Skip to main content

A man is silhouetted in steam from an underground grate while walking in Toronto.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Tenant advocacy groups in Toronto are being inundated with calls from renters concerned about their heating – or lack thereof. As Toronto plunges into another cold snap, many of the city's furnaces and boilers are not faring well.

A quarter of the recent calls placed to the Federation of Metro Tenants' Associations, a local advocacy group, have been either about heating or interruption of vital services, said executive director Geordie Dent.

"Twenty-five per cent is very high," said Mr. Dent. His organization fields calls on 100 different subjects, so for two to be taking up that much call time, "it's pretty bad," he said.

Toronto has been dealing with extreme cold alerts on and off – but mostly on – since Boxing Day, with temperatures plummeting below -20 C, and expected to drop below -25 C over the weekend. New Year's Eve day saw the coldest mean temperature in the city in 158 years.

Even through bitterly cold outdoor temperatures, Toronto landlords are required to keep rental units at 21 C from Sept. 15 to June 1. That being said, the city bylaw recognizes that malfunctions and breakdowns do happen, and does not consider out-of-service heating a violation, provided the landlord is actively fixing or maintaining it within "a reasonable amount of time." If not, the tenant can file a complaint through 311.

But Mr. Dent said many of the phone calls and e-mails his organization has received recently come from renters whose landlords are leaving them to deal with their heating problem on their own. He said that on Wednesday alone, he saw half a dozen complaints from tenants saying their landlords were leaving them to fend for themselves without heat.

"Unfortunately, it's very common," said Mr. Dent. He said landlords should "bend over backwards" to ensure tenants are warm, either by providing space heaters, or moving the tenants to another location if the situation is bad enough.

The city said tenants should speak to the landlord or property manager before calling the city. Tenants can file a heat complaint through 311 "if the issue is not resolved in a timely manner," said City of Toronto spokeswoman Angelica Santos.

The city was unable to comment on how many heat complaints it has received through 311.

Toronto Community Housing Corp., which acts as the landlord for 2,100 buildings, said its staff are on "special alert" during this weather and will even reach out to tenants who complain using social media. Communications officer Daniele Gauvin said the housing organization is seeing more calls than normal due to the extremely cold temperatures.

She said TCHC staff try their best to get someone there to fix the problem within 24 hours of a tenant calling their 24-hour centre. "We also try to find out as much information as we can internally so that we can keep the tenant in the loop until their issue is resolved," said Ms. Gauvin.

With such a spate of broken heating systems, repair companies are feeling the pressure.

Conrad Praamsma, manager at Bosco Home Services, said the company has received a flood of calls since the cold snap started. He said the company is receiving around 120 calls a day now, compared with about 30 incoming requests in October. Most of the calls recently have been for emergency repairs of heating systems or frozen pipes.

"We're busy non-stop," said Mr. Praamsma, who also manages Bosco's heating repair service, Heating in Toronto.

He said the days around Christmas and New Year's, especially Christmas Day, were particularly busy for the heating technicians. With most people at home spending time with family – and wanting to be cozy inside a heated house – there was extra demand on the technicians to work as fast as possible.

Even though the company is seeing lots of calls, Mr. Praamsma said that he anticipates cold snaps in the winter and heat waves in the summer every year; the only surprise is when they happen.

"We're used to this," said Mr. Praamsma. "With 20 years in the business, we understand the ebbs and flows. We rev up our staff knowing it's going to be like this."

Mr. Praamsma recommended residents purchase small space heaters just in case furnaces fail during cold temperatures. "It's like having candles in the house just in case the power goes out," he said.

Cold temperatures have turned Niagara Falls into a winter wonderland, drawing more people than ever usually visit in January.

The Canadian Press

Interact with The Globe