Ginette Lapalme had been living in her apartment at Dufferin and Dundas streets for almost five years when her landlord asked her to leave. He and his wife were expecting a baby, he said, and his mother-in-law would be moving into the space.
Lapalme and her boyfriend, Patrick Kyle, hadn't done anything wrong, but the eviction was his right under the "landlord's own use" provision of Ontario's Residential Tenancies Act.
"It seemed reasonable," 27-year-old Lapalme says of the eviction, which happened last January. Still, Lapalme and Kyle, both artists, were a little suspicious. They were paying just $1,150 a month for a huge, five-room apartment with loads of sunlight in a neighbourhood that had gone from dreary to trendy in the time they had been there.
Their landlord, Andriy Budnyy, owned a set of units over adjacent storefronts, some of which were empty. He had just let them move back into the apartment after shuffling them into a smaller unit while he renovated, but had never mentioned his mother-in-law during the process.
"We wrote him a letter asking to stay, because we didn't really understand," says Kyle. "But there was no budging." Instead, Budnyy offered the couple one month's rent to cover their moving expenses. They reluctantly accepted and left on March 1, 2014. Other long-term tenants were also moving out that day, but neither Kyle nor Lapalme asked them why.
"We were trying not to be paranoid," says Lapalme, but the two kept an eye on the rental listings. In May, two months after moving, they saw what they had been expecting: an ad for their old apartment on the classifieds site Kijiji. The rent was listed at $2,000, almost twice what they had been paying. "It was infuriating," says Kyle, 26. They took screenshots of the ad and photos, including a shot of the kitchen with a keyholder nailed to the wall that they had forgotten.
Budnyy, whose first language is Ukranian, says that it's his mother, not his mother-in-law, who is planning to move into the unit. "My mother is coming soon. This is life. Everything is a little bit delayed," he says. He also says that he needed to raise the rent after spending $10,000 on renovating the apartment, and that a lawyer told him he could only do that for a new tenant. "He said: 'This is your choice, this is your property,'" Budnyy says. "I spent money, I have to return it."
In fact, landlords can apply to the province for permission for a rent increase after renovations; individual landlords may not be aware of this.
In Ontario, "landlord's own use" is the only no-fault eviction method, the sole way to kick out a tenant without having to collect proof of late payments or excessive noise.
Karen Andrews, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, says that the provision wasn't used very much in the past, but that a growing number of long-term tenants have recently been told that their landlord plans to move in a spouse, child or caregiver. "Certain neighbourhoods are plagued with this – Little Italy, the Beach, Trinity Bellwoods," she says.
In many cases the requests are legitimate, and are a trickle-down effect of the runaway housing market. Many homeowners are choosing to maximize the space they already have rather than face bidding wars and the cost of moving. This can mean putting an office or playroom in a former basement apartment.
In other cases, landlords may use this manoeuvre to make false claims and induce tenants to leave. One contributing factor is that the vast majority of new rental units built in the city over the past two decades are in condominiums. In 1998, the then-Progressive Conservative provincial government decided that new rental units would not be subject to the same rent controls as older buildings. This creates a disparity when new condos and investors show up in previously unappealing neighbourhoods.
Landlords such Budnyy must adhere to inflation-pegged provincial guidelines on rent increases, while anyone renting out a condo in a new building – like the Azul Lofts down the street from Lapalme's old apartment – can levy existing tenants for rates in keeping with Dufferin Grove's buzzy status.
Right now, the only way for landlords of older buildings to charge as much as they'd like is to get an entirely new tenant – a prospect that doesn't seem daunting when rental vacancy in the city is 1.7 per cent.
Claiming the apartment is needed for their own use and issuing tenants the relevant form, number N12, allows them to do this. In 2013, tenants contested N12 forms to Ontario's Landlord Tenant Board in 1,555 cases. "The statistics do not tell you about the N12s that are given to tenants who do not put up a fight," Andrews points out.
Most of her clients who win such cases receive token monetary awards, she says. "Even if you win, you've lost housing forever."
Three years ago, Chris Butcher was awarded $6,000 when his landlord didn't actually move in a family member. He never collected the money. From 2005 to 2011, Butcher lived in a third-floor apartment above a store at Christie and Bloor streets. Just before he was evicted, the building was sold, and his new landlord was lax with garbage collection. Butcher and his now-husband asked for new communal recycling bins. Instead, they got an N12.
A few months after moving, the couple found a rental ad in a Korean-language newspaper for their old apartment. "We decided it was worth the hassle of going to the Landlord Tenant Board," Butcher says. "It was actually really easy, because we had a clear statement of fact. They totally lost."
Butcher and his husband went to the landlord's home to try to collect, and were told he had moved away. They contacted the landlord's lawyer, who threatened that he would sue the couple if they ever contacted him again. "I was so angry, and I wanted to get my own lawyer," says Butcher. "But to collect that $6,000 would probably cost $1,000 in fees, so it's kind of been backburnered." The apartment the couple moved into is smaller than their old one, and costs $300 more a month.
Andrews says that standardizing rent control rules across the province is the first step toward eliminating false N12 claims. Until that happens, "anyone who is paying below what the market will bear is vulnerable."