by Andy Crosby
Eviction hearings have spiked dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, according to data compiled by tenant and housing rights activists.
Keep Your Rent Toronto and Ottawa Eviction Defence are two groups helping tenants fight evictions, as well as documenting thousands of evictions authorized by the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB), which is deemed an “eviction factory” on the recently unveiled website evictionsontario.ca.
Between November 2020 and January 2021, activists with these groups documented some 13,000 eviction hearings, with multiple hearings taking place in what is referred to by one adjudicator as “express L1 [eviction] blocks.” The LTB’s L1 Form is an “Application to Evict a Tenant for Non-payment of Rent and to Collect Rent the Tenant Owes.”
A separate report published in December 2020 also calculated 8,323 eviction applications were processed by the LTB from March 17 to August 31, 2020. Written in support of the renters’ movement in the Greater Toronto Area, the report demands immediate rent relief that includes forgiving rent arrears for those unable to pay — and demands that landlords should absorb 100% of these costs.
The Evictions Ontario website also documents the “worst offenders.” While Toronto Community Housing Corporation has been granted the most eviction hearings, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and other large corporate landlords are responsible for a large bulk of the eviction applications heard by the Board. (See our companion piece “Rein in the REITs” for more on how these corporations are dismantling affordable housing.)
Despite reaping considerable profits during the pandemic, REITs in Ontario are asking for government relief.
In October 2020, the Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario (FRPO) prepared a submission for the 2020 Ontario provincial budget. The FRPO claimed that the rental housing industry’s position had weakened through the course of the pandemic.
Requesting financial assistance, the FRPO proposed a formula for paying rent arrears where landlords would cover 25 to 33% of losses, while government and renters would cover the rest. The submission noted that 98,000 Ontario households were unable to pay their full rent since the pandemic started.
Housing activists, on the other hand, are demanding rent relief for tenants and that the landlords foot the bill.
Those challenging the rental industry’s narrative have highlighted the profit margins enjoyed by Canada’s biggest landlords during the pandemic. For example, writing in the National Observer, political economist Ricardo Tranjan looked at financial reports of some of the larger corporate landlords and real estate investment firms for the third-quarter of 2020. This revealed they had comparable profits with 2019 figures and high levels of rent collection, despite the pandemic.
Moreover, rents continue to increase at record rates, according to a recent Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) report and analysis by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). The CCPA notes that the national average increase in rent for a two-bedroom apartment from October 2019 to October 2020 was 3.5%, reaching as high as 4.8% in Ontario and 5.2% in Ottawa.
Looking closer at Ottawa, the CMHC report notes Ottawa’s vacancy rate increased from 1.8 to 3.9%. This was largely due to job losses among the 15-24 age group, reduced international migration, and postsecondary campus closures. Despite the increased vacancy rate, average rents have increased by 4.5%.
What does this mean for someone looking for an apartment during the pandemic? According to analysis posted to Reddit’s Ottawa thread, the rental average in Ottawa was $1,856.51/month in January (based on 864 Kijiji ads), while an average 1 bedroom apartment cost $1,328, with $778 for a single room.
The CMHC report further notes that rent arrears were among the lowest in the country for the Ottawa-Gatineau area.
In Gatineau, the vacancy rate remained unchanged at around 1.6%, while average rents increased by 2.4%. A report published on February 10 by Ligue des droits et libertés on the housing situation in Gatineau documents intensified gentrification efforts in downtown Hull and the largely lower-income, immigrant-populated Mont-Bleu neighbourhood — where a tornado destroyed hundreds of rental units in 2018. The report also documents harassment, racism, and evictions from private market landlords, as well as the evictions of families from social housing for owing as little as $101 to $500.
What these heaps of data tell us is that landlords continue to fare rather well, despite the pandemic.
“When large corporate landlords cry poor, they are being disingenuous,” wrote University of Waterloo planning professor Martine August in a debate opinion piece with FRPO CEO and President Tony Irwin in the Toronto Star. “This pandemic underlines the reality that housing should be treated as a home for people — not as a financial asset for investor profit-making.”
The FRPO also complained that the long processing times at the Landlord and Tenant Board was adding more costs to landlords — and requested an increase in current adjudicator slots by a factor of 100 percent.
Housing activists have countered by arguing that the Landlord and Tenant Board has largely acted in the service and interests of landlords ever since it was established in the late 1990s by the architects of housing deregulation in Ontario under the Harris government.
Activist groups have also documented that during the course of the pandemic, over 90% of Landlord and Tenant Board applications have been initiated by landlords, the vast majority for unpaid rent. Meanwhile, 70% of board adjudicators were appointed by the Ford government since 2018, with 47% of sitting adjudicators appointed during the pandemic — seemingly in preparation for the LTB’s eviction “blitz,” as one adjudicator referred to the eviction proceedings, according to evictionsontario.ca.
Further statistics detail the Landlord and Tenant Board’s move toward express eviction blocks, where multiple eviction applications (upwards of 16) can be reviewed in one hearing. Evictions Ontario notes that 7,084 eviction hearings were held in November when these “blitz” blocks came into effect.
Some recently-appointed adjudicators are also former employees of property managers or law firms catering to landlords. In one particularly stark example on evictionsontario.ca, an adjudicator’s former website describes her dedication to “lending a hand to landlords.”
The Landlord and Tenant Board does not disclose adjudicators’ previous employment that could create “bad optics” or expose a conflict of interest, an activist with Ottawa Eviction Defence, who wishes to remain anonymous, told The Leveller. While it is important to shed light on pro-landlord adjudicators, it is the system itself that is tainted, they added.
Without a level playing field, activists are forced to diversify their tactics, whether that be attempting to physically block evictions from being carried out, or targeting the system and the adjudicators themselves.
Successfully blocking evictions can be challenging, according to one activist in a recent online panel called “Activism in the Real Estate State.” But activists in Toronto and Ottawa have made such attempts in recent weeks with varying success. In Toronto, Parkdale Organize posted about a successful eviction block at a Timbercreek (recently rebranded Hazelview) property in Little Portugal.
In Ottawa, activists attempted to block a sheriff carrying out an eviction order in Beacon Hill in late December. Amanda Proulx, who quit her job to take care of her dying fiancé and fell behind on rent, was supported by around 12 to 15 activists. They then had to contend with 12 to 15 Ottawa police officers who came to support the sheriff — some wearing tactical “assault gloves” similar to those worn by officer Daniel Montsion during the killing of Abdirahman Abdi in 2018.
The activists were able to peacefully hold the line as the sheriff tried to force his way in, with police support. Proulx eventually broke the tense standoff by agreeing to negotiate with the landlord, Martin Bertrand, who gave her three more hours to leave and offered to pay her moving expenses on the condition her supporters disperse.
The dice was always loaded in the landlord’s favour, against Proulx and her supporters. While Bertrand only paid a few hundred dollars for the sheriff’s fee, he received support from a small army of well-armed and well-paid professionals (the police), because the state prioritizes housing for profit over housing as a right. With many of these officers on Ontario’s Sunshine List (for public sector employees who make more than $100,000 per year), the public cost of enforcing evictions is high. What this amounts to is a combination of high-income landlords, adjudicators, sheriffs, and police officers teaming up to evict lower-income and struggling residents in the city.
Activists coordinating through Ottawa Eviction Defence have also supported other tenants facing evictions in Ottawa, including 79 year-old Louise Bowie living in the south end of Ottawa. Bowie received an eviction order on December 21 for January 31. She has COPD — chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — a condition that puts her at higher risk from COVID. The Go Fund Me page set up to support Bowie noted that the “lack of accessible and affordable housing means [the eviction order] is putting Louise in a life or death situation.”
Local lawyer Daniel Tucker-Simmons filed an appeal to the divisional court, resulting in an automatic stay of Bowie’s eviction. During the appeal process, a public pressure campaign was launched by supporters to call and email the landlord’s personal contacts, and the landlord settled on allowing Bowie to stay until May 31.
Meanwhile, as the Ontario government’s 14-day eviction enforcement moratorium expires across the province, eviction enforcement resumed in Kingston and Frontenac on February 10 and is set to resume in Ottawa at the time of publication.