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As affordable rental becomes increasingly harder to find, disputes between landlords and tenants have become more acrimonious.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A group of tenants protesting evictions in their Toronto building have been sent a legal warning to stand down.

The letter represents a ratcheting up of the rhetoric by Kyle Pulis, CEO of real estate investment company Pulis Investments, who has been personally targeted by tenants who have been served eviction notices in several of his buildings.

The letter was sent to some but not all of the tenants at 1570 Lawrence Ave. W., in Toronto, with the subject line: “Ongoing harassment and intimidation of Pulis Principals and staff.” It describes “Wrongful Conduct” from the tenants that it claims was designed to “harass, coerce, obstruct and interfere with the Landlord in connection with its efforts to secure temporary vacant possession of rental units in the building.”

The letter, signed by Joe Hoffer, a partner in the London, Ont.-based Cohen Highley LLP, does not mention the word eviction, but that’s the mechanism the Pulis group has proposed by issuing an N13, “Notice to End your Tenancy Because the Landlord Wants to Demolish the Rental Unit, Repair it or Convert it to Another Use,” to every resident in a ground-floor apartment at 1570 Lawrence Ave W. Mr. Pulis has said his company needs to evict the tenants in order to upgrade plumbing infrastructure to the rest of the building. Tenants claim the plumbing only became an issue when Mr. Pulis’s company began to add washing machines to individual apartments in a piecemeal approach after buying the 87-apartment building in 2022.

In response, many people in the building began organizing a public pressure campaign to urge Mr. Pulis to rescind the N13s. Among the actions the group has taken are to picket and poster near Mr. Pulis’s personal home and to protest at his corporate office in Brampton, Ont. In August, some tenants also targeted a branch of the Wellspring cancer survivor support charity in Brampton – writing, visiting and engaging in a “phone zap” to blitz the charity with phone calls – to encourage it to cut ties with Mr. Pulis. Mr. Pulis serves on the board of the Wellspring Chinguacousy branch along with his father- and mother-in-law Larry Zacker and Gael Miles, a former Brampton municipal politician.

According to Mr. Hoffer, the Pulis group reached out to his office looking for a legal strategy to stop the protests, leading to the letter.

“Kyle Pulis is intimidating people, he is kicking people out of their homes – sick people, retirees, people who cannot afford more rent than they are currently paying,” said Debbie Mohan, one of the tenants who received the letter. “[Kyle Pulis] is the perpetrator here. He is trying to make himself out to be the victim, but he is not the victim.”

When contacted by The Globe and Mail, Mr. Hoffer said that despite suggesting the “wrongful conduct” might result in legal action against individual tenants that could result in their eviction and an alleged $50,000 fine, the letter was not a threat.

“I think it’s something less, it’s a caution; we’re putting you on notice,” Mr. Hoffer said. “It’s not a threat, it’s ‘let’s rethink this.’ … The goal here is to turn the temperature down and stop the harassment.”

But Mr. Hoffer also acknowledges the letter contains several interpretations of the Residential Tenancies Act that have never been tested. The specific sections of the Ontario Residential Tenancies Act his letter references have never been used to take action against tenant activism, and there has never been a Rental Housing Enforcement Unit conviction of a tenant protester, which is the only way the $50,000 fine could be levied. Evicting a tenant for so-called “wrongful conduct” rests on convincing the Landlord and Tenant Board that the protests amount to a crime.

The letter references Section 36 of the Act under “Responsibilities of Tenants” which states “A tenant shall not harass, obstruct, coerce, threaten or interfere with a landlord.” As support for his interpretation that Section 36 could serve as a prohibition against tenants protesting Mr. Pulis, Mr. Hoffer referred to a recent LTB decision that upheld a broad definition of harassment. In an Oct. 5, 2022, decision, LTB member Harry Cho writes “’Harassment’ is not defined in the Act … it is generally held that ‘harassment’ is a course of conduct that a reasonable person knows or ought to know would be unwelcome.’”

This was part of an LTB review that affirmed landlord RPMS Management Services Inc., a subsidiary of one of the largest corporate landlord ownership groups in the country, Canadian Apartment Properties REIT or CAPREIT, harassed a tenant by sending two “rental agents” to the door of someone who was behind on their rent.

Mr. Hoffer maintains the RTA creates a limits to a tenant’s ability to protest against their landlord, using this “unwelcome” standard for harassment.

“Would you want people going to where you live, honking their horns, telling the neighbours you’re a scumbag? It wouldn’t be welcome to me,” Mr. Hoffer said. “What would a reasonable person think? The language is quite straightforward, the test is very straightforward. I’d welcome the opportunity to go forward with it as a lawyer.”

A written statement provided by the Pulis group did not address whether applications to evict those tenants who have received N13 notices have been filed with the LTB already. “Pulis intends to pursue the enforcement of these notices; however, we will continue to work with the affected residents individually to address any special circumstances they’re facing and to pursue additional opportunities to support them in this challenging situation,” the statement reads.

The statement also didn’t address Mr. Hoffer’s letter.

“We’ve seen these sorts of threats during COVID. … When tenants have organized there’s myriad of threats, they don’t always come in such an official looking letter,” said Dania Majid, staff lawyer for Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, which runs the tenant duty counsel program offering free legal advice to tenants who are called to hearings at the LTB. Ms. Majid said she has also never seen the Act interpreted by the LTB in a way that would limit a tenant’s right to protest against a landlord. She said many tenants engage in protest because they have lost confidence in the LTB’s ability to provide just outcomes.

“We’re seeing a lot of tenants who are trying to protect their rights; they see what is happening and don’t trust landlords will follow the law,” she said. She referenced the case of 795 College St., an eight-unit Toronto rental building where the landlords were fined $135,000 in 2019 for failing to honour the right to return for three tenants given N13 evictions. Because the landlord re-rented the units (at much higher rents), the LTB declined to restore the tenants to their homes even though they were evicted in bad faith.

“It’s still to [a landlord’s] advantage to break the law and pay the fine, if one is issued,” Ms. Majid said. “The fine is peanuts. … We saw that in the College case: that was just the cost of doing business.”

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