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Tenants fighting Ontario `eviction factory'

Concerns grow over legislation
Thousands ousted without a hearing

Toronto Star - February 15, 2004
by Patricia Orwen and Laurie Monsebratten

Karen and Wilfred Paris are fighting their eviction from an apartment they have called home for nearly 40 years. The couple fell behind in the rent, but soon paid up. "I thought it was all a misunderstanding. I thought we could work this out," said Wilfred Paris.

After 38 years in the three-bedroom apartment where they raised four boys, Wilfred and Karen Paris were suddenly facing eviction.

The retired Scarborough couple had fallen behind on their $725.64 monthly rent. Shocked by a sheriff's order to leave, they immediately paid up and assumed all was taken care of. But it was too late.

Their landlord had the right to change the lock on their door.

The eviction order stood, even after the couple appealed to the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, a quasi-judicial agency created by the former Tory government in 1998 to speed up resolution of landlord and tenant disputes.

The couple's fate was sealed by a procedural requirement that forces tenants to notify the tribunal in writing or in person within five days, if they plan to dispute an eviction order.

"I thought it was all a misunderstanding. I thought we could work this out," said Wilfred Paris, who can't afford to live anywhere else.

It also left them asking how two seniors on pensions, with a 32-year-old disabled son who stayed with them on weekends, could be treated so shoddily. Didn't the government promise its 1998 Tenant Protection Act would deal with things like this?

Unlike thousands of tenants in similar situations, the Parises are appealing their case in court this spring.

And now Ontario's ombudsman — who says he has received "numerous" complaints from tenants and their advocates — is stepping into the fray.

In a letter to Liberal Housing Minister John Gerretsen, Ombudsman Clare Lewis says he is concerned about the large number of tenants being evicted without mediation or a hearing.

Lewis said he's particularly worried about the "disproportionate and oppressive consequences" for seniors, single parents with small children, the disabled and people for whom English is a second language.

"While the Act may have effected greater administrative efficiencies than the (previous) Landlord and Tenant Act, I am concerned that this may have been at the expense of fair process," he said in the letter dated Nov. 19, 2003 and obtained by the Star last week. "I would urge you to consider redressing the balance," Lewis concluded.

What happened to Wilfred and Karen Paris is typical of what is happening all over the province since the act came into force, said Kathy Laird, legal director for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario.

"Landlords are using it like an eviction factory," she said.

She and other advocates accuse the previous Progressive Conservative government of sacrificing fairness for expediency by making it easier for landlords to evict tenants.

Last year, more than 62,000 tenant households in Ontario faced eviction, 80 per cent because of non-payment of rent, according to the tribunal's figures. About 60 per cent of those were ordered evicted by the tribunal without a hearing. Those figures are 25 per cent higher than in 1997, the year before the Tories' legislation was enacted.

In total, 267,018 tenant households have faced eviction for rent arrears from June 1998, when the tribunal was set up, until the end of 2003. Nearly 60 per cent, or 158,565 households, were ordered evicted by "default" — like the Parises, meaning they did not reply in writing to the tribunal within five days.

Tenant groups say they can't keep up with the demand to handle default cases because so many families don't understand the eviction notice. "It's not that these people are stupid or that they don't care, it's happening because the tribunal's forms are virtually impossible for anyone to understand," said Theresa Thornton of the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation. "I've had university professors look at them and wonder what they're all about."

The Fair Rental Policy Organization, an advocacy coalition for landlords, agrees with tenant groups on this point.

They "would happily support any changes to the form that would help improve tenants' understanding of their rights and obligations," the organization said in a report to the Ombudsman last February.

Other changes the two opposing groups agree are needed include: creating public databases of tribunal decisions; lowering tribunal application fees; and providing materials to help tenants once they are "locked out." But the landlords' group hotly disputes tenants' claim that the tribunal favours landlords.

The landlords note that for most businesses, customers must pay for what they buy. They argue they shouldn't have to provide free accommodation to delinquent tenants during lengthy eviction procedures. "It is grossly unfair to force society's obligations to the poor on one small sector of society," the landlords said in their report.

Utilia Amaral, of the landlord group, says the legislation provides more than just the five-day dispute period.

There's a verbal warning first, then delinquent tenants are issued a form telling them they have 14 days to pay, she said. If rent is still not received, landlords may apply to the tribunal for a notice of eviction hearing. This is the notice that includes a dispute form, which tenants are required to complete and return to the tribunal within five days or risk being evicted by default. After the tribunal issues the default order, there's still another 11 days to pay the rent — plus the landlord's tribunal cost of $150 — and nullify the order.

In the Paris case, Wilfred Paris acknowledges that he and his wife were behind in their rent, but he said that was because of the timing of his pension cheque. He said he phoned the landlord to explain and was told if he paid the arrears and the $150 tribunal costs, the matter would be closed.

But the eviction process was already well under way by the time the couple had paid up. When they asked for a hearing to stop the eviction, the tribunal said it would not consider the fact that all rent and costs had been paid. Instead, it ruled that since the Parises did not explain adequately why they didn't file the dispute form within the five days, the order would stand.

Toronto lawyers for the Parises' landlord — 10 Trudelle Apartments Ltd. — said that since the case is before the courts, he could not comment.

The Parises remain in their apartment while their case is under appeal, but hundreds of other tenants have found themselves desperately searching for a place to live, or bunking in with relatives or friends once evicted.

Ramona Nepaul, a 23-year-old retail clerk, remembers being reduced to tears when she came home from work one day to find the locks changed on her Parkdale apartment door.

For three months, she had been fighting an eviction notice that came last February, saying she was behind in the rent. She admits she sometimes paid her monthly rent of $781 a week or so late, but she said it was an arrangement agreed to by the landlord to coincide with when she got paid.

When Nepaul received the eviction notice, she immediately paid the rent, but figured she would go to the housing tribunal anyway and explain her situation. When she got there, Nepaul was told she and her husband had already been ordered evicted because she failed to respond to the notice, in writing, within five days.

Nepaul contacted Parkdale Community Legal Services, which examined her case and found the landlord actually owed her money. Not only had she paid the landlord's tribunal fees, she had also paid an extra month's rent. The agency took her case back to the tribunal to have the eviction order overturned, but the motion was denied. The locks were changed on May 30.

"I thought the law would be on my side because I didn't owe the landlord any money," said Nepaul, who had to move to her in-laws' apartment. "I feel the system has let me down."

Nepaul's case is also being appealed by the tenant advocacy centre this spring. A spokesperson for her landlord, Metcap Living Management Inc., would not comment on the case because it is before the courts.

Since coming to power last fall, the provincial Liberals have vowed to repeal the Tories' Tenant Protection Act and create a provincial rent bank to help tenants with "short-term arrears."

"The government needs to consult widely before doing this to get it right and to make sure that the legislation balances the interests of landlords and tenants," said ministry spokesperson Sonya Rolfe.

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