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Immigrants hit with `illegal' rents

Landlord demands up to year's rent from newcomers

Toronto Star - July 29, 2001
by Federico Barahona


Recent immigrants are being asked to pay up to 12 months rent in advance to secure a unit in a Toronto apartment building, even though such payments are illegal under Ontario laws.

"If you are a newcomer, then we have to use different rules," said Tina, who refused to provide a last name but is the building manager of a high-rise apartment building at 701 Don Mills Rd. near Overlea Blvd.

Tina told a Star reporter posing as a recent immigrant looking for an apartment that new arrivals have no credit rating in Canada and are therefore a risk to landlords.

She said that to secure a two-bedroom apartment, costing $1,075 per month, the reporter would have to pay 12 months rent in advance. But when the reporter said he was employed, the building manager agreed to reduce the deposit to five months plus the first and last month. The payment totaled $7,525, and had to be made with a money order, she said, providing the reporter with a cash register receipt showing the amount.

Paying that much money in advance is good for recent immigrants because it protects them from doing things like gambling away their rent money, she said.

Tina also handed the reporter a list of items, including landed immigrant documentation, she said had to be submitted before she would draft a lease.

The apartment building is owned by Coram Deo Incorp., a registered Ontario corporation.

All recent immigrants applying for an apartment at the building have to pay in advance, the building manager said, showing the reporter two Canada Post money orders, as well as a photocopied money order from the Royal Bank.

Tina said the money orders, which together amounted to about $12,000, were payments made by two recent immigrants and covered six months of rent in advance.

A recent immigrant who pays $950 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in the building said yesterday the manager demanded one year's rent before her family could move in earlier this summer.

The woman, who would not give her name, said that when a relative agreed to sign the lease as a guarantor, the building manager then asked for five months rent, in addition to their first and last month payments.

She said when she and her family immigrated to Toronto last May they searched for housing at numerous buildings and most of them asked for thousands of dollars up front in rent cheques.

She was unaware that such advance payments are against the law.

"I don't know if it is right or wrong. It is just what they asked of us," she said.

"Everywhere, it is the same. They always ask if we are new to Canada," she added.

Taking that much money in advance is illegal, said Scott Harcourt, director of policy with the provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

Harcourt said five-month deposits are an offence under the Tenant Protection Act, punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 if the offence is committed by an individual, or $50,000 if it is a corporation.

He said the act restricts the type of security deposits landlords can collect.

"And it is, in fact, restricted to one month prepaid and the last month's rent. That's the only thing that is legal for a landlord to collect in advance," Harcourt said.

The practice may also be in violation of the province's human rights legislation.

Reema Khawja, a senior policy analyst with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, said human rights legislation is very specific when it outlines what landlords can ask for when screening potential tenants.

"A landlord can request credit references and rental history information," said Khawja. "They can ask for income information as long as they also ask for rental credit and rental information because a person can have low income but a wonderful rental history."

Landlords can also request that prospective tenants provide a co-signer, she said.

"But they shouldn't do that in a discriminatory fashion, so they shouldn't say `I am only going to ask single mothers for a guarantor.' They can't do that. They can't target a particular group and say only that group has to provide a guarantor."

The chief financial officer of Coram Deo, James McArthur, denied his building asked new immigrants to pay their rent in advance, saying the building manager didn't know what she was doing.

"It's totally understandable. She is learning to do her job. She's new," McArthur said.

But after being confronted, the building manager said the practice was company policy.

"We ask them to have a guarantor plus six months payments in advance. I know this is a policy that we have," Tina said.

She insisted the practice was legal and even necessary for landlords to protect themselves.

"There are lots of people coming right now and they don't want to give us their IDs and they don't have a social insurance number. They don't have jobs," she said. "How can you protect yourself?"

Three youths affiliated with the East York Neighbourhood Centre say they visited the same building about three weeks ago, looking for an apartment to share.

They say they were asked if they were new immigrants and were given an application form with a second page attached, stipulating that new immigrants required a guarantor to sign the form "plus six months of rent and last month rent (money order or certified cheque)."

However, Shayna Evans, 16, said that requirement was crossed out for the group, after the building's management was told that none of them were recent immigrants.

"I found it very discriminatory because their idea is that you can't trust a new immigrant to pay the rent," said Evans, who has since found another place to live.

Vlad Wolanyk, a youth housing outreach worker at East York Neighbourhood Centre, said she was surprised when she saw the form.

"This is the first time that somebody has been stupid enough to put it down on paper," Wolanyk said.

Tenants wanting their money back can make an application to the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, but only if they have a receipt, Harcourt said.

Dean Williams, of the investigations unit of the housing ministry, said the practice is only illegal if a payment is made.

Williams said there is little his office can do before that.

"Asking for more than first and last month? It's not an offence,'" said Williams. "But taking some more, that's an offence. It's almost a catch-22. It's got to be paid before you can recover it."

Williams said he has investigated complaints about landlords asking for six-month deposits, but their numbers are "fairly low." He said his office will try to get landlords to comply with the act.

However, a landlord's refusal to return a six-month deposit will trigger an investigation, Williams said.

If a landlord "returns the money once a compliance person phoned him, then we may very well close the file. He has complied, in other words. We send him a letter, telling him what happened and what's wrong with what he did and we send out some education material in the hope that he or she will read it and perhaps not sin again," said Williams, adding that his office has four investigators who work on approximately 400 cases yearly.

Yet housing community workers say six-month deposits are requested all over Toronto.

"This happens far too often. It shouldn't happen. It's exploitation," said Brook Physick, a community consultant who teaches legal clinics on housing laws.

Physick said recent immigrants are being targeted because they are new to the country and may not know the laws well. There is little newcomers can do to protect themselves, given the current housing market in Toronto, he said.

"If they complain to the landlord and say, `I know that this is illegal, you can't ask me for this,' the landlord will simply say, `Fine, move on,' " said Physick, who works for Flemingdon Community Legal Service.

Viviette Howe, who teaches housing workshops in North York, said she hears similar complaints from new immigrants at least once a month, but many are scared to file official complaints.

"A lot of them are scared to lose their housing, and of course, they are new in the country - some of them are landed (immigrants), some of them are not - and they want to make sure they are not causing any problems," said Howe, of the Costi Housing Help Program.

But Physick said it is key for recent immigrants who have made a payment to get a receipt so they can get their money back.

He didn't understand why a landlord would require both a six-month deposit and a co-signer, if all they wanted was to make sure the rent would be paid.


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