Here's why tenant representation matters.
Eviction is the sword hanging over every renter’s head. Whether someone struggles to pay their rent each month or not, every renter knows his or her landlord possesses the capacity to put them out of their home. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen often. And eviction prevention programs are vital in ensuring that not all of the people who go before the Landlord Tenant Board (LTB) end up evicted. Whether it’s the Tenant Duty Counsel Program (TDCP) or the city’s emergency fund for rent and other urgent housing costs, eviction prevention programs offer a range of services intended to keep people in their homes.
For those comparatively few tenants who end up before the LTB, the majority are there because they’ve failed to pay some amount of rent. In 2013-14, the total number of landlord applications to the LTB was 81,748; rent non-payment was the issue in 64.6 per cent of those cases.
That so many cases are tied to a failure to pay rent points to a close relationship between eviction and poverty.
Despite a public fascination with alleged “professional tenants” like the well-dressed villain of last summer, James Regan, they’re vanishingly rare; most people just want to know they’ll continue to have a roof over their heads, and they’ll pay handsomely for the privilege. If someone isn’t paying for that basic necessity, it stands to reason that they are in dire financial straits.
Tracy Heffernan is provincial director of the TDCP, which is run by the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO). TDCP assists tenants facing the Landlord Tenant Board, though as Heffernan pointed out, due to the volume of cases and number of lawyers—just seven or eight in four offices across Toronto—they are unable to do much beyond providing information and sending tenants off to represent themselves.
“Priority is given to providing summary advice, which would be, ‘Here are your rights, this is what you can do,’ and then people are sent off to represent themselves,” Heffernan said.
Still, the program helped 20,000 tenants last year province-wide, and 10,000 in Toronto alone. And Heffernan said findings from a review of the program back up what most people working in anti-poverty fields or with tenants already know anecdotally: people who aren’t paying rent are in Ontario have very little money.
“A really basic part of the problem is that tenants simply do not have enough money to pay what are ever-escalating rents,” Heffernan said.
“In recent years many Canadian cities experienced some combination of rising rents, very limited new construction of rental housing, falling incomes among modest income families and individuals, and limited access to social housing,” the CMHC wrote in a 2005 review of eviction prevention programs—and those issues have only become more serious in the decade since. “Combined with low vacancy rates, these factors created conditions for an increased number of evictions.”
Yet, in spite of the economic circumstances, even the Federation of Rental Housing Providers of Ontario concedes that “most tenants are good tenants” who pay their rent (and this in a 2011 report with the ominous title “Justice Denied: Ontario’s Broken Rent Dispute Process”). And when they write “most” they mean the vast majority: according to the report, around three per cent of Ontario tenants end up before the Landlord Tenant Board, and 1.5 per cent leave without paying anything. In most cases, tenants either pay on time or they find a way to pay back what they owe — or, in the Federation’s wording, they “force their landlord to utilize Ontario’s rent dispute process in order to enforce payment.”
Almost half of the 212 tenants surveyed in the TDCP review—all of whom had come before the LTB and met with TDC lawyers there—were spending more than half their monthly income on rent. (The standard benchmark for what people can comfortably spend on housing is 30 per cent.) Around 75 per cent were living below the low-income cut-off, while nearly half identified as members of a racialized community and more than 30 per cent said someone in their household had a disability.
In considering who is most likely to face eviction, it becomes clear that while eviction prevention programs are undoubtedly important, they come at a multi-pronged problem from just one, and they do so at a late stage. As housing advocates have been telling the federal government while Ottawa prepares to release its national housing strategy, a truly helpful approach to ending homelessness, preventing eviction, or making housing affordable is to treat all of these issues as inextricably related to each other and to all of the other issues tied to poverty in Canada.
“There are some clear and good results that come out of” offering legal advice to tenants, said Heffernan, “and I think it’s helpful to do that, but at the end of the day, it’s a band-aid when people really, fundamentally can’t afford to pay their rent.”