Yesterday as Toronto closed a frenetic 3-day session of Council, Toronto’s hardest-working, most-misguided Councillor brought forward an interesting motion. Her motion was passed 25-0. Kristyn Wong-Tam’s motion was designed to kick-start the process of getting cost estimates for providing every person living in a shelter in Toronto a one-year rent subsidy in the community rather than in shelters. This would be followed by the City making a request to the two senior levels of government to fund the project.
Was it naive or just a cynical move on Council’s part to look like they were doing something? After all, it wouldn’t even be their money. Somewhat akin to the claims Greta Thunberg makes about Green-Washing done by the jet-setters who attended COP26. Someone else pays for the jet fuel and they appear to be doing something.
I’ve watched the landlord and tenant wars in Ontario for 20 years, as a Landlord Tenant Board adjudicator, licensed paralegal and teacher of law with an expertise in Ontario’s residential tenancies system. And I’ve been suggesting for 16 of those years that one of the biggest obstacles getting in the way of the supply of low-income housing was the government itself. It’s only the GTA housing bubble where investors hope to make money on the back-end that has convinced many nervous investors to take the plunge.
And they hate it. They don’t trust the system. They know they are vulnerable. They are sometimes, although not often, aware that even the application process through the Human Rights Code Policy Guideline is impossibly stacked against them. Following the Code, landlords cannot make rational financial or business decisions about who will occupy their million-dollar home as a tenant. So they cheat.
Landlords generally know the legislation and application of the law is slanted towards preserving and rehabilitating bad tenancies. Evictions are a last resort. And the disgraceful delays at the Landlord Tenant Board (the ‘LTB’) make the agency ineffective even on its best days.
A vacant home tax or foreign buyers’ tax does little, because housing inflation has made buying, fixing and selling, or buying and holding until retirement, irresistible.
But let’s be clear. Almost nobody likes being a landlord. And the Real Estate industry adds to the problem by pushing housing as the best or only asset class to have in your portfolio. I’ve never heard a Realtor say “You should really think about become a landlord”. Instead, they say, “You should really consider investing in a property”.
A huge percentage of rental properties are in negative cash-flow positions with 20% as a down-payment. I would guess 60% of condo rentals are in a negative cash-flow position, with no mechanism in law to keep up with condo fee increases and special assessments. And don’t mistake me for one of those who doesn’t understand the risk that comes with any investment. And the higher the return, the more the risk ought to be. I have absolutely no sympathy for landlords who are shocked when the system fails them and the investment is a nightmare. Nobody twisted their arms and forced them to become landlords.
But let’s look at the other side. Wong-Tam’s motion is attractive on its face until you recognize that for 30 years, the left has been progressively, incrementally and insidiously hijacking the politics of rental housing in Ontario. The Residential Tenancies Act (the ‘RTA’) as it exists today, and the Landlord Tenant Board, the provincial agency created to enforce the RTA, are badly broken, both in terms of delay and political balance. There seems to be little common sense existing in this sphere.
If Wong-Tam and her colleagues really want to create housing by providing spaces in the primary and secondary housing markets, they have to do more than pretend that this imbalance in rights doesn’t exist. Their plan will absolutely fail even if the two senior levels of government buy in. It will be almost impossible to get any rational property owner to take in a high-risk tenant, with no recourse for financial loss for rent or damage, and little recourse in terms of ending the dysfunctional tenancy.
Landlords in Ontario have an obligation under the Human Rights Code to accommodate a tenant’s behaviour to the point of undue hardship, when that behaviour is at least in part a result of the tenant’s inclusion in one of the Code’s many protected groups. And the LTB “must” consider whether the landlord has satisfied that legal obligation before any eviction can take place. Simply put, the LTB will not evict even the most problematic or violent of tenants unless the landlord has first taken steps to put them in touch with social service agencies, family or medical supports etc. And almost all the tenants in this cohort imagined by Wong-Tam would fit into that group, specifically, physically disabled or mental illness.
Housing is complicated. The problems need to be addressed from all sides, with no sacred cows or ideologies interfering. Only with a politics-be-damned approach will acceptable solutions be achieved. What Wong-Tam and her colleagues did was cynical. It will achieve nothing and they all know it.