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Renovations are the latest tactic landlords are using to illegally evict renters. Here's how some have fought back – and won
It was a three-bedroom atop a quaint coffee shop on Bloor, just west of Dovercourt, with big windows, new hardwood floors, a living room and an office. At $2,500 a month, it wasn’t exactly a bargain, but as anyone who has apartment-hunted in Toronto over the past few years knows, the concept of what’s “affordable” is rapidly changing.
After spotting the listing on Bunz Home Zone, a Toronto Facebook group where members post rentals and look for potential roommates, Kaé Égalité, 27, and two friends moved into the unit in spring 2017. The roommates loved having an extra office they could use as a shared art studio and the queer-friendly vibe of the west-end neighbourhood. It quickly felt like home. But within five months, the owner sold the building, and two months after that, new landlords told Égalité they had to move out because the apartment was being converted into commercial space.
Initially, the roommates debated fighting the eviction at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB), but in the end, decided to accept the landlords’ offer to compensate each roommate with around $850 each if they moved out. “We thought either we go to the LTB hearing and if we lose, we don’t get anything. Or we can leave and get a bit of money to help with our moving costs,” says Égalité.
A month after moving out, Égalité was looking for a place on Bunz Home Zone when they saw a post advertising their former apartment. It definitely wasn’t an office space like the landlords had claimed. In fact, it didn’t look as if much had changed. There were new stainless-steel appliances, the nice hardwood floors had been replaced with newer ones and the radiators had been covered in ornate boxes. With these mostly aesthetic upgrades, the unit was listed for $3,600 – $1,100 more than what Égalité and their roommates had paid.
Égalité had been renovicted.
“Renoviction” is when a landlord evicts a tenant under the guise of needing to complete major renovations requiring the tenants to move out, and then re-lists the apartment for more than the original rent. Technically, the evicted tenant has the right of first refusal to move back in after the renovations are complete without a substantial increase in rent, but there is no law in place to force landlords to contact the former tenant. Sometimes the tenant sees the listing again and realizes they were duped, but often they never find out.
In Toronto’s aggressive rental market, renovictions are one of the most popular ways landlords can evict tenants to make a massive profit. Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA), says he’s seen a huge uptick in renovictions over the past couple of years.
“There’s a massive incentive for landlords to break the law, throw people out and jack up the rent,” says Dent. “It’s brazenly illegal, but there is a lot of money to be made.”
Typically, landlords can only legally raise the rent by a province-controlled percentage each year – for 2018, it was 1.8 per cent – so renovictions allow them to circumvent that.
Other common tactics used to push out low-rent tenants are personal-use evictions, where the landlord claims family is moving in, above-guideline rent increases, purposefully neglecting apartments or harassing long-term tenants so they’re forced to move out. On Bunz Home Zone and other Facebook groups like Ontario Tenants Rights and The BLT: Bad Landlords Toronto, all of which have thousands of members, there are daily posts asking for advice about illegal evictions.
Renovictions are part of Toronto’s rental market crisis. The vacancy rate is at less than one per cent (housing advocates say anything less than three per cent is unhealthy), and there are not enough affordable rental units being built to alleviate the pressure. We spoke with several Torontonians who have been faced with renovictions in the last two years. These are their stories, and how some of them were able to fight back.
Ryan Ayukawa has been renovicted twice in one year. The building he’s currently living in is also for sale, which means his housing could yet again be jeopardized.
Ryan Ayukawa, 43, was renovicted twice in one year. The first time happened in December 2016. He had been living in a two-bedroom apartment above a lawyer’s office at College and Dovercourt for 14 years. Then, three days after Christmas, he found a notice slipped under his door stating that he’d have to leave in three months. The owners planned to convert the upper floors of the three-storey building into luxury lofts and commercial space. Ayukawa was stunned.
“I’d lived there for 14 years. I thought, ‘How can they do this?’”
When he moved out, Ayukawa’s rent was $1,123 inclusive, which he split with a roommate. In a recent PadMapper listing for a one-bedroom unit in the building, it was going for $2,950.
Ayukawa was unprepared for Toronto’s rental market, especially since his income as a freelance writer hadn’t increased in concert with the rising rents. He looked at more than 25 places before snagging an affordable room in a two-bedroom unit in a century home near St. Clair and Bathurst. Six months later, the owner announced he was renovating so he could sell the house. Ayukawa was homeless again. The house ended up selling for more than $4 million, with the listing boasting that it could either be kept as separate apartments or converted into a single-family home.
Ayukawa has since moved into a two-bedroom with a roommate on Queen West above a storefront, but the building is for sale, which means his housing could be jeopardized any day now. “In less than a calendar year, I’ve looked at more than 40 places. I don’t want to move again. I know how difficult it is,” he says.
Ayukawa’s former landlord and the owner of the building at College and Dovercourt, Antonio Azevedo, says the unit was in desperate need of major renovations and was no longer profitable for him because the rent was so low.
Égalité also knows how challenging it is to find an apartment in Toronto. Despite sending out hundreds of messages to potential landlords and tenants looking for new roommates, they haven’t been able to find a permanent home. They’re currently staying at their partner’s place near Bloor and Lansdowne.
“It’s been devastating for me. I moved to Toronto from Ottawa to go to OCADU, but now I’m taking a year off because I don’t have the stability I need,” says Égalité, who is studying integrated media. “I’ve bumped my budget up to $900 and I can’t even [afford] anything like I was able to a year ago. It’s hard to adapt when the landscape is changing so quickly.”
When Grace Palmer, 22, and her roommate, Renee Miller, 20, were renovicted earlier this summer, they decided to leave Toronto altogether.
Their two-bedroom basement apartment in a family home across from Kipling Station was affordable at $1,250 per month, but it came with outlandish rules: the landlords, who lived upstairs, made Palmer and Miller register all of their guests and forbade them from sleeping over, banned talking on the phone, watching TV and listening to music after 9 pm, and encouraged them to meal prep so they wouldn’t cook while the landlords were home.
“Once we got an angry phone call because we were making soup at 10 pm,” says Palmer, who works the night shift at Tim Hortons.
When the landlords tried to kick them out without proper notice, citing that they wanted to tear down the house and re-build it, Palmer and Miller scheduled a hearing at the LTB. At the hearing, they settled on a move-out date (August 31), and upon the LTB’s recommendation, the landlords agreed they wouldn’t rent out their basement once the renovations were completed, since they were clearly uncomfortable living with tenants.
“We weren’t planning to leave the city, but when this started happening we thought it would be easier if we moved back home with our families for the year and save money” says Palmer.
As she explains, if this basement apartment – with its low ceilings, few windows and controlling landlords – was an example of what they could afford on their budget, maybe Toronto wasn’t the city for them right now.
The current vacancy rate in Toronto is less than one per cent.
“Renting is clean, easy and affordable,” declared Alex Avery in 2016 during an interview with the Globe and Mail to promote The Wealthy Renter.
In the book, the former CIBC real estate equity analyst argues that in a city like Toronto, it makes more financial sense to rent long term than to buy a house.
Yet without more regulations to protect tenants from tactics like renovictions, above-guideline rent increases or landlord personal-use evictions, rental housing isn’t clean, easy or affordable. For some, the instability of renting is why they’ve turned to home ownership instead.
When Stephanie, 36, was eight months pregnant, she and her husband were renovicted from the two-bedroom Parkdale apartment they had lived in for five years.
“I had foreseen living there until my daughter was at least eight. It had enough room for the whole family, a workable fireplace and a nice garden,” says Stephanie.
When they moved out, they subletted a two-bedroom in Riverdale for a few months – the west end had become too expensive – before scraping together enough money to put a down payment on a tiny bungalow in Riverdale. Their monthly mortgage is $2,300, the same they were paying in rent for their sublet.
“We never cared about owning a home. It was only when we were thrown out did we realize how precarious our living situation really was,” says Stephanie. “Being told we had to move out of our Parkdale apartment made us feel like we needed to find a way to control our own destiny more.”
In 2017, when she was asked to move out, Stephanie had never heard of renovictions before. Yet now, she says it feels like it’s happening everywhere. A few of her friends who also live in the west end have been renovicted recently, too.
Councillor Josh Matlow, the city’s chair of the tenant issues committee, has noticed a dramatic rise in tenants’ concerns – in his midtown ward and across the city – about unlawful evictions.
“It’s an increasingly horrible problem,” says Matlow. “It can be incredibly scary for a renter who doesn’t know their rights, but even worse, when they find out that even with the rights they have, there are ways landlords are able to get away with this.”
Although city council has approved motions asking the province to address the issue, Matlow says it’s up to the province to update the Residential Tenancies Act, which would give the LTB more power to better protect tenants.
“The province needs to step in and ensure there are protections for tenants not to be pushed out under false pretenses. And if a landlord has violated the act, there needs to be a financial penalty that is severe,” says Matlow. “[Right now], the LTB doesn’t have the tools to deal with renovictions, so landlords aren’t concerned because the [opportunity] to make a lot more money is attractive.”
After reading a Toronto Star article this past spring about five tenants who were renovicted from their College apartment, only to find it re-listed for three times what they were paying, then-housing-minister Peter Milczyn said his office was going to examine the rental rules.
The new housing minister, conservative MPP Steve Clark, was not available for an interview, but Conrad Spezowka, a spokesperson for the ministry of municipal affairs and housing, said by email, “A landlord who denies someone that right of first refusal would have committed an offense under provincial law and can be fined up to $100,000 per count if convicted.”
However, according to Cole Webber, a legal aid at Parkdale Community Legal Services, landlords rarely get charged. “The LTB is a landlord-friendly tribunal. Any consideration of housing as a social or human right is secondary to their consideration of a landlord’s right to their private property,” says Webber. “It’s a huge uphill battle for tenants to try to win it.”
Typically, landlords can only raise the rent by a province-controlled percentage each year.
Kelly Goldfeder, 25, has been living in the same Parkdale apartment at King and Cowan for five years, but it hasn’t been without a fight. Along with two other tenants, she’s had to fight off two separate renoviction attempts by two different landlords. Each time, the three tenants banded together, sought advice from the Parkdale Community Legal Services and teamed up with tenants advocacy group Parkdale Organize.
During the second renoviction attempt, the tenants, along with around 20 other Parkdale residents, staged a demonstration at a nearby popular pizza franchise owned by the landlord. Along with hand-delivering a letter stating they weren’t planning to vacate by the requested date, they also threatened a neighbourhood-wide boycott of another franchise he was planning to open. The landlord backed down and withdrew his eviction notices.
Webber, who worked with the tenants on their case, believes in order to overcome a renoviction notice, tenants need to work together, whether that means forming tenant associations for their building or teaming up with other local housing advocate groups.
“Tenants need to know they have the power to stand up and push back when landlords try to evict them,” says Webber.
When faced with an eviction notice, FMTA’s Dent says figuring out what the law says is the first step. “A lot of tenants don’t realize that an eviction notice is not the same as an eviction order,” says Dent. “They shouldn’t panic, because it’s like a warning letter.”
Although many tenants will be intimidated enough to move out, Dent stresses the importance of doing research. That’s what McKenzie, 24, did when her landlord tried to renovict her and her two roommates from their three-bedroom in Leslieville.
After they asked their landlord to call in an exterminator to deal with a mice problem, the landlord said the walls would have to be torn down and new drywall installed, an extensive renovation that would require the roommates to move out.
“It set off alarm bells for us, especially since the landlord had just recently renovated the basement suite and listed it for quite a bit more than what we were paying for our three-bedroom,” says McKenzie, a graduate student at Ryerson University. “I think our landlord was hoping we’d just go away quietly, and that obviously didn’t happen.”
Instead, they researched their rights, got advice from Facebook groups and told the landlord they would only leave if she filled out the proper forms for the renovations. They also said they planned to move back into the unit after the renovations were complete. That is, they called her bluff and it worked. The landlord hasn’t brought up the eviction issue since.
With no enforceable laws in place to protect tenants from unethical eviction tactics, the onus is on individuals to fight for their own rights, which takes an immense amount of time and energy consulting legal aid workers, gathering evidence, filing paperwork and attending LTB hearings.
Many tenants believe that time would be better spent looking for a new apartment rather than challenging a landlord. And even for the tenants who eventually beat their evictions, their problems might not stop there. Although Goldfeder, who works as an art curator and creative director, was able to stay in her King and Cowan bachelor, it’s so infested with mice and cockroaches that she can no longer cook there and her water is too yellow and cloudy to drink straight from the tap. She would leave, but she can’t afford to move anywhere else.
Meanwhile, Égalité plans to file the paperwork against their former landlords and continues to respond to dozens of rental listings a week. “I feel like I’m not welcome in Toronto and that my life plans aren’t going to work out because I can’t even find a place to live,” says Égalité. “I’ve always been someone to hustle my way through everything, so when you don’t have a fundamental need like shelter covered, it’s frightening. I never pictured myself being in this situation.”
Less than one per cent
The current vacancy rate. A healthy rental market requires a vacancy rate of three to five per cent
1.8 per cent
Provincial rent increase guideline for 2019
The average rent for a one-bedroom condo in 2017
The advance notice the landlord is required to give a tenant for renovations
47 per cent
Toronto households that are renters
47 per cent
Toronto renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing
The number of affordable rental units John Tory promises to build in 12 years
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