions because to do so could lead to the rooming house being shut down. We recommend that rooming houses be provided with the ability to operate legally in Ontario so that those who rent in rooming houses can report unsafe living conditions without fear of losing their home.

Toronto’s RentSafe program is a bylaw enforcement program that ensures that building owners and operators comply with building maintenance standards, but it is currently only mandatory for landlords who own one or more rental apartment buildings with three or more storeys and 10 or more units. As a result, many of these landlords remain unaware of their legal rights and obligations, which means they are more likely to not follow the law, often without knowing they have done so. This program should be expanded to include all rental properties, regardless of size, in order to protect all tenants. An expanded RentSafe program should have a public registry similar to Toronto’s DineSafe program where prospective tenants can view inspection results and file complaints.

3) Innovative and creative solutions to improve tenants’ rights 

Our consultation yielded some additional ideas about how tenants’ rights could be promoted:

One solution for preventing and avoiding very slow and expensive processes at the Landlord Tenant Board could be a new organization that could act as an advocate or ombudsman to navigate disputes and complaints and ease pressures on the Landlord and Tenant Board.

Checking reference letters from previous landlords is another example of the disproportionate power that landlords have over the tenants. Tenants do not have the same opportunity to hear from past tenants about a landlord or building. There should be an opportunity for tenants to rate or write reviews for their landlords. This rating scheme could be officially hosted by the authority responsible for licensing landlords.

Often, tenants are not aware of their rights. A simplified version of tenants’ rights (a flyer containing basic information and relevant contacts) should be distributed to tenants at the point of signing a lease.

How can we make the current system work better for landlords?

Providing Supports for Landlords:

CERA understands that landlords have many responsibilities in the landlord-tenant relationship. Being a landlord and providing a service to tenants is a specific and sensitive business. Significantly, unlike in any other buy-and-sell transaction, there is not sufficient education for landlords on how to provide housing services, no strong enforcement of housing laws, and no consumer protection agency for tenants. No other service in Ontario is governed in this manner, despite the fact that there is nothing else that can be bought and sold in Ontario that has such a profound impact on a person’s day to day life as housing. Landlords (property managers, superintendents – as first-hand landlord customer service representatives) and especially small landlords, often lack understanding of existing legislation and standards they need to provide. We suggest better support for landlords through:

Landlords should be provided with resources and educational services that provide information about their obligations under the RTA, OHRC and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (“AODA”), and how to ensure they are respecting tenant’s rights. Small landlords in particular often struggle with understanding and meeting their obligations. Government should consider providing financial support to organizations in order to make this free for landlords, or provide financial incentives for landlords to participate in these programs.

Tenants often face significant service failure or rent increases in cases of urgent damage or major repairs (such as roof reconstruction, boiler replacement, etc.). All landlords, particularly small landlords, should have access to low-interest loans for such purposes, so that the costs associated with major renovations are not passed down to tenants. Performing regular maintenance on buildings will also ease the need for landlords to make the kind of one-time capital repairs that often lead to Above Guideline Increases which can destabilize tenancies.

Evictions are expensive and harmful to both tenants and landlords, and prevention should be a major priority. When renters are unable to pay their rent because of momentary interruptions of their income, support should be provided to bridge the gap and prevent their eviction. Government should consider the model of the Rent Bank in Toronto and expand it throughout the province and consider expanding eligibility criteria.

Supporting small landlords can work to increase rental supply while also protecting tenants. An association of small landlords should be created in order to encourage and support small landlords in a number of ways, such as providing education and helping them purchase insurance. Landlords who are educated about their obligations and know where to access resources to ensure their buildings are kept up to standards improve the lives of tenants.

Innovation: Other concerns, opportunities and innovations to increase housing supply.

Do you have any creative ideas to make better use of existing homes, buildings and neighbourhoods to increase the supply of housing?

What other creative solutions could help increase the supply of housing?

In recent years, the development of condominiums has far outpaced purpose-built multi-residential rental housing, which has contributed to the shortage of affordable and secure housing for renters who make up 30% of Ontario residents. Condominium rental is acknowledged as less secure for tenants, as they have fewer legal protections and can more easily be subject to evictions based on landlord’s or purchaser’s own use. Recent adjustments to landlords’ ability to evict tenants for landlord’s or purchaser’s own use contained in the Rental Fairness Act reflect widespread concern that landlords were implementing these evictions in bad faith for economic gain.

An additional current issue contributing to housing instability is large property management companies purchasing and renovating purpose-built rental buildings developed in the 1960s and 1970s. These new landlords have incentive to evict tenants who have lived in their units for long periods of time in order to implement higher rental rates. CERA has also seen a striking uptick in “Above Guideline Increases” in these cases, which can result in low-income tenants becoming homeless or unable to re-rent in their community. When vacancy rates are low and rents are high, we know from direct experience that landlords have the upper hand and tenants are less able to enforce or count on their human right to housing.

To increase the supply of affordable and adequate housing for all Ontarians, encourage the government to explore creative ways to promote the construction of multi-residential housing such as tax incentives and housing bonds. CERA also promotes increasing options available to Ontarians by considering the concept of the “Missing Middle,” and ways to fill this gap with affordable, flexible and adequate housing.

Speed: It takes too long for development projects to get approved.

CERA believes that regulation of development projects is important and should be maintained when governments examine ways in which building approval processes could be expedited. Housing is a necessity of life for people and it is crucial that people’s housing meet certain requirements in regulations and the Building Code to ensure the safety and security of renters.

Participants in our consultation reported that there are currently more barriers for non-profit housing developers than for profit developers. There should be incentives to promote the development of rental and non-profit housing beyond rent deregulation. CERA supports rent control and believes that there are other ways to make building rental housing attractive to developers, including tax and other financial incentives.

Mix: There are too many restrictions on what can be built to get the right mix of housing where it is needed.

CERA advocates for a diverse variety of housing that is inclusive of different family sizes/types, age groups, physical abilities, cultural communities and income rates. Planning and design of housing should support a sense of community and access for all to necessary services and amenities. Research shows that addressing the “missing middle” in housing could present an effective response to the current challenges by providing a greater range of housing choices.

CERA extends a sincere thank you to the following people and organizations who participated in the community consultation that informed this submission:

Individuals with lived experiences in tenants’ rights

  • Toronto Christian Resource Centre
  • Albion Neighborhood Services
  • Raising the Roof
  • Other organizations

 

[1] Gaetz, S., Scott, F. & Gulliver, T. (Eds.) (2013). Housing First in Canada: Supporting Communities to End Homelessness. Toronto, Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press. Ly, A., & Latimer, E. (2015). Housing First Impact on Costs and Associated Cost Offsets: A Review of the Literature. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 60 (11), 475-87.

[2] While we do not have aggregated data or statistics on this issue, CERA regularly learns of situations of this nature from individuals who use our direct service telephone line.

[3] Social Justice Tribunals Ontario 2017 – 2018 Annual Report. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.sjto.gov.on.ca/documents/sjto/2017-18 Annual Report.html

 

March 22, 2019

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