It was not a straightforward eviction. A 16-year-old boy living in social housing had been charged with weapons-related offences and his landlord wanted to kick him and his family out.
But the landlord, Toronto Community Housing Corp. (TCHC), couldn’t access the teen’s police and court records that it needed to support the eviction proceedings because his identity is protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. So, TCHC launched a court case to obtain the information.
However, in a ruling last month, a judge dismissed TCHC’s application and found that the youth’s privacy rights outweighed the landlord’s community safety responsibility.
“I accept that TCHC is obligated to ‘create a safe environment for its residential communities’ … However, despite these goals, TCHC has failed to satisfy the Court that access to the records is ‘desirable in the interest of the proper administration of justice,’” Justice Alex Finlayson of the Ontario Court of Justice wrote in the recent ruling.
The case, which is believed to be the first of its kind in Canada involving a landlord seeking access to youth criminal records for an eviction, highlights the challenges of balancing tenants’ rights and public safety.
For many low-income households, public housing represents their lodging of last resort; without it, they would risk homelessness. But TCHC properties have disproportionate levels of crime. TCHC houses about 4 per cent of the city’s population but experiences a quarter of all reported shootings and homicides.
Faced with a recent spike in gun violence, including a mass shooting that left two dead, city council last month approved a package of anti-gun measures, including asking TCHC to determine what additional resources it needs, such as more security guards.
One of the tools TCHC uses to improve safety is evicting tenants involved in serious crimes, said Bruce Malloch, director of strategic communications. The city-owned organization, which is the largest social housing agency in Canada, provides housing to nearly 60,000 households with a total of 110,000 residents.
“We’re aggressive in pursuing evictions for cause when there’s illegal activity, when there’s crime committed on our property because that affects the security and safety of our tenants in the community, the neighbours and also the city at large,” he said.
So far this year, TCHC has issued 14 eviction notices for illegal gun-related activity. The number is close to the total for all of 2017, which came to 18 evictions. However, not all the agency’s attempts to kick out tenants are successful at the province’s Landlord and Tenant Board, which hears eviction applications from non-profit housing providers.
Mr. Malloch said proving cases before the tribunal requires compelling evidence. TCHC typically subpoenas witnesses to testify, including police officers.
However, because the identity of the teen involved in this case is protected, TCHC said the only way it could evict the youth and his family was to obtain the evidence it needed through a court application.
TCHC is considering whether to appeal the judge’s ruling, Mr. Malloch said.
Two years ago, at the age of 16, the youth was charged with weapons-related offences for an incident on TCHC property along with another teen, who was not a TCHC resident. Toronto police officers found a handgun in a backpack they allege was in the possession of at least one of the boys, according to the judge’s ruling. However, more than a year later, the charges were stayed with no admission of guilt and the teens entered into common law peace bonds.
Justice Finlayson found that allowing TCHC access to the youth’s records would have exposed his younger brother, who is 12, to the prospect of eviction, and that protecting the youngster and his family was an important social value. "They may lose their housing. And perhaps divisions within the family will ensue,” he wrote.
The boys and two other siblings are being raised by a single mother who works in a factory. Their rent is subsidized and they could not afford comparable housing elsewhere in Toronto, the judge wrote.
The ruling says there is no evidence the youth, who is now 18, has engaged in any illegal or dangerous behaviour since the 2016 incident, but that he finds school pointless and is struggling to decide what to do with his life.
The judge also said that releasing the teen’s identity would stigmatize him and undermine his participation in society. Justice Finlayson also noted that he had not been found guilty of any crime.
Sureya Ibrahim, a founder of Regent Park Mothers for Peace, said evicting youth who are causing trouble does not help them but severely punishes their families. “Penalizing the whole family is not fair.”
In addition, Ms. Ibrahim said many families would have nowhere else to go if they lost their subsidized housing. “What is the outcome of when you evict? They’re going to be on the streets. We’re going to have another crisis on the streets.”
She urged alternative approaches for dealing with young people who are struggling, including more resources and support to help them make positive choices, involvement from community elders and job opportunities.
TCHC’s court application was stressful for the youth and his family, said the teen’s lawyer Jeff Carolin.
“The impact of losing a spot in Toronto Community Housing, especially in the rising rental market of this city, is devastating,” he said. “The family thought this was behind them, he thought this was behind them and then they got hit with something new and it was very stressful.”
Mr. Carolin cautioned against interpreting wider significance to the ruling, saying the case was decided on its facts.