At the beginning of May, a group of tenants in Parkdale, a Toronto neighbourhood that is home to many newcomers and low‑income residents, went on a rent strike. The tenants are protesting proposed rent increases as well as what they claim are serious maintenance issues in their units. In a recent news release, a spokesperson for the group said that the landlord of three of the six buildings has begun issuing eviction notices to the striking tenants because they did not pay their May rent.
The background to this rent strike is an increasingly problematic rental market in Toronto.
As property values in Toronto increase, so does the market rate for rental units. The Ontario Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) contains rent control provisions that limit the percentage by which a landlord can increase the rent for existing tenants but not when the unit turns over and a new tenant moves in -- at that point the landlord can raise the rent for the unit without limit. This creates incentive for landlords to get their long‑standing tenants out so they can rent the unit to a new tenant at a much higher rate given the increase in market rates. In some cases, the Parkdale tenants allege, this means making life in the unit so unbearable that tenants move out voluntarily.
Further, as property values increase, so do property taxes, and as buildings age, they often require costly maintenances such as a new roof or balconies. Landlords in Ontario may attempt to pass on these increased costs to tenants in the form of an "above guideline increase." This is essentially a temporary exemption from the rent control laws that allow landlords to raise rents by as much as 3 per cent per year versus the 1.5 per cent currently allowed. The Parkdale tenants claim their landlords have secured this exemption on the basis that the buildings they live in require significant repairs. They argue this is unfair given the maintenance issues in their units and that the landlord's motivation for obtaining the above‑guideline increase is not to undertake repairs but to push them out so the landlords can move in higher-paying tenants.
These issues are not specific to Parkdale and Toronto. In Vancouver, property values are even more out of control than Ontario and many of the same issues with unscrupulous landlords and economic evictions exist and recently led to the formation of a tenants' union to advocate for fair treatment.
What a rent strike could mean for tenant rights
The Parkdale tenants have fought back by going on a rent strike. Is this a strategy that is likely to get them the much-needed repairs and a withdrawal of the above‑guideline rent increase they are advocating for?
As a starting point, what tenants in Parkdale have done -- refusing to pay their rent -- is justification for eviction in Ontario. When a tenant doesn't pay the rent owing for a unit, a landlord can give that tenant a notice to terminate their tenancy. If the tenant doesn't pay up or move out within two weeks of receiving the notice, the landlord may apply to the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) for an order evicting the tenant. The rent strike is a risky tactic that could very well result in eviction for many of the Parkdale tenants.
However, just because refusing to pay the rent is a ground for eviction, doesn't mean the LTB will necessarily evict every tenant who hasn't paid the rent. Above all else, the RTA is a tenant protection act. Amongst its purposes is to "provide protection for residential tenants from unlawful rent increases and unlawful evictions." To that end, the RTA builds in several protections intended to aid tenants confronted with the issues the Parkdale tenants are protesting.
1. Maintenance issues
A landlord is responsible for maintaining a rental unit in a good and safe state of repair. Once the tenant has informed the landlord of a maintenance issue such as a leaky ceiling or a pest infestation, the landlord must take steps to correct it in a reasonable timeframe.
In an application to evict a tenant for not paying rent, the RTA entitles the tenant to raise allegations that the landlord has not met their obligations under the act. If the tenant convinces the LTB that the landlord did not meet their maintenance obligations, the tenant may be entitled to a rent abatement and/or an order that the landlord make the necessary repairs. If the rent abatement is equal to or more than the amount the tenant owes in rent, the LTB will not evict.
Further, the LTB is required to refuse an eviction if the landlord has seriously breached their obligations under the RTA, including the obligation to maintain the unit.
If the Parkdale tenants can convince the LTB that there are serious maintenance issues in their unit, they may avoid eviction despite having not paid the rent and may even get an order from the LTB demanding that the landlord make necessary repairs.
2. Retaliatory evictions
The RTA also requires the LTB to refuse an eviction order if the landlord is seeking it because the tenant is part of a tenants' association or because they tried to enforce a lawful right under the act.
Both potentially apply in the case of the Parkdale tenants. They have withheld their rent in an attempt to get their landlords to fix serious maintenance issues in their units and they have done so through an organized and high-profile tenants' association.
The issue the tenants have to overcome here is that it is undisputed that the applications are brought because of their rent arrears. To take advantage of this protection, the tenants would have to convince the LTB to look to the reasons the tenants have withheld their rent to determine that the rent arrears that form the grounds for eviction are part of a coordinated effort to assert their rights under the RTA.
Finally, in all eviction applications, the LTB must refuse to issue an eviction order if it finds that doing so would be unfair to the tenant. The LTB will consider a variety of circumstances including the likelihood that the tenant would become homeless if evicted. For many of the Parkdale tenants, an eviction from their apartments might mean homelessness, particularly given the rapidly increasing rents in the city of Toronto. Whether intentionally or not, the eviction action by the Parkdale landlords is targeting a group of low‑income tenants and they may face significant difficulties convincing the LTB that it is fair to evict them.
None of the Parkdale tenants are subject to proceedings at the LTB yet so it remains to be seen if the protections built into the RTA will make the rent strike a success. What is certain is that affordable housing is at risk in Parkdale and the entire city of Toronto and these tenants are taking a creative and courageous stand in an attempt to fix the issue.
Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.
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