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Rent notice jumps gun on increase

Fine print says 6.7 per cent hike not yet approved

Toronto Star - May 26, 1999
By Jack Lakey — City Hall Bureau

Tenants in a St. James Town apartment building have been getting notices ordering them to pay a 6.7 per cent rent increase, even though the province's rental housing tribunal has yet to approve it.

The property managers of 240 Wellesley Street East have applied to raise rents beyond the province's maximum of 3 per cent, based on repairs they say were made to the building since June, 1996. Provincial rent laws say tenants need not pay increases beyond the maximum until the tribunal has approved the hike.

Under the Tenant Protection Act brought in by the Progressive Conservative government, landlords can apply for increases of as much as 7 per cent beyond the maximum for justifiable repairs.

The new legislation also did away with rent controls. Landlords are now allowed to charge as much as they want for an apartment, once it has been vacated.

Tenant advocates say the laws encourage landlords to push out long-time residents so they can replace them with tenants who are willing to pay much higher rents.

Hundreds of tenants at 240 Wellesley St. E. have received notices in recent months, as their renewal dates approach, demanding that they begin paying the 6.7 per cent increase right away, even though the tribunal has not yet dealt with the application.

"The letter they sent me just sort of demanded it," said Chuck Lovness, 80, who says he has lived in the same apartment for more than 25 years.

Lovness, who lives on a pension, got a notice in 1998 that raised his rent from $547.83 to $564.26. This year, the notice said that because of building repairs, his rent would go up to $602.07, a $37.81 increase. "At the bottom of this notice, it says to start making cheques out for the new amount right away," Lovness said. "But if you read every inch of this carefully, it also says it still has to be approved by the tribunal."

"I'll pay it, but it bugs me. It's like they don't want you to know that you really don't have to pay until it's been approved."

Doug Sartell, the building's property manager, said every tenant in the 550-unit building must pay for their share of the improvements, which include new carpeting and appliances and elevator repairs. The single largest cost is $1.2 million in repairs to the building's parking garage.

"Over the course of 12 months, (increases) would apply to virtually every unit in the building," he said.

The paperwork used to notify tenants of their new rents "is the prescribed form from the provincial government," he said. "We have to."

"When an application (for an increase beyond 3 per cent) is submitted, there is a startup date for the proposed increase."

"If the increase is not reflected in the notice by the startup date, then you lose the opportunity to charge the tenant the approved rate, once the decision is made, I guess until the following year."

"I've had many people come in and ask me about it. I . . . explain it to them. I think the form could have been a little more specific."

Sartell added that if people carefully read all the information on the forms, they would realize that they aren't legally obligated to pay the increase until the tribunal approves it.

Councillor Pam McConnell, who has been helping St. James Town tenants with rental housing issues for many years, said the notices are deliberately deceiving.

McConnell (Don River) and her ward mate, Councillor Jack Layton, held a meeting with residents last week to explain their rights, advise them about forming a tenants' association and review the grounds for the application.

Many of the tenants are new Canadians who don't speak or read English well enough to understand the forms, are intimidated by authority and fear that if they question the increase, they'll be evicted, McConnell said.

"A lot of these people are desperate for a home," she said, noting that just nine out of every 1,000 apartments in Toronto are now vacant.

"Some just throw up their hands and allow themselves to be harassed out of the building. People who have been there a long time and try to exercise their rights seem to be the first ones to leave."

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