Next week's debate at Licensing and Standards could make negligent landlords more responsible.
Landlords can wield enormous power over tenants due to the nature of their relationship, but in a city like Toronto that power is compounded by high home prices, which push some would-be homeowners back into the crowded rental market; consistently low vacancy rates; and dramatic income inequality.
In return for paying rent, tenants should be able to expect safe, stable living conditions, with repairs made in a timely fashion. That’s not how it works for many people, though: according to a recent survey conducted by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, more than 80 per cent of respondents reported seeing cockroaches, with around a third saying they saw cockroaches every day.
Some of the city’s worst landlords allow their buildings to languish, refusing to conduct needed repairs for years. When landlords renege on their side of the landlord-tenant covenant, there’s relatively little the City can do about it. The Multi-Residential Apartment Building inspection program focuses on a small number of buildings with the most or longest needed repairs, and as Federation of Metro Tenants Associations president Geordie Dent told Torontoist last year, the re-inspection fees MRAB can charge delinquent landlords are “peanuts.”
ACORN has agitated for stricter municipal control over landlords for 12 years, said housing spokesperson Alejandra Ruiz Vargas, especially for those landlords who consistently fail to maintain appropriate living conditions, and the City is listening—on November 30, the Licensing and Standards Committee will consider a proposal for landlord registration.
Ruiz Vargas said the group’s ultimate goal is that “tenants will be respected through the law.” To achieve that end, ACORN wants to see landlords licensed by the city and required to display clear signage in apartment buildings—similar to the DineSafe licensing program for restaurants—that would let tenants and prospective tenants know if the building is violating any codes. They also want fines imposed on landlords who fail to meet regulations.
The City’s proposal calls for landlord registration rather than licensing, claiming that “a regulatory approach through licensing does not present any advantages over other regulatory tools.” Municipal Licensing and Standards spokesperson Tammy Robinson, asked for comment, deferred to the information publicly available on the City’s website, including the proposal.
Asked about the fact that the City appears headed toward not licensing landlords, but toward the softer registration, Ruiz Vargas said, “Basically what we want is that the landlord knows that they cannot get away with all they do against the law.”
“Landlords don’t feel responsible for their actions,” Ruiz Vargas said. “They feel that they can do whatever with the tenants because there’s really nobody who can enforce [existing regulations]. So this is the idea with landlord licensing, that they will have something like a guiding line: ‘If you don’t do this, don’t do that, you will have to pay that.’”
The City includes “new opportunities for higher fines” on the list of improvements the proposal would bring, and a November 16 “Report for Action” lists $100,000 as the highest possible fine for some violations. For apartment buildings being audited due to noncompliance with bylaws, there’s a recommended fee of $7,250.
The new and improved regulations would, according to the City, increase the cost of MRAB to about $4.4 million per year from just under $3.2 million in 2016. The City has suggested a few models for covering those costs, all of which include a per-unit fee for landlords (ranging from $8 to $13) and either 20 or 40 per cent funding from tax revenues.
While licensing landlords is important to ACORN, Ruiz Vargas explained that it’s just one part of a larger goal, which is to provide some balance to the landlord-tenant relationship. They’re also interested in greater awareness of tenants’ rights, as well as making information about buildings and landlords more easily available. To that end, the City’s proposed plan includes requirements to place a “notification board in [a] central location” and to make tenants aware of upcoming repairs and service disruptions.
“If you pay the rent you have to have rights,” said Ruiz Vargas.
The City passing this proposal may signal agreement.