Is my apartment building being safely cleaned during COVID-19?

As part of a new bylaw, residential buildings in Toronto are now legally required to uphold special cleaning and safety measures

Q: At the beginning of COVID-19, building management put up a touch-free hand sanitizer station in my lobby, but it’s been empty for at least a month. There are also frequently people crowding into the elevators or crowding around to wait for them. Rarely is anyone wearing a mask. My apartment is where I spend most of my time and I’m worried it’s not being held to the same public health standards as the rest of the city. Is this legal?

No, it’s not legal – and that’s a surprisingly recent development.

In March, Toronto Public Health put together a COVID-19 guidance fact sheet of new health and safety measures for commercial and residential buildings at the beginning of the pandemic, and asked property managers and landlords to stick to it.

But, according to a recent survey from the Federation of Metro Toronto Tenants’ Associations (FMTA), half of the 577 tenants who responded said their landlords had not adopted any new health or cleaning systems.

On June 29, Toronto city council adopted it as an official bylaw. Now, until at least October 31, 2020, owners or operators of apartment buildings are required by law to implement those extra COVID-19 cleaning and physical distancing measures.

Those now-mandatory measures include: installing hand hygiene stations or alcohol-based hand sanitizer in all essential common areas, including laundry rooms and lobbies; closing non-essential common areas such as playrooms and gyms (at least until Stage 3 of Ontario’s reopening allows them to open in public spaces); increasing and scheduling twice-daily cleaning of frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs, light switches and elevator buttons; and posting Toronto Public Health signage. That could include informing residents of the need to distance from each other or limiting the number of people in certain areas.

As for masks, those are mandatory in indoor Toronto public spaces like grocery stores, retail shops and on the TTC, but multi-unit dwellings are legally exempt – it’s up to private residential buildings to implement masks in common spaces. But Mayor John Tory has asked the Greater Toronto Apartment Association to adopt mandatory masks in residential common spaces as an official policy, and will explore the possibility of making it a bylaw if they don’t.

Why now?

Though the residential COVID-19 guidelines have been in place for months, it’s clear you weren’t the only one who found your landlord or apartment building manager wasn’t doing enough to ensure your safety.

Before city councillor Josh Matlow introduced the motion to make the guidelines part of an enforceable bylaw, he had a meeting with the FMTA as well as tenants group Toronto ACORN. It was clear that many of the residents the two groups represented had not seen much in the way of extra cleaning, signage or distancing.

In some cases, even when individual tenants’ associations were putting up signs on their own, they were being ripped down.

“[Tenants] were concerned that their landlords weren’t taking even the most basic steps to protect their health and safety during a pandemic,” Matlow says. “They felt frustrated and powerless. There was no one to call and no laws to support their needs.”

Back in March, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health Dr. Vinita Dubey told us that just living in a building with someone with COVID doesn’t officially put you at risk, and that “only those who have close and prolonged contact with a case are considered at risk.”

But keeping common areas open without available hand hygiene measures and without masks or distancing measures could easily increase that close contact. It can be frustrating to see people required to wear masks and distance in public city spaces, but not in your own residence where you spend most of your time living and likely working, and where you’d most want to feel protected.

Until now, landlords and building managers were basically on the honour system. Though the residential bylaw enforcement program RentSafeTO has been in effect since 2017, Matlow calls its actual implementation “a constant frustration.” Not only has it barely been enforced before the pandemic, he says, but the officers that were supposed to do it were never even hired. So the infrastructure to make sure residential buildings were keeping to the cleaning standards was insufficient before it became an emergency.

Toronto Public Health was also on the call, and both Matlow and Geordie Dent from the TMCA say it seemed clear they didn’t have the data about how the virus was transmitting in residential buildings. But Matlow says that’s all the more reason to take “an abundance-of-caution approach.”

“What we do know is that this virus is more easily transmitted in interior spaces where people congregate and have close contact,” he says. “Those are the descriptions you find in many multi-level residential areas.”

What can you do about COVID-19 protection as an apartment tenant?

You can call 311. Now that health and safety guidelines are enforceable, it’s your right to call the city (specifically the RentSafeTO team) and complain.

“Enforcement will be complaint-based and when bylaw enforcement officers are attending registered apartment buildings to conduct audits or regular inspections,” says Carleton Grant, executive director of Municipal Licensing & Standards (MLS).

Grant encourages you to talk to your landlord or building manager first and submit a service request.

Part of the reason the guidelines were previously suggested and not mandated, says Matlow, is because MLS doesn’t have the enforcement resources to back the bylaw. “But in all honesty, do we ever have sufficient enforcement to back bylaws that already exist?”

Considering the risk of COVID-19 spread in apartment buildings, he says, the lack of enforcement is another sign that the city has its priorities wrong. He questions why so many bylaw officers have instead been deployed to parks and beaches, open outdoor spaces that are lower risk for the virus to spread.

Matlow, who raised the now-defeated motion to reduce Toronto’s police budget by 10 per cent, says it’s a symptom of the city’s “austerity mindset.”

“The budget doesn’t actually adequately support what should be our priorities: child care, community planning, public health,” he says. “[The apartment cleanliness issue] demonstrates what happens when you don’t adequately resource the things you need to address an emergency.”

When it comes to COVID-19 apartment health and safety, at least, now you have something to hold to account.

Resident Expert is a column about renting, buying and owning in the city. Send your queries to realestate (at) NOW writers will talk to relevant experts to get the answers. Letter writers will remain anonymous. Read previous columns here.

This column is not legal advice. You should not act or rely on the information provided. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.


Comments (1)

  • Hugo July 26, 2020 08:08 AM

    Really, do young people really need to have a sign telling them to have sense and not endanger themselves? Not sure if it’s a case of very bad writing or an overinflated sense of self-importance, but is self preservation not a thing anymore, are people really that opposed to being accountable for themselves that they need to be told “hey dummy, don’t get sick!”
    Please stop acting like toddlers and expecting the same gravitas as an adult when you have an opinion.

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