Opinion: cash-strapped tenants shouldn't foot the bill for eviction hearings
Note to readers: This week’s column comes from guest Jonathan Robart, a legal aid lawyer in residential tenancy law at Scarborough Community Legal Services.
Imagine you struggle to make ends meet and, without warning, a family member falls ill, causing you to miss a number of shifts at work. Consequently, you fall behind on rent until your landlord obtains an eviction order. Within weeks, the Sheriff changes the locks on your door.
In addition to being evicted, an unjust set of laws and practices at Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board also mandates that you pay your landlord to cover the cost of your own eviction hearing, which penalizes thousands of low-income Ontario tenants each year for no other reason than because they live in poverty. These laws and practices must be changed.
This is the reality for the people I serve as a lawyer at Scarborough Community Legal Services. An increasing number of my clients are one pay cheque or one emergency away from being evicted. Each day, tenants seek assistance when facing eviction due to an unexpected layoff, a reduction in work hours, an unexpected expense or a family member’s sudden medical emergency. As they currently stand, the laws and practices that govern the Landlord and Tenant Board fail to account for these circumstances. Consequently, low-income tenants are burdened with an unfair financial penalty.
Landlords who file an application at the Landlord and Tenant Board to evict a tenant for unpaid rent pay a $170.00 filing fee to obtain an eviction hearing. At the eviction hearing, Section 204(2) of the Residential Tenancies Act and the Landlord and Tenant Board’s guidelines mandate that the eviction order issued orders the tenant to reimburse the landlord for the $170 filing fee. This prevents adjudicators from considering the circumstances that caused the tenant to fall behind in rent. Unexpectedly laid off from work? Pay the landlord’s $170 filing fee. Hours at work cut from full-time to part-time? Pay the landlord’s $170 filing fee. Given the social and economic realities facing tenants across Toronto, the fact that arbiters cannot legally consider these circumstances is unjust and unfair.
Over 1.7 million workers in Ontario work in low or minimum wage jobs that do not pay enough to keep them above the poverty line, let alone afford skyrocketing rents. Scarborough, where my clients live, has the highest level of working poverty in Toronto at 12 per cent of all residents. Rents are so high in Toronto that averages amount to almost half of household income for the bottom 40 per cent of wage earners. Tenants are increasingly turning to services such as food banks to bridge the gap between poverty-level wages and the high cost of housing. A recent report by Food Banks Canada notes that one of the biggest drivers of the need for assistance from food banks is the high cost of rental housing. None of the above matters, however, when it comes to ordering a tenant to pay $170 to their landlord for their own eviction hearing.
The reality is even worse for the tenants whose primary source of income is Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program, such as tenants with physical and mental disabilities. A single parent with two children whose primary source of income is Ontario Disability Support Program receives $816 dollars per month in Shelter Allowance. A single parent with two children in receipt of Ontario Works as their primary source of income receives only $662 per month in Shelter Allowance. Given how low these rates are, I routinely hear from clients that they routinely skip meals or forego buying medication so they can afford the rent.
Currently, tenants in receipt of social assistance are not exempt from being ordered to pay the landlord’s $170 filing fee if they are evicted for being unable to pay rent.
It makes far more sense for landlords to bear the costs of eviction hearings. In 2013 and 2014 81,748 applications were filed at the Landlord and Tenant Board. Over 90 per cent of these applications are filed by landlords and over 64 per cent (52,832) of the total applications were for non-payment of rent. In my experience, large-scale, corporate landlords file the majority of the applications to evict for non-payment of rent. These landlords own thousands of units in Toronto and earn millions in profits each year (Akelius, a large corporate landlord featured in NOW Magazine last year earned over 336 million dollars (CAD) in pre-tax profit during the last quarter alone). It is, therefore, both reasonable and just to expect that landlords shoulder the costs of administering the Landlord and Tenant Board’s eviction hearings.
What can be done about the unjust practice of ordering tenants to pay for their own eviction hearing? The Landlord and Tenant Board’s laws and practices must be changed to reflect that, for a growing number of workers in Toronto, precarious and low wage jobs are the new normal. They must acknowledge that, for the most vulnerable citizens of Ontario, below poverty level social assistance rates make it almost impossible to secure housing and live with some measure of food security, health and dignity. Specifically, the Residential Tenancies Act should be amended to exempt social assistance recipients from paying the landlord’s $170 filing fee. The Board’s guidelines should be amended to grant Landlord and Tenant Board adjudicators more discretion to examine the circumstances that led to a tenant being unable to pay rent. In addition, the adjudicators should be granted to ability to exempt low-income tenants who have fallen on tough times from having to reimburse their landlord for the filing fee.
Until these changes are made, the responsibility lies primarily with the board adjudicators to seek ways to exercise their very limited discretionary powers to ensure a more just outcome. Justice demands no less.
A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer. Reasonable Doubt appears on Mondays.
email@example.com | @jonathanrobart