Niagara is in the midst of a housing crisis — a crisis worsened by the pandemic.
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on many of the industries, including tourism, that our residents rely on for income. Many of our residents have lost jobs, experienced layoffs or face income reduction due to COVID-19. This pattern has left many tenants concerned about their ability to pay rent, and has made them vulnerable to eviction.
The Government of Ontario acknowledged the pandemic’s harmful impact when it requested a temporary moratorium on evictions in March. Happily, the Superior Court accepted the province’s proposal, implementing a moratorium to the effect that tenants generally cannot be evicted from their homes. Under the moratorium, evictions can only be implemented in extraordinary circumstances.
But we are now seeing a case of giving with one hand while taking with the other. Queen’s Park is fast-tracking the enactment of Bill 184, the so-called Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act. If enacted, it would modify the Building Code, absorb Ontario Mortgage and Housing Corp. into the Crown, amend social housing policy, and make it easier for landlords to evict tenants under the Residential Tenancies Act.
Niagara Community Legal Clinic delegated to the social policy committee at Queen’s Park on Bill 184 recently. Our analysis was focused on the proposed changes to the Residential Tenancies Act. We use this act every day in our defence of low-income tenants. We see the proposed changes to this act as bad news for tenants.
If passed, Bill 184 will allow landlords to file for eviction, without notice to tenants, using rent repayment agreements that were entered into outside of the Landlord and Tenant Board setting.
We are concerned that landlords will pressure tenants to agree to unreasonable repayments terms, in contracts that make it easier for the landlord to evict. There is significant risk that this pressure will be applied without the tenant receiving legal advice, and without the assistance of a trained mediator — two services available at the Landlord and Tenant Board.
Bill 184 further encourages tenants and landlords to engage in “other dispute resolution processes” in an effort to resolve their tenancy issues. But what is this mysterious other process? The bill does not say.
The Landlord and Tenant Board provides trained mediators. Their services are already an alternative to hearings. Our view is that, in too many cases, non-mediation “dispute resolution” will mean coercive conversations, outside of the legal context, without a paralegal or lawyer to advise the tenant of her rights.
This problem will be especially acute for tenants for whom English is a second language, and for tenants living with disabilities. The most vulnerable — including racialized citizens, Indigenous persons and seniors — are more likely to be displaced and more likely to face discrimination when seeking alternate housing.
Housing is a human right. Our legislation needs to reflect this.
In fairness, there are some good aspects to Bill 184. Namely, the bill provides rules for improved compensation for some tenants who are evicted through no fault of their own. But this measure hardly creates a reliable disincentive to bad faith evictions. Most landlords will proceed with their plans and take the slap on the wrist (the ordered compensation to the tenant), if indeed that slap comes at all.
For all of its tinkering, Bill 184 fails to address the actual gaps that exist in tenant rights — gaps poised to create more homelessness through eviction, as soon as the eviction moratorium is lifted. The bill does nothing to address the housing rights of Niagara’s growing community of migrant workers, whose vulnerability has been painfully illuminated by the pandemic, and the tenant rights of people living in shared accommodations, who have faced evictions even during the pandemic.
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Bill 184 was developed before COVID-19 and it shows. Even before the pandemic, the bill was questionable. In the pandemic’s wake, the bill is out of touch with reality. It is short-sighted and irresponsible — the wrong bill, at the wrong time. We can do better.
The voices of tenants must be heard.