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Who is protecting the tenants?

Toronto Star - July 27, 2000
By David Lewis Stein — The Cities

In the leafy south end of Oakville, where houses are smalltown early 20th century with gables and lovely gardens, there is an aging white apartment building.

Diana and Jim Walden fear they will not be able to go on living there.

The Waldens are a small story but worth listening to, I think.

Diana is 80, Jim is 75. Between them, they have a pension income of $31,200.

In 1989, when Jim retired, they moved into their two-bedroom Oakville apartment.

"I was a product manager but that's a meaningless title. I was really a troubleshooter with the customers - not a big executive position." "He was a draughtsman at Avro before that," Diana says, adding with a rueful laugh, "He made a model of the Arrow. Maybe we could sell it if things really get bad."

Jim produces a chart showing his rent back in 1989 was $576.06. By 1999, it had grown to $865.81 - an increase of 50 per cent.

Needless to say, the Waldens' pension income did not increase by 50 per cent.

Early this spring, they got a notice that their landlord, the Atlantis Real Estate Co., wanted to raise their rent by the statutory 2.6 per cent, plus another 4 per cent.

A company spokesperson explained to me this week that money was needed to repair balconies and windows.

The Waldens, who have had some political experience, put up notices, held a meeting and got 40 people out to the rent tribunal hearing in Burlington - an impressive job considering Burlington is 21 kilometres west of Oakville and many tenants are elderly or have to work during the day.

They had proxies from another 31 tenants so they represented 71 tenants of the 113 facing rent increases.

Three days later, they got a written decision. One paragraph is a particularly chilling snapshot of the "Tenant Protection Act" at work.

"Some tenants queried why their rents should be increased without giving consideration to energy savings the landlord would experience (with new windows)" the rent tribunal member wrote.

"Some tenants were concerned about the fact that the landlord appeared to be undertaking a program of annual expenditures, which would result in further applications for increases above the guideline."

"One tenant, speaking on behalf of a large number of tenants, suggested that the landlord should have capital reserves in place, rather than pass the cost of capital projects on to the tenants by way of a rent increase."

"Many tenants complained about the general lack of maintenance by the landlord over the past years and referred to many repair issues that had nothing to do with the capital expenditures claimed in this application."

"Although I was invited to comment, these are issues that are either not relevant to this application or are outside the jurisdiction of the tribunal and I will not comment on these concerns. The tenants were generally dissatisfied by my unwillingness to become involved in a discussions of these issues (italics mine)."

The landlord got the 6.6 per cent increase.

The Waldens got an application for a place in a non-profit housing project but Halton Region already has a waiting list with 3,000 names on it and no new subsidized housing has been built since 1998 when the last federal and provincial programs ended.

The easing of rent controls in the Tenant Protection Act was supposed to encourage developers to build rental apartments. But since the act went into effect in 1998, they have built only 63 rental units in Halton.

Ottawa and Queen's Park announced housing money during the homeless crisis last winter but little has come to Halton.

"Basically, we're trying to create opportunities where they don't exist," says Gwen Maloney, Halton's director of housing.

Queen's Park used to support non-profit housing but Premier Mike Harris turned it all over to municipalities and, in the Greater Toronto Area, ordered them to pool contributions.

So Halton spends $17 million on housing its own people and contributes another $17 million toward the cost of low-income housing in the City of Toronto.

Municipalities were at least supposed to get control over housing but so far this hasn't happened.

"Basically, we're just cheque writers right now," says Halton Chair Joyce Savoline.

Tonight, Diana will be singing with the choir at a senior citizen centre fundraiser. It may be her last performance. She and Jim have two children and six grandchildren in Oakville but have started to look at Hamilton apartments.

They figure it will soon be the only place they can afford.

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