[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I think about the various parts of my identity, the word tenant tends not to come to my mind first, however, as I continue to live on limited means, and as the price of housing in Toronto continues to soar, the title of ‘homeowner’ seems to drift further and further out of reach. Like many students, I find myself frequently navigating the murky world of city tenancy. 

The housing market is flush with demand and is increasing in supply. People who can afford to live here continue to flow in, while growing condominiums and building cranes seem to assert themselves as permanent fixtures on the city skyline. In 2015, the average home price in the Greater Toronto Area hit a record high of $622,217, which was an increase of nearly 10 per cent over the previous year.   

In many cases, renting is unremarkable: agreeable landlords meet responsible tenants, and a happy relationship ensues. In situations where this is not the case, however, tenants sometimes find themselves caught up in costly bureaucratic and legal dilemmas. This is, unfortunately, the truth for many U of T students, who often find themselves on the very margins of the housing market. 

Student struggles

Denis Suvorov is a U of T student, and formerly a fellow tenant of a building on Bloor Street West. We had the same landlord and the same problem with cockroaches.

I took my landlord to court when the issue went unaddressed and managed to get the city inspector to file a report. This was a year before Suvorov went to the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) over his concerns. 

For Suvorov and his girlfriend, the landlord seemed off from the start. He reportedly “snatched” the deposit cheque from her hand on the day they signed the lease. Surovov gave the landlord written notice of leave in December when the cockroach problem didn’t get resolved. Suvorov told the landlord that he would be assigning his lease to someone else. The landlord reportedly replied that “he doesn’t do that” -— which is illegal. Suvorov told potential tenants about the roach problem, and nobody was willing to take over the lease.

From that point on, Suvorov says that the landlord used the terms “assignment” and “sublet” interchangeably, which is misleading. An assignment means that a new tenant signs an agreement to takeover a lease from the previous tenants. Subletting the apartment, however, leaves the initial lease agreement in place, and the primary tenant remains responsible while someone else lives on the rented premises.

Suvorov and his girlfriend paid rent for the months of January and February after giving verbal notice of their intention to leave in November. They slipped the keys under the door in January. Their next step was to go to the LTB. They couldn’t assign or sublet the unit to anyone themselves; they would have had to lie about their experience in order to get someone else to assume the responsibility or endure the cockroaches. 

After they left the apartment, the landlord filed a claim against them with the LTB. The maximum dollar amount that anyone can file for with the LTB is $25,000. This landlord was asking for $20,000, a number that seemed absurdly high to the couple. 

By February, they went into mediation, a process in which both parties present their case and try to resolve the dispute before appearing for a hearing. After appearing twice and seeing no progress, the disgruntled group booked a hearing in small claims court for a month later. Suvorov was concerned about the short time to prepare. 

In court, the landlord’s lawyer attempted to delegitimize Suvorov’s claims by denying the existence of an infestation, and saying that Suvorov was attempting to leave because he could no longer afford the rent. Meanwhile, Suvorov had moved to a new unit in January which was more expensive. At mediation, Suvorov settled for $5000.

Landlords and the law

Suvorov’s experience, like those of many students in conflict with their landlords, was aggravated by legislation. 

In 1998, Mike Harris’ Conservative provincial government established the Tenant Protection Act and the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, now known as the LTB, which was meant to settle disputes in accordance with the law. 

In 2006, after lobbying from landlord and tenant advocacy groups, the McGuinty government put forth the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) to replace the previous act. According to the views expressed by tenant and landlord associations during the review process, this process was far from groundbreaking. Ten years later, not much has changed.

According to Dan McIntyre, an experienced paralegal in Toronto who specializes in representing tenants, the McGuinty government made two promises when preparing the RTA: a focus on maintenance issues and the loosening of rent regulation. Surovov’s case shows that maintenance issues are still a challenge, and while rent deregulation benefits landlords who can raise prices in gentrifying areas, it can often hurt low income tenants who get priced out of their units.

To the chagrin of many students who have faced landlord and tenant issues in Toronto, this legislation has not been reviewed since 2006. Meanwhile, the housing market in Toronto is constantly changing. The increasing costs associated with these changes make the stakes high for students who enter into costly lease agreements with limited budgets. As it stands, the recourse available under the RTA threatens to be just as costly. 

Some students try to avoid legal matters by taking on informal lease agreements, often through personal connections. It can be a solution for students when money is tight. 

I connected with a fellow student through the U of T Reddit page, who used the name “Spuntop.” Spuntop was illegally renting an apartment 10 years ago on Queen Street West, after having been introduced to the landlord through mutual friends. Spuntop’s occupation of the apartment was based on a verbal agreement.

“It was a large, two-bedroom apartment that we couldn’t hope to afford at market value,” Spuntop explained. This is why the renters “work[ed] as a collective” when the apartment became infested with beetles. In Spuntop’s case, the landlord was out of the country when the beetle problem presented itself. They were unable to reach out to the landlord to fix the issue, and without a written lease they had no protection.

His low income tenants who are most frequently evicted by landlords using the LTB, even though they qualify for legal aid and representation offered by legal clinics throughout the city. While these clinics exist to protect the poorest people from losing their homes, they are backed up with people who need their services, which makes access difficult. Funding for these clinics, which comes from federal and provincial governments, has been at a bare minimum until recently. To deal with the volume, cases are organized in order of priority. Anything physically threatening, for example, would be considered a top concern. 

Downtown Legal Services, the law clinic operated by the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, recently received new funding following a 2015 referendum. This gave them the ability to hire full-time lawyer Benjamin Ries. In a phone interview with Ries, he spoke of “significant systemic problems” in the institutions mitigating the landlord-tenant relationship. 

According to Ries, the “shortage of rental housing” in Toronto is “at the advantage of the landlord” and that this gives them “little incentive to change.” Mr. Ries warns not to “rely on the investigation enforcement unit,” a group tasked with enforcing the RTA in landlord-tenant disputes, because they are understaffed. Meanwhile, these issues continue to appear in legal clinics and the court system. While this seems like a great way to keep the LTB in business, it is hardly the path of least resistance for students like Suvorov. 

Now that the funding to DLS has been released, the hope is that some pressure will be alleviated and cases will be addressed more promptly. Previously, Ries mentioned that even though DLS used to accept only cases that were going to the LTB, he hopes that the expansion of the overall capacity of DLS will allow the clinic to look at a broader range of cases. 

In a phone interview, Arlene Clement, Director of Housing Services at the university’s St. George campus, discussed the importance of rental literacy for tenants, especially when it comes to the responsibilities of landlords. More often than not, finding and navigating that information is left to the student alone. The informational services can help students prepare to be tenants, but it is the student’s responsibility to take it from there.  Housing Services will refer students to the Federation of Metro Tenants Association and local legal clinics if they are having issues with their landlord after they sign the lease. 

Jasmine Denike, vice president, external for the University of Toronto Students’ Union, is involved in organizing a seminar in collaboration with the DLS about landlord-tenant rights. Through promoting the event, she has received interesting responses from students about their tenancy experiences.

“The main concerns of students lie in what I believe is most important: students knowing what they’re deserved as tenants and not wanting to be given less than that by landlords,” she says. “Ensuring that students feel safe and comfortable in their homes is incredibly important — not only financially, but for their mental well-being. If there are students out there living in poor conditions and who don’t feel safe, that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.” 

Slipping through the cracks

Toronto is old. There are a lot of deteriorating buildings being bought up by companies or individuals that take on the role of landlord. One of the most famous cases in recent times came from a company named Akelius in Parkdale. They started renovations in the building without regard for the tenants and ignored the responsibilities outlined in the RTA. With the advice of the local legal clinic, the tenants filed a class action lawsuit against the company. These cases are few and far between because coordinating a large group of people with little in common other than their difficult predicament is the weakest of strong ties. 

Students face an uphill battle when faced with housing issues and helpful resources are limited. The best we can do is fight for change and rent with caution.