toronto tenants already feel that Premier Mike Harris has fed them to the wolves, and now it's revealed that the province's quasi-judicial housing tribunal has no problem renting its hearing space from a local landlord accused of treating an elderly renter unfairly.
The Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, established by the Tories three years ago to settle disputes between landlords and tenants, holds many of its Toronto hearings in a new space leased from a residential landlord who has been a party before the tribunal in the past and likely will be in the future.
In a decision last August, a tribunal member found that this same landlord, the Azuria Group, "forced" a 78-year-old woman to pay one year's rent in advance, an illegal charge under the Tenant Protection Act, and that the woman was "coerced mainly due to her age."
The landlord, however, disputes the decision and is currently appealing it in divisional court.
Azuria and its affiliated numbered companies manage rental buildings around the GTA, including the Towne Apartments, located at 77 St. Clair East. Azuria's offices are located in the same building as the tribunal, at 79 St. Clair East.
This past March, the Ontario Realty Corporation (ORC) entered into a five- year lease with 1212763 Ontario Limited for 20,445 square feet at 79 St. Clair East, land registry documents show. (According to provincial incorporation papers, 1212763 Ontario Limited has the same address and shares a director with Azuria.)
The government is paying the landlord $24 per square foot.
The tribunal, which has closed its downtown location at Wellesley and Bay as well as its Etobicoke office and consolidated them both on St. Clair, initially had trouble finding a new building.
The ORC put out two bid calls for space on behalf of the tribunal this past winter before choosing the St. Clair location.
Because the tribunal wants to be perceived as independent of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, it didn't bother to include government buildings in its search.
"In (the tribunal's) case, it's important for its clients that it go to some lengths to maintain a physical and visual separation (from government), which kind of limits our options," says ORC spokesperson Jim Butticci.
But Toronto Liberal MPP Michael Bryant, whose riding encompasses the tribunal's new offices, says wanting to be at arm's length from government when the tribunal is usually not the litigant in these cases doesn't wash.
"This is a tribunal that is implementing government laws. So the rationale for not moving into a government building makes little sense," Bryant says. "What about all those Azuria tenants who appear before the tribunal? Do they feel in any way that they are being compromised and that in fact the impartiality of the tribunal is being compromised by virtue of it being a tenant itself?"
Apparently, the tribunal's concern about appearances doesn't extend to private residential landlords. Surprisingly, while the tribunal requires its members to follow strict conflict-of-interest guidelines and declare "any interests" in residential rental property, the agency as a whole doesn't consider its lease arrangement with Azuria problematic.
Carol Kiley, the tribunal's manager of program development, says if an Azuria tenant complained about a conflict the hearing would simply be moved to another location.
"If people feel they're getting a fair hearing, then everything's all right -- you just simply continue," says Kiley. "If someone raises bias, we generally always move it, because it's such a touchy issue."
But changing the venue doesn't address the problem of the relationship, says city councillor Michael Walker, who has supported funding for a tenant defence fund in the past.
"It would be deemed not an arm's- length relationship, because you would already have compromised dealings with any applications for above-guideline rent increases or evictions or otherwise," says Walker. "It's inappropriate."
Azuria's vice-president of finance, Rachel Saunders, declined to comment for this story. But Julian Keller, a lawyer who represents Azuria at tribunal hearings, dismisses the notion that the lease arrangement creates a potential conflict.
He points out that the tribunal has leased space from private landlords before. (It's unclear, though, whether they were residential landlords as well as commercial.) Keller also maintains that the tribunal is at arm's length from the lease with the ORC.
"I don't see it as a conflict," says Keller. "It might be a conflict if some of the adjudicators were tenants of the landlord, but they aren't. Or if the adjudicator were related to a tenant, then you'd have a conflict."
A search into Azuria's past dealings with the tribunal turned up last August's strongly worded decision in the case of the 78-year-old tenant.
Tribunal member Jim Brown, a former Tory MPP from Scarborough, found that Azuria had discriminated against Anna Dollimore when the company "forced" the 78-year-old woman to pay a year's rent ($9,528) in advance for an apartment on Walmer Road.
Dollimore had initially applied to the tribunal for a rent rebate, claiming that she paid her rent to Azuria on July 10, 1999, but didn't move into the unit until August 16, 1999.
Azuria, however, has appealed Brown's decision in divisional court, arguing that Dollimore took longer than the year allowed under the act to file her application. As well, the landlord is arguing that Dollimore wasn't coerced, but volunteered to pay in advance.
Says Keller, "The landlord was painted by (Brown) as being this ogre who took advantage of this poor woman, and they didn't."
Dollimore and her lawyer declined to comment while the matter is before the courts.
Dan McIntyre, project coordinator at the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations, says moving the hearing location involving an Azuria tenant is the minimum the tribunal should be doing, given that justice must be seen to be done.
Adds McIntyre, "(The Tenant Protection Act) is such a horrid law that landlords don't need any more edges."
Research assistance by Kim Edwards and Jonathan Rothman