During the pandemic, Toronto renters have been fighting for rent relief in the face of lost jobs and income, and an eviction ban.
But with Toronto in a second lockdown and many tenants still out of a job, the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) has begun, as one adjudicator put it, an “eviction blitz.” Hearings last mere minutes and tenants who have no way to pay rent are handed eviction orders.
Back in March, the province brought in a temporary moratorium on evictions as part of its emergency response to COVID-19. The moratorium ended in July. But the LTB still processed thousands of eviction applications. as detailed in the Keep Your Rent report.
Tenants organizers protested the lifting of the moratorium, arguing many tenants were facing precarious rental situations and that lifting the moratorium would leave many homeless.
MPPs unanimously adopted a December 8 motion put forward in the Ontario legislature by NDP MPP Suze Morrison on December 8 to ban evictions for the rest of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Premier Doug Ford will have to issue an emergency order to stop evictions immediately, as Queen’s Park is on a break until January.
Tenant groups have been calling for a ban on evictions for the duration of the pandemic. But Bryan Doherty, an organizer with Parkdale Organize, says the ban should extend beyond halting evictions and cover relief from arrears accumulated during COVID.
“However long it is that this crisis takes place, we can’t pile an eviction crisis on top of it,” he says. “In order to accomplish that, we also need rent relief from landlords.”
Doherty and other organizers are calling on one of the city’s biggest landlords, Metcap, to meet and discuss rents as the LTB begins to schedule hearings. The board has hired new adjudicators to work through the applications in quick succession, the highest number the LTB has ever appointed.
Toronto eviction hearings happening online
While eviction hearings are normally conducted in-person, the COVID crisis has added another obstacle for tenants when it comes to making their case.
The hearings take place in Microsoft Teams video conference rooms. Tenants are given a two-hour time slot and are grouped with more than 10 other cases in that time frame. Those who do not have a lawyer will be connected with duty counsel, who can give them legal advice but not represent them.
The adjudicator is usually the only person visible on video during the hearing.
Several tenants called to one recent hearing talked about being unable to afford rent throughout the pandemic. Many are shoehorned into repayment plans for rent arrears on top of monthly rent they already can’t afford. If they are late or short on rent after agreeing to the plans, they can be evicted without further approval from the LTB.
This is due to Bill 184, which the provincial government passed in July. Advocates say it has wreaked havoc on the process of evictions and eviction hearings for tenants. Under the new rules, landlords can negotiate a repayment plan with tenants outside of the LTB hearings.
If tenant agrees to such a plan but fails to fulfill the requirements, a landlord can evict without going through the LTB hearing process.
A media relations representative from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing told NOW thst Bill 184 mandates the LTB to consider whether a landlord made efforts to negotiate a repayment agreement with tenants prior to issuing an eviction order.
The government’s goal is to promote repayment agreements over evictions, the rep said.
Toronto tenants face barriers to attending eviction hearings
Samuel Nithiananthan, an organizer with People’s Defence Toronto, has recorded and documented some of the more shocking hearings on social media.
The LTB has sent the organization numerous letters requesting the group refrain from recording proceedings and posting the video on social media.
The board also asked the group to remove videos already posted to their social media accounts, citing procedural rules that bar anyone from recording audio or video without permission.
Nithiananthan estimates that some 8,000 hearings have taken place in November alone, with 2,000 of those involving Toronto tenants. He says most hearings he’s sat in on have ended with tenants not showing up.
“Many of the communities have been affected by this are newcomer, immigrant, racialized, working-class communities, and access to technology or even to English is unlikely,” he says. “Most don’t understand what the hell is actually happening.”
On December 4, a Toronto tenant from Fountainhead Road was unable to make it to her hearing. The lawyer representing landlord Ranee Management, Ilana Glickman, noted that the tenant, who is a single mother, had been making “significant” rent payments.
The adjudicator, Shannon Kiekens, who heard from Glickman that the landlord was willing to settle on a solution, granted a “standard order for eviction,” which requires the tenant to pay the full amount asked within 11 days, after which point the landlord has the right to automatically file for eviction.
In an email, a rep for the LTB told NOW that the adjudicator may decide to dismiss a hearing if a landlord does not show up, but if the tenant “is not present despite the LTB having provided the respondent with the Notice of Hearing in accordance with the LTB’s usual practice, the adjudicator may decide to proceed with the hearing after waiting an appropriate amount of time.”
Sima Atri is a lawyer with the Community Justice Collective, which has been supporting tenants facing evictions during the hearings. She says there are a number of issues around tenants receiving proper notice of hearings, which might explain why some are not showing up.
“Normally, the LTB would send it [a notice] out a month in advance, and now they’re sending it out maximum two weeks before and usually less than 10 days before the hearing,” she says.
If tenants wish to bring a defence against the landlord’s eviction application, they must file evidence with the board five days before.
An LTB rep tells NOW a notice of hearing will be sent via email if the board has an email on file for the tenant. Otherwise, the notice is mailed to the party two to three weeks in advance of the hearing date.
Delays at hearings where tenants plan to defend themselves
Even when tenants come prepared with evidence, witnesses and a full defence, some say it’s still not enough to prevent an eviction.
Carly Tisdall is a resident at Goodwood Park Court who, along with many of her neighbours, has been fighting for rent relief since the start of the pandemic. She formed a tenants union in her building and approached management to negotiate as a collective in response to what she calls one-on-one “coercive” deals.
“They wouldn’t acknowledge our letters, they wouldn’t acknowledge our visits to the office, they wouldn’t acknowledge our phone calls,” Tisdall says.
Tisdall had already agreed to a payment planin October, she says, and had shown the landlord she wanted to get back on track with paying arrears.
“Ranee Management, when they were filing these eviction notices against all of us, were trying to take the position that we kept our rent and didn’t speak to them,” she says.
Ranee Management and Glickman did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.
During Tisdall’s eviction hearing last week, the adjudicator took note of the number of submissions and witnesses Tisdall had collected and indicated that the hearing would be adjourned.
“I thought we had a very strong defence and I was ready to put it forward,” she explains. “The idea that the court just didn’t want to hear it was incredibly frustrating knowing that I was going to have to go back to my landlord, who already had been impossible to negotiate with, and spend further time trying to get them to understand my position.”
Calls for landlords to take rent relief seriously
According to a study released in December by Keep Your Rent Toronto, large landlords have maintained 60 per cent profit margins throughout the pandemic as of September 2020.
In a submission on the 2020 Ontario Budget, the Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario (FRPO), which represents large landlords, said its members are prepared to absorb between 25 to 33 per cent of unpaid rent if government subsidies can cover the balance of lost rents.
However, many landlords continue to mandate repayment plans for individual tenants with the expectation that tenants will pay off missed payments.
President and CEO of FRPO Tony Irwin tells NOW that the organization has been in conversation with the province to create a rental assistance program, similar to the commercial rent assistance program available for small and medium-sized businesses.
“Rental housing providers have shown there’s a lot of understanding and goodwill being shown,” he says.
However, a concrete plan has yet to emerge. Irwin says the FRPO is aware some Ontario tenants have been struggling to pay rent, but he’s trusting individual landlords to work out a plan with their tenants.
Still, tenant advocates want the onus to be on government to create a policy that recognizes the pandemic’s impact on tenants ability to pay rent.
“There has to be a policy shift right now,” Nithiananthan says. “There has to be a solution, and landlords have to take their fair share of the burden because tenants have been doing that for decades.”
This post has been updated.