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Anthony DiCiccio, left, and Michael Hinds outside their apartment building in Hamilton, Ont. on Feb 19.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

As Ontario faces a chronic shortage of housing and rapidly climbing rents, landlords in the province are increasingly trying to evict their tenants and take possession of those rental units.

In 2022, the Landlord and Tenant Board, which adjudicates rental-housing disputes in the province, received more than 5,550 eviction applications in which landlords sought units for themselves, family members or new buyers. That was an increase of 41 per cent from 2019, according to numbers provided by the province to The Globe and Mail.

The surge is being driven by communities outside of Toronto. In the city itself, the volume of “own-use” filings in 2022 was largely the same as in 2019. In the rest of the province, however, such filings have soared by 59 per cent.

Tenants’ advocates say the spike in eviction filings is hardly a coincidence, given the massive financial upside to finding new tenants. Most people who rent homes in the province are covered by rent control, which holds landlords to modest annual rent increases. This year, the maximum allowable hike is 2.5 per cent.

But when units are vacated, landlords can sign leases with new tenants at whatever rents the market will bear. And because the housing market has chronically low supply, rents are soaring. In Toronto, the average two-bedroom unit is listed for more than $3,200 a month, according to Rentals.ca, up 17 per cent over the past year.

“It’s difficult to believe that, over that period of time, suddenly more landlords and their family members just feel like moving,” said Benjamin Ries, executive director of South Etobicoke Community Legal Services, which often works with low-income tenants on housing disputes.

At a time of high inflation and rising mortgage rates, there is incentive for landlords to “get the most money out of the property that they can,” he added.

There are legitimate uses of own-use evictions. Ontario law allows a landlord to evict a tenant if the landlord intends to live in the rental unit, or if their immediate family members intend to do so. If a landlord agrees to sell a rental property and the buyer needs the home for themselves or their immediate family members, that can also be a valid reason for eviction.

But tenants’ advocates argue that own-use filings are a popular tactic for turning over units. It is difficult for tenants to prove that a landlord does not intend to use a unit for themselves, and fighting for compensation at the Landlord and Tenant Board can be a time-consuming and resource-intensive process.

The provincial figures refer to situations in which landlords applied for LTB hearings. When a hearing happens, an adjudicator renders a decision. The LTB does not track the number of evictions that occur after hearings, nor does it track evictions in cases where there are no hearings.

Before applying for a hearing, a landlord must give their tenant a notice of eviction. (The own-use notice is known as an N12 form.) Because it’s an official document with a move-out date, some tenants think it’s an order and leave before a hearing can take place.

“There’s a lot of informal evictions that are happening, where tenants who aren’t aware of their rights or are intimidated by the situation just move out because they received this form,” said Douglas Kwan, director at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario.

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When a landlord wants to end a tenancy for demolition, renovation or conversion of a unit – what some people call “renovictions” – they give their tenant what is known as an N13 notice. The LTB received nearly 1,100 eviction applications for such circumstances in 2022, close to double the volume in 2019.

In September, tenants at a 12-unit apartment building in Hamilton were given N13 forms, telling them to vacate the property by Feb. 1 for extensive repairs. Most have stayed put.

The tenants have reason to believe the landlord wants them gone for good. Many have lived there for several years and pay well below market rates. The landlord has made several cash offers to entice them to leave – most recently, $5,000 if they sign a form ending their tenancy. This flurry of activity happened after the building was sold last year.

Under provincial law, tenants have rights in these situations. For buildings with five or more units, the landlord must pay each tenant an amount equal to their rent for the duration of the repairs, up to a maximum of three months. Once the work is finished, tenants are allowed to move back into their units and pay the same rates they did before.

But that compensation doesn’t necessarily go far. Tony DiCiccio, who has lived in the Hamilton building for about 15 years, pays $658 a month in rent. His maximum payout – $1,974 – would evaporate quickly in the city’s rental market, where the average one-bedroom is listed for nearly $1,900 a month. Mr. DiCiccio would also have to pay for two moves.

“I’m not going to budge on it. It’s not even about the money. It’s my home,” he said.

Mike Hinds, who also lives in the building, said that some tenants can’t afford to live elsewhere, while others are in poor health. They have yet to receive a hearing date from the LTB.

“We feel attacked and threatened with this,” Mr. Hinds said.

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Tony Irwin, president of the Federation of Rental Housing Providers of Ontario, which represents landlords, said the province’s apartment buildings are generally quite old and sometimes in need of major repairs. The need to renovate will only increase as those structures age, he said.

Mr. Irwin offered some theories about the rise in own-use applications, including that landlords are giving units to their children, who themselves are priced out of an expensive market, and that landlords are downsizing into their rental properties in retirement.

The LTB is a source of frustration for both sides. On average, the board is scheduling hearings within seven to eight months of receiving an application. The LTB blames a five-month moratorium on eviction hearings in 2020 for the backlog of cases, although there were lengthy delays before the pandemic.

Michael Thiele, an Ottawa-based lawyer who represents both landlords and tenants, has seen a marked increase in processing times at the LTB. Some of his cases are dragging on for years.

“That timeline between filing and getting a hearing date is the thing that is driving people insane,” he said.

Mr. Thiele suspects the majority of own-use or renovation cases that go to hearings are, in fact, legitimate claims from landlords, who risk paying large penalties for fraudulent evictions. But he suggested that bad actors are sending out notices of eviction in hopes of driving out tenants who aren’t aware of their right to a hearing. And those cases, he noted, produce no official records.

“The N12s that are used in an abusive way, I don’t think we see them.”