The Limits in Landlord Accountability
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The Limits in Landlord Accountability

We look at a case study where tenants say complaints are routinely ignored by their landlord, and whether new efforts by the City can change the system for the better.

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The outdoor swimming pool at 500 Dawes Road hasn’t been used in years. The deck chairs and floaties are long gone, but the water was never drained after the landlord locked the gate in 2011 and, despite periodic chemical treatment, years of rain and stagnation have turned it a vibrant, murky green. Surrounded by tall wire fence at the back of the building, it feels not just closed, but somehow forsaken.

The 14-storey highrise that towers over it is anything but abandoned, however. The entrance to 500 Dawes bustles with residents coming and going, and children bursting in and out the front door on bikes. In warmer weather, the tidy, brightly coloured playground out front is occupied with smaller children and their families, and, according to some, drug dealers.

Crime is an ever-present concern at 500 Dawes, but it’s just one of many issues faced by tenants. In the past, serious maintenance problems like a broken heating system in winter have competed for attention with pest-control troubles and vandalism. But despite the steady stream of complaints about the building to City officials and tenant’s rights organizations, improvements have been slow coming.

In her efforts to avoid upkeep, the landlord has tested the City’s ability to intervene on residents’ behalf. “500 Dawes is a very good case history on the limitations of the tools that we have at the City to improve private property,” says local councillor Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York).

Those limitations have real consequences, as some of the city’s most vulnerable tenants can feel there’s little recourse or accountability for their needs and concerns. Can that system change?

A Google search of the address reveals a long history of shootings and stabbings that have taken place in and around 500 Dawes. “The criminal element is thriving,” says Geri Stevens, the ACORN tenant leader in the building. To hear her describe it, the presence of so much crime is easily explained: the landlord doesn’t screen tenants. “References, guarantors, credit checks—you don’t need any of that. All you need is first and last month’s rent,” she says.

Davis confirms this. “She takes everybody,” says the long-time advocate for tenant rights.

The East York landlord for 500 Dawes Road is known to most tenants as “Mrs. Linton,” but depending on who is asking, she operates under three different names: Carolyn Krebs, Marian Linton, or Carolyn Goodman. (For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to her as Goodman, her legal name according to one court document.)

Goodman’s company, Havcare Investments Inc., was incorporated in 1995 and, as of July 2014, it owned 11 buildings in Toronto. Another company called Havcaree Investments Inc. was incorporated in 1996; although it’s still officially active, the number of buildings it owns, and whether it is operated by Goodman or someone related to her, is unclear.

Ironically, the best information about Goodman available to the public comes from one instance where her open-door approach seems to have lapsed. In 2011, Thaila-Paige Dixon-Eeet took Goodman to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario for refusing to rent her an apartment because she was only 17 at the time. In a ruling that blasted Goodman’s conduct and dismissed her testimony as unreliable, the court found in Dixon-Eeet’s favour last summer, and the landlord was ordered to pay her $10,000.

Despite their shortcomings, 500 Dawes and buildings like it fill a crucial niche in Toronto’s low-rent ecosystem: affordable housing for those with few other options. Waiting for a spot in Toronto Community Housing can take up to 10 years, depending on the household, and discrimination and poverty-related issues can make it almost impossible to secure lodging in better-quality apartments. For some, not having to provide a guarantor or a credit check can be a lifesaver.

That affordability and accessibility comes at a cost, however, and it isn’t just worrying about what your neighbours are doing down the hall. The hands-off approach can extend to more than the screening process, and many residents have accused Goodman of ignoring problems and allowing poor conditions to continue unchecked. Torontoist spoke to more than a dozen tenants of 500 Dawes Road, and several described repeatedly bringing maintenance issues to the landlord’s attention, to no avail.

Goodman did not respond to repeated attempts to contact her through Havcare. The woman who answers the phone at the company refused to give her name or answer whether she was in fact Goodman. However, this person stated that the building has a long waiting list for people wishing to rent an apartment, and added that “98 per cent of tenants are very happy with the building” and don’t want to leave, and that most of the complaints come from tenants who were evicted because they didn’t pay their rent.

According to the City’s municipal licensing and standards data, the 14-storey 500 Dawes Road building received 159 complaints over the past two years, the 14th most-complained-about rental address in the city.

Davis says she receives a continual litany of complaints about the landlord, both for how Goodman treats people and how she manages the building. Annie Hodgins, a programs manager at the Centre for Equal Rights in Accommodation, says the organization receives complaints on a regular basis from people living at properties owned by Havcare Investments.

Goodman’s approach to dealing with tenant complaints is smile-and-dodge. “Talk to her about milk, she’ll tell you about eggs,” says one resident, metaphorically explaining how Goodman ducks the problems. “After a while, you start to feel ashamed for asking so many times, so you stop,” said another.

Ignoring even small-seeming problems like vandalism takes a big psychological toll, according to Heather Rollwagen, a sociology professor at Ryerson University. “When you have these low-level forms of disorder, they signal to residents that people don’t care about their surroundings, and that prompts a lack of trust that people will help them,” she says. “Our sense of safety is formed by these indicators in the environment.”

This theory is borne out by what residents at 500 Dawes have to say about their experience in the building. Their complaints are manifold—mice and cockroach infestations, dog urine in the elevator, the smell of drug use—but one refrain is often repeated: “I stick to myself.”

For some residents, the fear they experience has less to do with other tenants than with the landlord herself. Most refused to give their names when interviewed, with several naming fear of repercussions as the primary reason. Stevens claims Goodman commonly threatens tenants with eviction: “She loves handing out eviction notices. If you’re a day or two late on your rent, you’ll get an eviction notice.”

At the same time, other residents also said Goodman shouldn’t be blamed for the behaviour of tenants who purposely damage the property. “It’s not her, it’s the people here,” said one. This sentiment is shared even by some of those who work hard to keep Goodman accountable to her tenants.

Mark Sraga, the director of investigations for the City’s municipal licensing and standards (MLS) department, acknowledges the limits of what can be done by the City. “We can’t address tenant conduct,” he says.

But there are plenty of things Sraga’s team can address, and does. When a resident calls 311 and makes a complaint, MLS is responsible for sending an officer out to inspect the problem. Most of the potential issues are outlined in Chapter 629 [PDF] of the Municipal Code, a 54-page document that covers everything from the height of handrails to light levels in hallways.

The complaint-based approach has its drawbacks, however, as some tenants don’t know their rights or refrain from speaking up for various reasons. To counter this problem, MLS took a more proactive approach and in 2008 instituted a Multi-Residential Apartment Building (MRAB) inspection program. The goal was to audit 200 buildings in Toronto every year.

The MRAB program cast such a wide net, however, that efficiency was compromised. Any building on the list would be audited, whether it needed it or not. “The inspectors were visiting some of the nicest buildings in the city and saying, ‘This looks like a hotel,'” says Daryl Chong, the president of the Greater Toronto Apartment Association. Meanwhile, they were so busy trying to comprehensively assess every building that they couldn’t follow up meaningfully on the ones with the most problems, such as 500 Dawes Road.

Part of the issue is that the consequences for ignoring the work orders are only slight. If the City has to return to a building for a deficiency that has already been identified, it can charge a re-inspection fee, but according Geordie Dent, the executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations, those are too small to matter to a landlord of a large building. “They’re peanuts,” he says. “They’ll run you a few hundred dollars.”

Acording to Davis and Stevens, even when repairs were being done at 500 Dawes, they were often done inadequately. For example, the balconies were repainted several summers ago, but the paint used by the contractors quickly started peeling off, and now the ground around the building is littered with fallen paint chips.

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Because of the intransigence of a small fraction of landlords like Goodman, MRAB changed its approach this year and started focusing its efforts on buildings with the most recurring problems. “If we see a pattern of complaints that indicates there’s a systemic problem in that building, such as lack of maintenance or care, we go in and audit the whole building top to bottom,” says Sraga.

As Goodman has proven, however, auditing isn’t worth much if the work doesn’t get done. “What’s really more important is that, once we’ve audited the building, we get the compliance done,” says Sraga. In order to do that, the City has armed itself with a remedial action tool to make sure landlords comply with the work orders they’re given, and it’s pretty straightforward: “If you don’t do it, we’ll do it,” says Sraga.

Basically, if the property owner doesn’t comply with a work order, the City has the right to hire a contractor to do the work. Then they simply apply the cost of the corrective action to the landlord’s property taxes.

Remedial action would be a stronger tool if it was used more often. Since the beginning of the MRAB program, the city has identified 51,898 deficiences in apartment buildings, of which 7,092 are still outstanding (263 from 2009, still unadressed six years later). For all these problems, the City has only used remedial action 10 times.

Under MRAB’s original program, 500 Dawes was the first building to be audited in 2009, and in 2015 it was one of the first buildings to get attention under the new mandate. At the time of the most recent audit, residents of the building were suffering from a poor-functioning heating system. At one point, rather than fix it, Goodman handed out tiny space heaters to each apartment, says Stevens. The City threatened to fix it themselves, and shortly thereafter Goodman complied and got the work done.

Other landlords have not been so quick: the City has been cleaning up 1501 Woodbine, outside and inside the building, and the property owners will have to foot the bill at tax season. Sraga considers this a sign to other negligent landlords that the City is serious about compliance.

Officially known as Trillium Apartments, 1501 Woodbine shares the same basic architecture as 500 Dawes—three wings, each jutting out in different directions to make a ‘Y’ shape—and is located a short distance away, due west across the Massey Creek ravine. As a result of the City’s intervention, the owner ceded property management responsibilities to MetCap Living, which claims a residential portfolio of approximately 23,000 units across Ontario.

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Brent Merrill, the company’s president, says that MetCap specializes in taking over buildings that have had problems. “We tend to come in where there are issues,” he says. “We’ve been known for straightening things out.” MetCap has a lot of catching up to do with old deficiencies at 1501 Woodbine, which has had the most tenant complaints of any building in Toronto over the past two years—almost twice the second-place building. But Merrill is confident things will get better: they’ve installed a new resident manager and hired more full-time staff to stay on top of the cleaning and repairs, and they also have a hotline that residents can call if there’s a problem.

Some of the changes are already apparent, at least according to one resident, who rejoiced that cleaners had actually picked up all the dog poop from the front lawn.

But even with the successes that it has had effecting change at a few critical addresses, some feel the City doesn’t have the resources it needs to protect tenants from intransigent landlords. “We have more regulatory clout on many more things than we have on living standards, or on state of housing,” says Davis.

Davis believes the City needs more options to make intransigent landlords improve sub-standard conditions in their buildings, so that the focus is more on systemic change rather than addressing issues on a case-by-case basis. The property standards bylaw isn’t strong enough, in her opinion. Instead, the City should be able to prevent landlords from increasing rent if they have outstanding work orders, or in more extreme cases, such as when the heating is out, block the landlord from filling vacancies.

In order to obtain those powers, the City would need a new regulatory framework, and Davis believes a landlord licensing system is the way to go. If we license barbers and buskers, the argument goes, then why not landlords?

“After all, it is a business,” she says.

The landlord licensing question was put under review last year at council, and Sraga will present a report on the subject this June.

“The first question we need to ask is what a landlord licence would achieve,” he says.

For tenants of apartment buildings whose owners persistently ignore substandard conditions, the answers to that question might make a long list.

Below is a partial list of properties understood by MLS Investigations to be owned by Havcare, Goodman, or her husband Harvey Krebs. It is based on total complaints filed to MLS between March 31, 2013 and April 1, 2015. Six of the seven Havcare- or Goodman-related addressed given by MLS to Torontoist were in the top 250 worst buildings for total complaints. For context, over 10,000 addresses had at least one complaint filed against it.

  • 500 Dawes Road, 159 complaints, 14th most in the city.
  • 608 Dawes Road, 72 complaints, 83rd most in the city.
  • 279 Woodfield Road, 63 complaints, 113th most in the city.
  • 171 St. Clair Avenue East, 44 complaints, 199th most in the city.
  • 46-50 Glen Everest Road, 219th most in the city.
  • 210 Oak Street, 35 complaints, 250th most in the city.

David Hains contributed reporting to this story.