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Roof over our heads | Jerry Levitan

Tuesday, September 08, 2020 @ 12:56 PM | By Jerry Levitan

Jerry Levitan %>
Jerry Levitan
As with much of the Ontario government’s response to our COVID-19 fuelled economic crisis, legislation to deal with the looming tenancy and housing catastrophe has been piecemeal, ineffective and self-congratulatory. One only has to read the proliferation of Ontario news releases that give the appearance that things are under control.

But things are not under control. The most enlightened of governments around the world readily admit the myriad of challenges in responding to an uncertain time frame to deal with our sorry state of affairs. Some of those governments make an attempt to have comprehensive and bold measures introduced to mitigate economic collapse and disaster for individuals and families. With respect to housing policy the challenges are to ensure that people have roofs over their heads that are safe and affordable, that landlords cannot summarily and unreasonably end tenancies and that a viable system is in place to deal with homelessness.

The reality is, there is a proliferation of condo and apartment buildings built and run by large corporations, investors and speculators. Government-built and sponsored housing is but a small part of the equation. If one were to balance fairness in the COVID-19 context, I would embrace the need to protect tenants. Corporations, speculators and investors have the resources to adapt, weather economic storms and review their options before making changes. Home security is not their paramount concern. Tenants and tenant families need a place to live and to put food on the table.

The Ontario government’s web page titled Renting in Ontario: Your Rights, should be more aptly titled Renting and Evicting in Ontario: Landlord and Tenant Rights. Here is but one quote from Ontario’s web page on the subject:

“We encourage landlords and tenants to work together to establish fair arrangements for repayment of rent.”

The Bible has a great deal to say about landlords and tenants and fairness. Bottom line, landlords look to the bottom line. That does not mean that landlords are not human.

Small landlords have their own challenges paying expenses and mortgages and worrying about cash flow. That is the capitalist system we live in. But feel-good statements and news releases or ineffectual legislative amendments do not address ongoing massive economic shifts that are occurring that will no doubt deprive people of affordable housing and the ability to have security in their tenancies. Coherent legislation is urgently required that effectively protects tenants from arbitrary eviction and inappropriate rent increases. Things have changed and the pendulum must shift more from landlord protection to real tenant protection. People need a roof over their heads especially in wintry Ontario.

Section 1 of the Residential Tenancies Act reads:

“Purposes of Act

“1 The purposes of this Act are to provide protection for residential tenants from unlawful rent increases and unlawful evictions, to establish a framework for the regulation of residential rents, to balance the rights and responsibilities of residential landlords and tenants and to provide for the adjudication of disputes and for other processes to informally resolve disputes.”

Access to justice needs to mean more than a statutory regulatory framework that encourages fairness. The Ontario government as indicated on its web page “encourages landlords to try to negotiate a repayment agreement with a tenant before seeking eviction if rent has not been paid during COVID-19.” Encouragement to landlords to be fair are lofty ideals but only legislation can protect tenants from unfairness and emergency conditions they are now experiencing.

Though the Act includes provisions that set the terms for rent increases, evictions, orders and hearings, those provisions will be interpreted and enforced by the appointees to the Landlord and Tenant Board, appointed by the government of the day. What guidance or predilections do they have in these unprecedented times?

The ending of eviction moratoriums exposes tenants to eviction proceedings that are guided by a statutory process, but one that landlords and their lawyers are quite adept at navigating. Tenants going through evictions and threats of evictions because they are victims of an unprecedented global health and economic crisis cannot afford lawyers to help them nor do they have the temperaments to deal with the long and winding process on their own. 

Whether they “negotiate” repayment agreements formal or informal or whether they try their best to pay what they can, tenants are more vulnerable than at any time in our lifetimes to greater hardship and horrendous choices to make for them and their families to preserve their homes.

It is reasonable to presume that given the present economic crisis that the already high proportion of renters will increase dramatically by virtue of the search for less costly units or homeowners selling their homes. Therefore, a greater percentage of our population will require statutory protection not only for process and fairness but for their lives and the well-being of their families.

Spurts of government pronouncements, moratoria on evictions and rent increases do not deal with the reality of our dilemma. Tenants and landlords need some degree of certainty. So, if a moratorium on evictions and rent increases ends when COVID-19 is still an existential threat and there is no economic certainty on the horizon, the government is only arbitrarily pushing the yard line further. Promises of temporary rent freezes or marginal increase caps will not address fundamental problems of inability to pay rent that is now too high in the new economic context.

Access to justice and access to housing go hand in hand. Stopgap public relations type amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act accomplish neither. It is time for the Act to be overhauled to address the fundamental reality of our time during the Great Transition.

That is that increasingly, people will need a place to live and that landlords and the Ontario government will need to accommodate them physically and statutorily. If you are going to go into the landlord business government will have to make it clear that profit alone will not be your only consideration. If you want permits to build multiunit accommodation for profit, deleterious exigencies for tenants will have to be built into the approval process.

If landlords are not providing affordable housing or emergency housing, extraordinary measures are now required for the government to do so on a massive scale. Providing an affordable and secure place to live for our fellow Ontarians should be part of the equation.

Jerry Levitan is a Toronto lawyer who practised litigation, administrative and liquor licensing law. He as well is the producer of the Academy Award nominated and Emmy winning short animated film I Met The Walrus about the day he spent at age 14 with John Lennon and author of the Canadian bestselling book with the same title.

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