Tenants’ rights top ‘to do’ list for NDP

NDP MPP for Parkdale-High Park Cheri DiNovo, pictured in 2007 after winning her seat, wonders if there is enough political will to deal with the growing problems surrounding tenants’ rights in Ontario.

As she walks the streets of her riding, Cheri DiNovo wonders if there is enough political will to deal with the growing problems surrounding tenants’ rights in Ontario.

The NDP’s housing critic and MPP of Parkdale-High Park, answers complaint calls from constituents who can’t get various elements of their buildings repaired. She visits the buildings they live in and is shocked by what she sees.

“I was in an eight-storey building where one of the elevators hadn’t worked for months and there were seniors living on the eighth floor,” says DiNovo. “Many don’t know their rights and don’t have the wherewithal to fight their landlords.”

In her riding, there are 10,000 rental units privately held.

“Many of these apartments are lived in by new immigrants who don’t know their legal rights or have the language skills to challenge their landlords on living conditions,” she says. “I’ve seen holes in the walls, fixtures that need replacing, units with bed bugs that were re-rented . . . the list goes on.”

She says tenants often have no choice but to rent units that are affordable even if they are not in good condition.

“Some of the one-bedroom units in this area rent for $950 to $1,000, which tends to be on the lower end of the scale for the city, and many are along Jameson Ave., where new immigrants come to live. Often a lot of these units are lived in by people who can’t afford to go anywhere else,” she says.

But while she is acutely aware of conditions for the poorer constituents in her riding, it was a case in Windsor last month that has her looking to introduce a bill to specifically address tenants’ rights when MPPs return to the legislature Feb. 22. DiNovo is planning to re-introduce a bill first brought forward six years ago by NDP leader Andrea Horwath.

DiNovo was inspired by the story of a group of Windsor tenants who had the power to the three-storey apartment building cut off after the landlord failed to pay the water and electricity bills. (The tenants were not responsible for paying the utilities.)

The tenants were forced from the building and had to find alternative housing. The building owners also owed back taxes to the city and several orders to make repairs had been issued but not completed.

“I think most Ontarians would be shocked to learn that could happen, especially in the dead of winter. I know I was (surprised) that tenants could lose their utilities because their landlord hadn’t paid,” says DiNovo.

During the recession, tenant rights support groups say they saw a spike in calls f about landlords who were defaulting on their mortgages, leaving renters homeless. But even in good times, tenants can find themselves at the mercy of landlords who don’t follow through on repairs and obligations.

The tenants’ rights bill introduced by Andrea Horwath in 2005 was defeated later that year.

By bringing the tenants’ rights bill forward means there would be two bills related to landlord and tenant issues before the house. Bill 112, an amendment to the Ontario Residential Tenancies Act, which the NDP introduced to try and address landlord powers.

It would require residential-building owners with six or more units to obtain a licence from the province “to enter into a tenancy agreement or renew an existing tenancy agreement.”

It would also prohibit landlords from charging rents higher than the guidelines set by the provincial government after a tenant has left their rental property and would eliminate landlords’ ability to apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board to charge above-guideline rents after there has been a “significant increase in the cost of utilities.”

Landlord and property management groups have called the changes DiNovo is looking for as just a “cash grab” with no enforcement structure outlined to back it up.

But DiNovo says it’s tough to understand why there is no requirement for landlords to be licensed in the province of Ontario.

“What shocks me is that just about every other business is licensed in some way and yet here you have a business where the investment goes up in value whether you do anything to it or not — the value of the property generally remains even if it’s crumbling,” she says.

Right now, DiNovo says work orders are issued and often just languish because there is no enforcement in place to push landlords to make improvements. “There’s no muscle to force them to do anything and it creates a horrible situation for tenants.”

And DiNovo hopes there is significant political good will to push a tenants’ rights bill through, even though there is only a short time — 12 weeks — from the time the house resumes Feb. 22 and when it will rise again in the spring.

“I think this one is a no-brainer. Much like the $10-hour minimum wage bill, the only way of getting things done is shaming and begging the government to get things done,” she says. “It may not make it; the government makes a lot of money off of landlords and property owners, but it’s really the right thing to do.”