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Ontario bill threatens renters in favour of landlords, Ottawa advocates say

An Ottawan Original

▪️ Over one-fifth of MPPs list report receiving rental income, it's one-quarter if spouses are counted
▪️ No moritorium on rent owned due to COVID-19
▪️ Landlords would no longer need to go to Landlord Tenant Board to evict
 

By Jillian Piper

On March 12, Ontario parliament held the first reading of Bill 184, named the “Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act,” which the Ford administration said will protect the rights of tenants and landlords.

However, Ottawa advocates say the new bill decreases renters’ rights amid the pandemic — at a time when they need financial support the most.

One of the most controversial points of the new bill is the ability of landlords to give an eviction notice as soon as a rental payment is missed, instead of having to go to the Landlord Tenant Board and organizing a new payment plan with the tenant.

In May, the bill had its second reading in parliament and is currently being considered by the standing committee on social policy.

Controversy surrounding Bill 184

Herongate Tenant Coalition organizer Josh Hawley said he isn’t surprised at the bill’s timing.

“They pushed it through the pandemic on purpose,” he said.

He added while the housing crisis in Ottawa has been around for years — council even declared a housing and homelessness crisis earlier this year — Bill 184 is pushing pre-existing cracks in the system.

“The crisis was clearly exacerbated by Ford, who as soon as he got into power, he cut funding to the tribunals,” Hawley said.

Hawley referred to when Doug Ford amalgamated the nearly 20 tribunals into one entity known as Tribunals Ontario, a process which began back in 2018.

“What ended up happening was he didn't hire new adjudicators, so the Landlord Tenant Board is really starved of adjudicators right now, which increased the backlog,” Hawley explained.

Hawley added by cutting the tribunals, he thinks Ford was “setting the stage” to justify passing Bill 184, which he described as “an eviction speed-up bill.”

Passing a bill that would allow landlords to evict tenants as soon as a payment is late, rather than being able to agree on a new repayment plan in the Landlord Tenant Board, is especially problematic given the job insecurity brought on by COVID-19, Hawley said.

In June, Canada’s unemployment rate hit a record 13.7 per cent.

While the government of Ontario acknowledges paying rent will be more difficult due to COVID-19, the government’s website states all tenants who can pay their rent must do so to the best of their abilities.

“Landlords are entitled to collect compensation from a tenant for each day that an eviction order is not enforced. However, tenants who are asked to self-isolate or who can’t work may have difficulty paying their rent,” the website reads.

“We encourage landlords and tenants to work together during this difficult time to establish fair arrangements to keep tenants in their homes,” the statement continues.

In late April, Ford said residential rent relief would soon be implemented. Currently, there is no COVID-19 residential rent-specific relief program for Canadians, but the federal and Ontario government did provide a commercial rent assistance program for small businesses affected by COVID-19 back in May.

Advocates say time to implement support for renters is running out.

COVID-19 financial strains

Mavis Finnamore, long-time tenant leader of housing advocacy group Association of Community Organizations for Reform (ACORN)’s Ottawa chapter, said while COVID-19 relief programs have been generous, residential tenants are being left in the dust.

“[The government has] been all over the place with donating money left, right and center, and it's actually kind of amazing to me that they've somehow overlooked residential tenants,” she said.

“I used to think of the government as being something that worked for the people to help the people, and I'm really not seeing this now,” she added.

Finnamore said vulnerable communities were hit hardest by the pandemic, which emphasizes the need for rental support during COVID-19.

“We already have a housing problem and then to have COVID-19 and all these restrictions dumped on it made things very, very uncomfortable for people at the lower end as far as rent goes,” she said.

Although the City of Ottawa declared a housing and homelessness crisis earlier this year, Finnamore said it seems to be swept under the rug.

“Somehow, [government officials] have developed amnesia,” she said. “It seems inevitable that we're going to be seeing another bunch of people out homeless, but [the government is] kind of contributing to the problem.”

Finnamore said ACORN members have collectively sent thousands of emails and called politicians hundreds of times to advocate on behalf of housing supports for renters amid the pandemic.

The group hopes to see the government provide an emergency no-interest loan that those struggling to pay rent — whether or not they receive the $2,000 a month Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) or unemployment insurance— could easily apply for in a time of need, as well as freezing rent increases and ensuring vacancy control to avoid higher rates.

Finnamore also said the most important change the group is advocating for is a moratorium on evictions caused by inability to pay rent.

“We're not hearing from our governments on these very vulnerable marginal income people. They're not helping them out,” she said. “So the louder we can amplify our message through whatever media or system we can do, the better.”

Finnamore added she has also been talking more directly with councillors to see if they can exert pressure on other councillors to enact support.

‘Skyrocketing’ housing market

Somerset Ward city councillor Catherine McKenney said the government has known the necessary steps to take since the national housing strategy was released in 2017, but no concrete measures have been implemented.

“The national housing strategy calls for two things, it calls for us to end or reduce chronic homelessness by 50 per cent and to reduce core housing needs, so helping people who are paying far too much for their housing,” McKenney, council’s liaison on housing and homelessness, said.

McKenney added housing prices in Ottawa have recently “skyrocketed.”

“Some people are paying well over 30 per cent of their income just on housing,” they said. “People are falling into homelessness as a result.”

Even rent forgiveness would not be enough to undo the damage already done, McKenney added.

“We need to give people rent supplements or housing allowances until they’re able to gain their own ability to pay for housing and we need to build more housing,” they said. “We have to start building housing that is supportive housing for people coming out of shelter.”

MPP Joel Harden agreed that affordable housing is a necessity for Ottawa neighbourhoods.

“People in Ottawa Community Housing will tell you, despite being the biggest landlord of affordable housing in the city, they have a waitlist of 10 years for the units they currently have,” he said.

While some new developments are currently underway, Harden said the majority are not affordable.

“In the private rental market what we're seeing across Ottawa are these enormous glass monstrosities being built up, which are not affordable housing — they’re not even family housing,” he said. “They’re housing for affluent folks, frankly, like myself.”

“I make a good income as an MPP, but that’s not who we’re looking to house,” he added.

Of the 124 Ontario MPPs in 2019, about a fifth listed “rental property” as one of their sources of income. That amount increases to just under a quarter of MPPs profiting off of rental incomes if their spouses’ listed incomes are included.

Finnamore said having people who generate a profit off of rental incomes making policy decisions can be problematic.

“If you’re an owner, you have a different point of view and I think that if you’re doing it for income, certainly you don’t want anything impinging on your income,” she said.

Finnamore added that while small landlords typically know their tenants and are more likely to actually live in the development, problems can arise with bigger companies.

“They certainly did not want to pay attention to tenants’ concerns [at her previous apartment], they were just concerned about demolishing and getting the money out of you,” she said.

Finnamore added she also worries about conflicts of interest.

“All the developers were throwing money around at all the councillors,” she said. “The obvious conclusion is you've got to be getting something for your money.”

Calling for support

Harden said one possible solution to Ottawa’s high housing prices could be implementing an inclusionary zoning policy, following in the footsteps of cities like Montréal and Vancouver, which would require developers to set aside a certain percentage of new developments to be affordable for those with moderate to low incomes.

“The way you can require the private rental market to care about building affordable housing is to require it,” Harden said. “It’s not going to happen by itself, legislation has to guide it.”

Harden referenced the development of Heron Gate as a perfect example of affordable housing in Ottawa being demolished for profit.

“We have to put our heads together because it’s not as if in Ottawa there isn’t usable space,” he said. “There is unused and underutilized space, we just have the wrong priorities in the kind of housing we’re building.”

Hawley disagreed with implementing inclusionary zoning practices, saying mixed income communities as a result of inclusionary zoning can lead to further division between classes.

“Mixed income communities don't accomplish anything,” he said. “If anything, they create division because there's a hierarchy. There's condescension from property owners.”

While some advocates think policy is the best approach to change, Hawley said he believes meaningful change can only occur with community action.

“I see structural change not coming from policy, not coming from lobbying politicians, but coming from building up the power of working class people,” he said. “It's been taken away from us for so long, we've been led to believe that we have to trust politicians or the change we can make happens once every four years.”

“But the real change happens at your home with your neighbors,” he added.

With the main source of government-provided tenant support being the Landlord Tenant Board, which Hawley described as “cumbersome” and “not set up for tenants,” he said it is all the more important to support neighbours.

“It's a commitment to realize that in our homes, we can protect ourselves and we can defend ourselves,” he said.