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Ontario Premier neglects tenant rights

Toronto Star - October 31, 2005
by Carol Goar

All it takes is one nasty surprise — a funeral, a costly prescription, a missed child support payment — to send a family barrelling toward eviction.

The bills pile up. The rent cheque bounces. And a short time later, an eviction notice with a hearing date arrives in the mailbox.

What many tenants don't realize, especially those whose English is limited, is that there is no hearing unless they request one. They have to notify the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal in writing that they intend to dispute the application. They have five working days to do it.

If they don't understand the rules, or miss the deadline, they can lose their home or apartment without a hearing.

That happens to approximately 30,000 Ontarians every year.

Last year, the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal processed 65,239 eviction applications from landlords. More than half — 35,969 — were resolved by "default orders" which means the tenants were evicted without a hearing.

The provincial Liberals were harshly critical of this inhumane system when it was introduced by the government of Mike Harris in 1997. They promised to repeal the incongruously named Tenant Protection Act within a year of taking office, should they be elected.

They were elected in 2003. They haven't repealed the act. They haven't changed the eviction procedure. They haven't set any timetable. In fact, there was no mention of rent reform at all in this month's Speech from the Throne.

Housing Minister John Gerretsen insists it is "still a priority." But groups that work with low-income tenants are dubious. The signals they're picking up at Queen's Park suggest that Premier Dalton McGuinty has no appetite for taking on Ontario's landlords.

Politically, this isn't hard to explain.

The vacancy rate has risen to a relatively comfortable 4.1 per cent since the Liberals took office. That has eased the pressure to help tenants.

The new eviction rules were to have been part of the government's "rent control" package. But many Ontarians no longer see a need for the government to intervene in the marketplace.

The Fair Rental Policy Organization, which represents the province's private apartment owners and managers, is a powerful, well-financed political lobby. The Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, which speaks for low-income renters, operates on a shoestring.

The 32 per cent of Ontario families who rent their accommodations are poorer, less vocal and less politically active than the 68 per cent who own their homes. They don't stay in one riding. They don't vote as a bloc. In crude electoral terms, their interests are expendable.

"I hate to think of myself as naive, but I really believed the Liberals were going to act on this issue. They were so adamant and we were thrilled," said Jennifer Ramsay, outreach co-ordinator of the tenants' advocacy centre.

She had evidence to back up her optimism. McGuinty and his colleagues made a series of explicit promises to dismantle the Harris government's harsh rental regime.

In their 2003 election platform, the Liberals pledged to "repeal the misnamed Tenant Protection Act and replace it with an effective tenant protection law in our first year of government."

During the new government's first month in power, David Caplan, minister of infrastructure renewal, said his top order of business would be to replace the "Orwellian-named" Tenant Protection Act.

In their 2003 Speech from the Throne, the Liberals affirmed their determination to "introduce legislation to protect tenants with real rent control."

In April of 2004, after provincial ombudsman Clare Lewis warned the government not to let eviction become "a mechanical process, devoid of all human consideration," McGuinty repeated that new rules were coming. "Our government recognizes the problems that countless Ontarians have experienced with the Tenant Protection Act," he said. "That's why we are committed to introducing legislation to repeal the act and replace it with an effective rent regulatory law."

In May of that year, Gerretsen held town hall meetings across the province to consult Ontarians on the new act. The minister and his bureaucrats spent the summer drafting the bill.

At some point after that, it seems to have fallen off the government's agenda.

The legislative package is ready, but going nowhere.

McGuinty might be able to let it languish. The single parents, seniors and immigrants who are being kicked out of their apartments don't know how to hold him to account. The opposition parties aren't sounding the alarm. The public doesn't appear concerned.

But it would be a cynical thing to do.

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