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Have you been charged with a crime? Have you been denied legal aid? We may be able to help. Visit our criminal law page to read more able the kinds of cases we can take on.

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Report from the 2019 Conference of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness

DLS housing lawyer Benjamin Ries was a panelist at the annual conference of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness in Edmonton, AB from November 4-6, 2019. This is his blog entry.

Approximately 1500 conference attendees from all levels of government, academia, social housing agencies, and the non-profit service sector gathered in Edmonton this year to discuss their latest research, ideas, and experiences in the national fight against homelessness and inadequate housing. Despite all of the positive energy that infused the conference plenary sessions, I came away with the distinct feeling that the majority of the institutions represented do not even have an imagination for what it will take to realize the right to housing in Canada.

This year’s conference featured a series of excellent plenary keynotes, particularly by Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, Cindy Blackstock, and Sandy Buchman. In particular, Dr. Blackstock’s presentation should have left few audience members in doubt about some very basic political facts:

  1. Eliminating unequal levels of poverty in compliance with basic human rights law costs public money
  2. Even when a self-identified “progressive” government knows how much money it will cost to uphold equality rights (e.g. of indigenous children), the government may resist spending it
  3. Litigation (supported by social activism) may be the only way to hold government accountable for this type of failure, and that process can take many years

…and yet few seemed ready to apply these lessons to the housing crisis. In general: a shortage of affordable housing (relative to the income and wealth of poor and working class Canadians) was readily and commonly acknowledged. That current national levels of social housing stock (largely frozen since the early 1990s) would need to be doubled or tripled to meet low-income housing need only seems to imply a consensus that no government will ever seriously expand social housing. The consequence of this assumption is that we are stuck with what we have, and we must largely rely upon privately-built housing stock – a market that also currently fails to meet low-income housing need.

Within this dominant paradigm, limited (and well-documented) policy options remain: increase income supports, increase vouchers (otherwise known as portable rent supplements), subsidize an increase in overall market housing supply, and/or regulate new and existing housing stock to achieve fair distribution. I could not attend *all* concurrent sessions, but in those I did attend:

  • Few if any appeared ready to propose or estimate the total necessary cost of demand-side supports or supplements to end homelessness, and
  • Few if any appeared ready to propose the supply-side subsidy or regulation required to make the private housing market fulfill low-income housing need.

Instead, a number of ongoing practices in various parts of Canada were presented as ‘models’ of housing stabilization and eviction prevention. The most troubling example was a pilot project summarized by staff from Mission Services Hamilton, who proposed to “monetize” evictions by ensuring their services met the needs of a private landlord: specifically, the owner of Hanlyn Property Management. In exchange for having the landlord attach a flyer for Mission Services to all of his eviction notices for rental arrears, Mission Services proposed to either (a) urge tenants to repay their arrears if possible, or (b) urge tenants to voluntarily move out rather than oppose the eviction in a Landlord and Tenant Board hearing, in exchange for a good reference from the landlord. Moreover: the landlord confessed that sometimes, he really does not want certain tenants to save their tenancies even if they can afford a repayment plan, because he may find them to be particularly difficult people. He was relieved when Mission Services assured him that he did not need to attach their flyer to the eviction notices for *all* tenants.

Most other non-profit and local government delegates did not attempt to pass off such uncritical commitment to landlord interests as their eviction prevention strategies. However, many did express feelings of powerlessness when it came to addressing what they understood to be discriminatory housing refusals, disrepair, and unfair rental practices in the private market. Perhaps as a natural consequence, some presenters seemed prepared to blame low-income tenants themselves for the housing crisis. For example, a researcher from the University of Calgary and an employee of the City of Calgary suggested they found it both troubling and problematic that so many families living in Calgary’s social housing units and receiving subsidized rents were remaining in place for five to ten years or more, rather than increasing their incomes and getting off subsidy. These two Calgarians speculated that the threat of losing subsidy was encouraging those social housing tenants to remain poor, and preferred the expectation that social housing tenants quickly “progress” out of subsidy and along the housing continuum. “We used to just place these tenants in social housing and not worry about what they did after that… but maybe now… that needs to change,” they wondered.

These attitudes were by no means the only ones on display, and other local ideas offered genuine potential for national application. For example, Ryan Dwyer of the University of British Columbia discussed the potential efficacy of direct cash transfers to certain segments of the homeless population. Terrilee Kelford spoke to the cost efficiency of slab-on-grade “tiny homes” both as transitional rural youth housing in Lanark County, and as supply-subsidized private affordable housing that leverages secondary suite planning policy in neighbouring Lennox and Addington County.

Social justice lawyers and legal advocates for at-risk tenants and homeless people were largely absent from the CAEH conference. Of course, the lack of government-funded civil legal aid and poverty law clinics outside of Ontario, except for the limited clinical programs hosted by law schools across Canada, may be related. But in my view, the use of phrases like “rights-based” seemed all too common among CAEH presenters, researchers, and policy-makers, without any corresponding commitment to see that the beneficiaries of those rights have sufficient access to justice such that they might claim and enforce those rights against public and private actors alike. Civil legal aid – namely, free legal representation to protect the housing rights of low-income persons – should be seen as an essential requirement before any low-income housing system may be termed “rights-based”.

One recent addition to the CAEH, in particular, understands this: healthcare workers. Just as poverty lawyers’ perspectives are shaped by their professional obligation to prefer the individual interests of their homeless and inadequately housed clients above the interests of all others in society, so too are health professionals required to clearly articulate the truth about their patients’ conditions and individual needs without compromise or limit arising from other political considerations. Whether the public will afford an expensive treatment technology may be an administrative question, but that does not necessarily stop a physician from identifying when such treatment technologies are medically necessary. While by no means perfect, healthcare and health policy has the potential to address homelessness in a manner that correctly prioritizes human flourishing over the interests of private capital.

The health sector’s emerging approach to homelessness is informed by direct, ground-level experiences with patients whose lack of adequate, stable housing can be seen in a perspective shared by poverty lawyers: an acute threat to individual well-being and survival that demands urgent action. And when each sector proposes upstream solutions, they do so without losing sight of the need to improve individual outcomes. These links are what make medical-legal partnerships a powerful tool for communities resisting housing injustice.

Now, more than ever, I am proud to remain affiliated with the Health Justice Program through local community legal clinics, St. Michael’s Hospital and Family Health Team. I am also excited to support the launch of the Canadian Network for the Health and Housing of the Homelessness (CNH3), an important organizational pillar within the CAEH and a natural home for front-line poverty lawyers fighting for the right to housing in Canada.

The 2020 annual CAEH conference will take place in Toronto.

Are we really open for business when no one has a schedule?

By Sukhmani Virdi, Caseworker in Employment Law & Academic Appeal Division

             Are you trying to plan your life without knowing when to work, for how long and no real ability to turn down work?  Are you bummed because your shift was canceled the night before? Are you trying to balance courses and a job, unable to know when you have time to complete school work because your boss still hasn’t made the schedule? Is it making you uneasy not knowing what your day will look like three days from now? If so, you are not alone. These are the realities for many of the almost 44 percent of people in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area who work in precarious jobs.[1]

            Irregular or short notice scheduling impacts more than just a person’s work, it defines their life. The Economic Policy Institute found that workers with irregular schedules experience greater work-family conflict than those with regular, standard schedules.[2] Other studies have demonstrated that workers in precarious employment are less likely to invest in their children (less volunteering at their child’s ).[3] In addition, these workers are more likely to experience poor health[4] as they are less likely to engage in preventative care. After all, who can afford to go to a doctor’s appointment when they might be called in to work?

            Employers argue that they need flexibility to schedule and cancel shifts last minute to respond to business needs otherwise they lose money. However, when workers do not know when they are working, or are trying to balance multiple part-time jobs, they are not ready to work at a moment’s notice – and employers are still left scrambling. By giving workers some notice, they give workers an opportunity to plan and to be reliable.  Reliable employees prevent a business from being short-staffed in busy periods or missing sales. In a 2015 pilot project, Gap implemented two key practices to support stable scheduling in their US workplaces: (1) schedules were posted two weeks in advance; (2) on-call shifts were eliminated. After eight months, Gap saw a median increase of 7% in their sales.[5] By posting schedules even just a few days in advance, employers are giving workers a sense of security and when workers feel secure, they stay in their positions, and employers avoid turnover and overhead costs.  

            For a short period, it looked like workers in Ontario were going to get some security in scheduling.  Starting this January workers were to have the right to (1) refuse a request to work with less than 96 hours’ notice; (2) be paid for 3 hours if their scheduled or on-call shift was cancelled within 48 hours’ of the start time.  But in November 2018, before these modest steps could come into effect, the Ford Government axed them without any consultation or substitution. Can Ontario really be “open for business” when no one knows when to come ?

[1] Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (May 2015) The Precarity Penalty: The Impact of Employment Precarity on Individuals, Households and Communities – and what to do about it. Online: https://www.unitedwaygt.org/file/Precarity-Penalty-ExecSummary.pdf, 3.

[2] Economic Policy Institute (2015) Irregular Work Scheduling and its Consequences. EPI Briefing Paper #394. 2015. https://www.epi.org/publication/irregular-work-scheduling-and-its-consequences/, 2.

[3] Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario, 13.

[4] Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario, 9.

[5] Joan Williams et al. Stable Scheduling Increases Productivity and Sales. Online: http://worklifelaw.org/publications/Stable-Scheduling-Study-Report.pdf, 6-7.

Landlord’s “bed and breakfast” rental scheme defeated

The DLS Housing Law Division has just completed four years of litigation to win back thousands of dollars that were illegally collected from three University of Toronto international students and then kept by their landlord, who still has not paid them back. If you’re a student renter, read on to avoid having this happen to you!

The case

In late summer 2014, three international students answered a rental ad that a local landlord had placed on the University of Toronto Housing Services’ off-campus housing website. When the students visited the home (in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, and divided into several apartments) to sign a lease, the landlord instead presented them with a “Booking Agreement” for a nine-month term of occupancy, requiring that the tenants pay their rent make their ‘payments’ in a front-loaded instalment schedule. The document also claimed that the Residential Tenancies Act, 2006 (“RTA”) did not apply, that the landlord was an “innkeeper”, and that the students were each required to do chores for several hours per week as part of their agreement.

By December 2014, the students were complaining about a pest infestation, lack of heat, and daily harassment by their landlord. She had collected most of their rent for the entire term, so she told them to get out. They did move at the end of December, but she kept all of their money. The students visited DLS the next semester, and we filed their Landlord and Tenant Board (“LTB”) applications that summer.

The landlord managed to drag the case out for the next four years by:

The LTB, overwhelmed by staffing shortages, often took several months after a hearing date to even try to schedule the next one. From the final hearing, the LTB took eight months to issue its decision.

The outcome

The final LTB order provides that:

  • since the RTA applied to this tenancy, it was illegal for the landlord to collect a damage deposit and irregular front-loaded “instalment” payments instead of a regular monthly rent (where the deposit must be no greater than one month’s rent)
  • since the landlord ended the tenancy early in December 2014, she should have returned all of the money attributable to January-May 2015
  • since the landlord harassed the tenants and interfered with their reasonable enjoyment of the rented unit, she was ordered to refund an additional 10% of their rent

The landlord has decided not to appeal. As of the date of this post, she also has not yet paid a cent of the $7000+ that she owes.

Lessons for renters

  1. As a renter, you should be familiar with your basic legal rights under the Residential Tenancies Act, 2006 – a law that protects tenants in Ontario. Visit yourlegalrights.ca for easy-to-read explanations of rent control, security of tenure, and other tenant rights.
  2. Just because your landlord says you are not covered by the RTA, does not make it true. The RTA applies to most rental situations, and there are very narrow exceptions. Signing an agreement (saying the RTA does not apply) does not matter. You cannot “contract out” of the RTA.
  3. If the RTA applies to your rental situation, you cannot be required to pay more than one month’s deposit (which is your last month’s rent) in advance. Beware of landlords who request three, five, or even twelve months of rent up front. A tight rental market will lead you to difficult choices. But the more money you put in your landlord’s pocket, the more you’re risking that they will keep that money in a situation where they are required to refund it.
  4. You have one year from the date that your landlord did anything illegal to file an application to the LTB. This deadline comes sooner than you think, so get legal advice soon if you think you might need it.
  5. The legal process is frustrating. Traditionally, the LTB is an efficient tribunal for evictions and landlord applications, which make up about 90% of the cases that the LTB hears. But tenant’s applications can often take years to finish, in part because an LTB member may look at what you are seeking and say “it’s just money”.
  6. Because you may need to give evidence to the LTB years down the road – after memories have faded – keep good documentation of your tenancy issues. If you think your landlord is harassing you, communicate with them in writing (including by email or text message) and save backup copies of that correspondence. If you notice any maintenance problems, take lots of photos and keep them organized by date and subject. If you feel that your apartment has inadequate heat, buy a thermometer, hold it in the centre of the room, and take a clear photo of the thermometer.

Special thanks to the four generations of our now-alumni who worked tirelessly on this case, the law students continuing collections efforts, UofT Housing Services for agreeing to de-list the landlord in question, and our clients who gave us permission to share this story.

We are grateful for the funding provided by Legal Aid Ontario, the Law Foundation of Ontario, the Faculty of Law and students at the University of Toronto.