New Westminster recently won a court challenge to a bylaw it adopted in 2019, which has been credited with eliminating renovictions — that is, landlords evicting people under the guise of making renovations only to rent their units out for far more money.
“We’ve just been waiting for somebody to find out what the key is to unlock this problem with renovictions, particularly in this really difficult time around housing, and it looks like they may have,” Paula Fletcher, councillor for Toronto-Danforth, said on Friday afternoon.
New Westminster’s bylaw holds landlords of purpose-built rentals responsible for the alternate accommodation of their tenants if they need to leave a unit so it can be renovated and requires them to send the tenant a written offer to move back into their unit or another one at the same rate.
The bylaw is backed up by fines and the prospect of not having business licenses renewed if owners don’t comply. Landlords can also appeal to city council if they feel they have a legitimate reason for not accommodating a tenant.
Late last month, a challenge to the bylaw from a property owner was dismissed by the B.C. Court of Appeal on the grounds the province’s Community Charter gives the city the right to implement and enforce the bylaw.
In the three years prior to the bylaw, the city, a Vancouver suburb of more than 70,000, had 333 known renovictions and the number has had none since 2019. Jessica Bell, housing critic for Ontario’s opposition NDP, said renovictions have been a “huge problem” through Toronto, where she represents the downtown riding of University-Rosedale.
Between 2015 and 2018, data from Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board shows a 149-per-cent increase in applications to remove tenants during renovations. From April 2019 to the end of March 2020, the LTB received 582 applications to evict tenants for demolitions, conversions, repairs or renovations.
And Bell worries that rising market-rent costs will only provide an incentive for further renovictions. “We expect, with the continuing boom in housing prices, for more renters to be screwed,” she said. So she supports assessing whether the New Westminster approach could “legally work” somewhere like Toronto.
John Mascarin, partner at Toronto law firm Aird & Berlis, says the two provinces aren’t too different in terrain. He noted that Ontario’s Municipal Act and the City of Toronto Act are “very similar” in structure to British Columbia’s Community Charter. Mascarin said there’s actually many parts of Canada with laws similar to those of B.C.
“I can certainly see why there’s interest in this case across the country,” Mascarin said. “Most of the jurisdictions across Canada are probably quite similar to the B.C. community charter, so you could probably see these renoviction bylaws popping up throughout the country.”
One question, he said, was whether there was anything laid out in the province’s relationship with municipalities, or residential tenancy laws, that could bar such a bylaw.
But landlords say the measures aren’t needed.
President and CEO of the Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario, Tony Irwin, said regulations meant to protect tenants and landlords are adequate.
“The Ontario government did make changes, they did strengthen tenant protections through Bill 184 and we think those protections are very strong,” Irwin said.
The bill, passed last year, increased fines on landlords who conduct illegal evictions.
Renters charge the fines don’t deter landlords, but Irwin said the fines are significant and can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a corporation.
Three Toronto city councillors, on Friday afternoon, said they’d support exploring whether the measure could be adopted in the city.
Fletcher pledged to raise the matter of New Westminster’s approach at a city housing committee next week. “I will be bringing a letter to Planning and Housing next week, asking staff to report very quickly on if any of these options could work in Toronto, and then we can start moving in that direction.”
A Toronto version may have to look slightly different, Fletcher cautioned, owing to different rules about residential rentals and the requirements on landlords. In Toronto, apartment owners with three-plus stories or 10-plus units currently have to register via the RentSafeTO program.
But if there was a way to use city powers to crack down on renovictions, it’s worth exploring it as quickly as possible, she said.
“The tenants really feel very, very vulnerable (during) renovictions,” she said. “I think we’re ready to really look at some concrete actions here.”
Coun. Mike Layton, who represents the same ward as Bell, supports the approach. Layton said sometimes, it takes “one brave municipality” going out on a limb with an innovative policy for others to follow suit.
“Whatever opportunities or avenues that exist for us to have more accountability is … worth the undertaking,” he said.
Coun. Ana Bailao, mayor John Tory’s advocate for affordable housing, agrees. But she also believes staff have already been eyeing the rule changes in New Westminster, noting that the executive director of Toronto’s housing secretariat is a recent transplant from B.C., herself.
Bailão said the issue was bigger than just introducing new rules; the task was also to ensure rules on the books are enforced, and that tenants know what rights they already have.
Dania Majid, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, believes the responsibility falls on the province.
Landlords looking to make cash off renovictions will just move to the next municipality if they cannot do it in Toronto, she said.
“It could have broader impact, but, ideally, we would not want to see a patchwork approach in Ontario,” she said. “We really need the province to take control of this issue.”
—with a file from Emily Mathieu