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Posters calling for a rent protest are photographed at the corner of King St. West and Dunn Ave. in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto, on Mar. 24 2020.

Fred Lum

A series of amendments proposed for the Ontario government’s housing and rental legislation has sparked charges that the measures could speed up evictions and lead some renters to lose their housing without a hearing.

On March 20, Premier Doug Ford reassured renters who fear they might be left homeless amid the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic if they can’t pay their rent. “Be responsible, pay if you can, but if you’re down and out and just don’t have the money, food is more important to put on the table than paying rent,” Mr. Ford said at a daily news briefing. “I’ll be making sure I have their back – if they can’t pay rent, they aren’t going to be evicted.”

On March 12 the Ford government introduced Bill 184, “Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act 2020,” which included a number of measures to speed up evictions at the chronically backlogged Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB). Last week, the standing committee on social policy voted on a package of government and opposition amendments, rejecting NDP amendments that would have specifically banned evictions relating to late rent payments caused by the pandemic. Instead, the committee approved changes that would require the LTB to consider – retroactive to March 17 – whether landlord and tenants had attempted to negotiate any repayment plan.

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“If tenants, during COVID, have done what the Premier told them to do, they could still be evicted,” said Suze Morrison, Toronto Centre NDP MPP and tenant’s rights critic. “The temporary ban on evictions hasn’t stopped landlords from filing, and tenants are very concerned about an unprecedented oncoming wave of evictions in the province.”

Kenn Hale, director of legal services at Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, says Bill 184 expands the scope of written agreements tenants and landlords can already enter into to resolve payment disputes without a full hearing of the LTB. Before, such agreements could not include an eviction clause, and now tenants can sign away their right to a hearing.

“The day you come up a dollar short of a day late, the landlord can call the sheriff’s office,” Ms. Morrison said. A resident living under such a deal could “effectively lose their right to a hearing.”

“We think there should be an ability for a landlord and tenant to negotiate a repayment plan that doesn’t require as much oversight from the board,” said Tony Irwin, chief executive officer of the Federation of Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario, which represents some of the largest landlords in the country. He points out pre-COVID-19 hearings could sometimes take several months to resolve, a backlog the pandemic has undoubtedly worsened. The new process changes decades of practice in Ontario where any application to remove someone from their home gives them a chance to be heard by an adjudicator first. “Depending on the circumstances, an adjudicator could issue an eviction order without a hearing … that’s what’s caused a lot of angst.”

Last week amendments to the bill went further, instructing the board to consider whether any attempt to negotiate a repayment plan has been made by a landlord prior to filing for eviction, retroactive to the beginning of the pandemic state of emergency on March 17.

Tenants, Ms. Morrison said, will feel pressure to signing such agreements because they will be given weight at any potential LTB hearing. “Our concern is it opens the door to make this process ripe for abuses,” she said.

“This change would emphasize to landlords the importance of making efforts to negotiate repayment plans with their tenants to help maintain tenancies where tenants have been impacted by COVID-19, as they may not be able to obtain an eviction order if they have not made attempts to do so,” said Conrad Spezowka, spokesman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

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However, the text of the amendment gives no direction to the LTB how it should weigh the fairness of those negotiations, merely that it should consider them.

“Some of these repayment plans are crippling,” said Bryan Doherty, tenant activist behind Toronto’s Keep Your Rent campaign. ”If COVID didn’t get you, the repayment plan will.” He says he knows of tenants who have been offered repayment plans where if they miss one month’s rent, the following two months rent will be 50 per cent higher to catch up – and often the agreements maintain the right to evict later anyway. “If you’re going to be evicted because you refused a usurious or dangerous repayment plan, where does that leave a tenant?”

“This bill caters to medieval thinking,” said Mr. Hale, who argues the government seems to be prioritizing the expansion of eviction powers when the pandemic has shown putting people on the streets isn’t the only way to resolve disputes. “We’ve had an eviction moratorium, and the world hasn’t fallen apart … [Bill 184] is not really dealing with the housing problems of low-income people.”

Mr. Irwin urges renters to wait and see.

“We’re in a pandemic. Losing housing is not something we want anyone to experience right now … but on the other hand, as time goes on, there has to be some sort of a plan to reopen the LTB,” Mr. Irwin said. “I don’t expect this will lead to an opening of the floodgates of ex-parte eviction orders being granted. … Until we actually see how this is operationalized by the LTB, we don’t really know what’s going to happen.”

From his balcony in Parkdale, Mr. Doherty can see where two homeless encampments are, with close to 200 people living in them already. “This is the reality if the landlords get what they want, for the sake of four months of rent, they are willing to pile a homelessness crisis on top of this pandemic,” he said.

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