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Protestors blocked the driveway at the courthouse on University Ave. on Aug. 18, 2020 to prevent Sheriffs from executing evictions.Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

Tenant activists and landlords are both warning that the pandemic’s economic damage has left so many people in Ontario behind on their rent, and put so much pressure on the system for resolving housing disputes, that 2021 could bring a surge in evictions.

Since the province reopened the Landlord Tenant Board in August after a five-month shutdown and a ban on eviction enforcement, a crushing caseload of difficult-to-access hearings and dearth of supports have led to accusations of unfairness and tenants holding marches to landlord homes to demand relief.

The LTB doesn’t release numbers on pending applications for evictions, but thousands of hearings about late payment of rent have been held already and experts say there are potentially many more in the pipeline.

The Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario (FRPO), an association of more than 2,200 landlords, estimates that 4 to 7 per cent of the more than 1.5 million rental households in the province owe multiple months worth of rent. The FRPO estimates the average renter in arrears owes more than $10,000, and that as much as $80-million per month went unpaid during the peak of the pandemic.

Andrew Hwang, lawyer and supervisor for the Tenant Duty Counsel program, which provides free legal advice to tenants in the Toronto region, said he has never seen such high numbers.

“When you first listen, you’re like, ‘$10,000 or $13,000?’ In the past it would not have got to that level,” Mr. Hwang said. “They lost their job, their hours were cut back, their child was sick or a family member died … things like that caused people to fall behind. That hasn’t changed for a decade, but the pandemic has amplified those reasons.”

Under the current system, landlords typically deal with arrears by filing for and obtaining an eviction order at the LTB: In the 2019-2020 Tribunals Ontario annual report there were 80,874 applications of all types and 44,621 were eviction applications for non-payment of rent. The Ford government added a provision in the law over the summer where a repayment agreement signed by a tenant can also include terms of an automatic eviction without a hearing.

The LTB doesn’t collect data on how many eviction applications end with a tenant losing their housing – there are multiple steps in the process that give renters some opportunity to save their tenancy – but participants in the system say most late-payment evictions are granted. It’s also unclear how many evictions are then enforced by the province’s sheriff’s offices, but an analysis by The Globe and Mail found that between 2012 and 2016, some rental high-rises saw hundreds of sheriff evictions and resulted in 20 per cent of a building’s population being evicted.

If tenants behind on rent don’t have their debt forgiven, or have a repayment plan agreed to, FRPO estimates and tenant organizers worry the number of potential evictions could be double or three times the annual average next year. “I hope it would never have to get to that. When you stop and think about that, it’s horrific,” said FRPO president and chief executive Tony Irwin.

In the grey-zone locked-down areas, tenant counsel lawyers believe there has been an unofficial cessation of the sheriff-enforced evictions, but the Ministry of the Attorney-General declined to confirm whether eviction enforcement has slowed or stopped, or when it may begin again. In the past, the practice at the sheriff’s office was not to evict people during the holidays.

Tenant advocates say the blitz of hearings this fall moved so quickly, it was unfair to many renters. Before the pandemic, the backlog was almost 22,000 cases long, and it was taking between four and six months to schedule a hearing.

Since it restarted in August, the LTB has conducted its work in digital hearing rooms on Microsoft Teams. It’s common for the LTB to schedule as many as 10 matters from multiple regions of the province into one two-hour hearing block.

In the past two months almost 12,000 eviction hearings – almost all for late payment of rent – have been held in Ontario. In November alone, the LTB conducted 7,084 eviction hearings, 20-per-cent more than were heard in the same month in 2019, according to an analysis of the tribunal’s docket by the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO). In the Toronto North region, hearings went up 44 per cent year-over-year, to 1,071 from 740 ; in the province’s Eastern region (which includes Ottawa and all municipalities east of Durham) hearings surged 47 per cent, to 896 from 607. About 4,500 hearings were scheduled for December. Most of the prepandemic case backlog has been cleared.

The digital hearings may also have raised new barriers to justice: Tenant lawyers have told press conferences of residents without home phones or computers standing at payphones in a rainstorm trying to dial in, and of legally blind tenants unable to navigate the online hearing room. In many cases tenants simply don’t show up on the call, leading to summary evictions.

“[The province] says these video conferences are not inherently unfair; that’s just asserted … is there any legal authority for that, any social science that says that?” said Kenneth Hale, ACTO’s director of legal services.

Tenant groups have shared edited video clips highlighting the rushed nature of the proceedings on social media – in defiance of lawyer letters demanding they be taken down. In one clip, an adjudicator appears to carry on with an eviction order despite a warning that a tenant was not on the line because he had died in October.

Tenant organizers have also taken to delivering demands for rent relief to the homes of landlords and executives. Chris Murch, a renter at 55 Triller Ave. in Toronto, recently led a march to the home of the chief legal officer of his landlord, Starlight Group Property Holdings Inc. “I have basically no faith in the government to do the right thing in regards to stopping evictions,” he said.

“[My landlords] were filing evictions in April when the virus was peaking,” said Simon Esler, who is facing eviction from his home at the Standard Loft Residences and owes close to six months in back rent. Mr. Esler and his wife saw their income collapse. He is an actor whose dinner-theatre workplace shut down, while his wife had worked in fine dining. He began organizing a tenants’ association, which marched to the personal residence of the owner of the Standard Loft building and the Brownstone Group of Companies Inc., to deliver a letter of grievance.

Premier Doug Ford has so far not responded to a private member’s bill that passed with unanimous consent in the waning hours of the previous legislative session that called on the Premier to once again ban evictions. Questions from The Globe about a new eviction ban, or the logjam of hearings were answered with a statement: “The government is currently exploring all options to ensure no one is forced to leave their home as a result of COVID-19,” said spokeswoman Ivana Yelich.

“The Premier can say nice words, but it doesn’t mean anything if it’s not followed up with meaningful action,” said Suze Morrison, the Toronto Centre NDP MPP and tenant rights critic who pushed the bill.

Meanwhile, the work continues at the LTB. Tribunals Ontario said only emergency hearings and tenant-brought applications (such as those related to urgent maintenance) will be heard from Dec. 22 until Jan. 4.

“It is really a difficult time – there’s so many more people in financial difficulty, and it doesn’t seem this part of people’s pain and difficulty is being acknowledged,” said Mr. Hale. “All the messages from all the politicians and all the health people are stay in your home, but when that’s being threatened and there doesn’t seem to be any real viable way for you to stop it or even have anyone take the time to listen to how you got where you are, it’s very discouraging.”

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