Forget bedbugs—the real scourge in Toronto’s rental market is deadbeat tenants. But if you think it’s easy to get rid of a nightmare renter, think again.
The Toronto South branch office of the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board is just east of Yonge and St. Clair, but it could be the set of a shot-in-Vancouver procedural. It’s a warren of shadowy corridors with low ceilings, moody lighting, and institutional greige walls. Most of the windows offer views of featureless midtown office buildings, except for a squared-off second-storey courtyard where two sad rubber balls lie on the grimy roof—they look like they were abandoned by dogs who gave up partway through a game of fetch, defeated.
Defeat is an expression you’ll see a lot on the faces of the folks here. In one room, rows of chairs face a wall of Plexiglas-clad kiosks. The tension is palpable, probably because pretty much everyone there is locked in a battle over something primal: the security and stability of someone’s home. If that basic need is threatened, it’s hard not to feel yourself slipping into an us-versus-them frontier mentality. When I was there, just before Labour Day, clutching a sheaf of forms and waiting for advice, I found myself, against my best intentions, wondering how many of the other people in the room were jerks trying to get away without paying rent because they knew how easy it is to game the system. And if I learned anything this summer, it’s that it’s really easy to game the system.
“Traci” moved into our basement in June. She was from somewhere near Sault Ste. Marie, and she said she was enrolled in criminology classes at York and just wanted a quiet place to study. Traci was sweet and polite, and best of all, she seemed truly taken with the apartment.
She was shocked when we said we’d be happy to rent to a student. We were shocked that she was shocked—a basement seemed ideal for a kid just starting to fly solo. Her references were glowing, so we didn’t bother with a credit check. More than anything else, we liked Traci, and we liked the idea of renting an apartment to a young woman who was building a new life in a new city.
At first, everything was copacetic. She gave us money orders for her first and last month’s rent deposits up front. But before long, a handful of mildly weird things happened: She made plans to move in on a certain day, but didn’t show up till a week and a half later. She made vague promises of getting us post-dated cheques, but they took close to a month to surface. We’d send messages about fairly urgent matters, and she’d take more than a week to respond.
In August, Traci’s rent cheque bounced. When we told her, she was blasé. “Oh, I guess I didn’t check that account,” she muttered. “I’m at a cottage with my parents. I’ll deal with it when I get back.” When we said she needed to deal with it sooner, she went AWOL. She wouldn’t answer her phone, didn’t reply to emails or texts, and didn’t come anywhere near the apartment. We’ll threaten to evict her, we thought. We had no idea what we were in for.
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When we told our nearest and dearest what was happening, most of them asked the same question that you’re probably asking right now: “Why don’t you just dump her stuff on the street and change the locks?”
Twenty-five thousand dollars, for starters. That’s how much we could be fined for doing so under the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA), plus a “rent abatement” (compensation for rent paid) and other costs a tenant claims to have incurred as a result of being locked out of his or her unit. The members of the Landlord Tenant Board uphold the RTA; they’re also the individuals who decide whether you, as a landlord, are allowed to evict someone who’s failed to pay the rent.
According to LTB spokesperson Donna Mrvaljevic, most cases like mine brought before the Board result in an order for the termination of the tenancy.
“If a case gets dismissed,” she says, “it can be for more than one reason. One, you didn’t prove your case or were not prepared to present the evidence of your case. Or it could be that the person who was respondent to the application”—that is, the evictee—“was able to prove [otherwise] in their claim.”
Even if you think your case is airtight, you’re in for a challenge: Before you come face to face with a board member, you have to go through a maddeningly Byzantine course of action that involves meticulous paperwork, detailed calculations, and carefully designated waiting periods. Oh, and pretty much every application filed by a landlord will cost about $170. The system itself would give Kafka nightmares.
I never wanted to be a landlord. But when my partner and I started looking at houses about three years ago, it was hard not to be won over by the prospect of an income property. Given that we both work in arts media, it seemed to be the only way we’d be able to fully own a home in Toronto before we were in our 90s. “A rental unit could pay off half your mortgage!” crowed our broker.
When our current home came up, our agent was ecstatic—it was affordable, in good shape, and in a decent area. And, best of all, it came with its own basement tenant. For the first two and a half years, being a landlord was a relative breeze. We had no complaints from or about our first boarder, or the one who followed him. Every now and then, we’d smell frozen French fries sizzling, or hear muffled music coming from under the floorboards, and we’d be acutely aware that someone else was living in our house, listening to us laugh, eavesdropping on our fights, and possibly judging our choice of DVDs. (I maintain that it is totally not embarrassing to watch all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls back to back.)
The people who make their living off of renting property advise you to contact numerous references, do credit checks, and inspect pay stubs of prospective tenants. But even the most diligent landlord would have a hard time weeding out a guy like Pacific Heights’ Carter Hayes, who looks good on paper, interviews like a dream, and turns into a sociopath as soon as he’s got the keys in his hand.
That’s what happened to “Elaine,” a journalist who rents out the basement of the house she and her husband own in midtown Toronto. (It’s a testament to how tenuous landlord-tenant relations have become that, although I heard dozens of rental horror stories while researching this piece, the vast majority of subjects declined to go on the record, and the ones who agreed to be interviewed for this piece asked that I not use their real names.)
When their first tenant, a good friend, gave notice after living in their place for a year and a half, Elaine and her husband posted an ad on Craiglist. “We found this woman who seemed perfect—she had a steady job and really liked the apartment,” she says. “We knew upon meeting her that we weren’t going to be buddies, but you don’t have to be best friends with everyone who moves in. The point was that we could trust she could pay the rent and be courteous.”
The first sign that something was off came about 12 hours after their new tenant moved in, Elaine says. The rumble and buzz of the on-demand water heater kicking in had never been an issue when their pal lived in the unit, but it was evidently unacceptable for this new occupant. “First thing in the morning, we received this curt, rude email that was very accusatory and mean, lambasting us for the noise at night.”
That fairly innocuous, if unpleasant, interaction mushroomed into palpable friction. Elaine is wary of disclosing too many details—she says even now, two years later, she worries about retaliation—but she alludes to the cops showing up to deal with screaming domestic disputes in the basement and a growing, unbearable aura of acrimony.
“I could feel her rage seeping through the floorboards,” she says. “I couldn’t sit on the main floor of our house because it was so uncomfortable.”
The realization that we’d invited a relative stranger into our home became deeply unsettling the minute Traci started to act as though we didn’t exist. It wasn’t just that she had stopped paying rent—it was that she refused to communicate with us. One of the few times I managed to get her on the phone, she burst into hysterical, unhinged laughter, then hung up on me; on another occasion, she was belligerent and aloof. “I talked to someone,” she sputtered. “You can’t evict me without a hearing!”
In our case she was right, at least legally speaking. We’d hoped the mere threat of eviction would scare her into forking over the cash. If she was no longer able to pay her rent, I suggested, we’d be happy to mutually agree to break the lease and forgo the requisite 60-day notice. No dice.
We served Traci with an N4 form (Notice to End Tenancy Early for Non-Payment of Rent) on August 15. From there, she had 14 days to pay us the amount she owed us in full. After that deadline, we could…evict her? Nope. Once her grace period expired, we had to wait till the next business day. Then we could enter the bowels of the LTB and submit an official Application of Eviction for Non-Payment of Rent (L1) to one of the representatives stationed at those Plexiglas kiosks. That’s how I wound up waiting in that bleak, shot-in-Vancouver waiting room, and paying $170 to have them rubber-stamp my paperwork and issue an official hearing date.
Our hearing was scheduled for September 24, just over four weeks after our application was received. During that period, Traci came and went from the apartment, took epically long showers, didn’t respond to a single one of our many, many attempts to make contact, and bounced another rent cheque. We grew increasingly, irrationally, paranoid. One horrible evening, a weird chemical-y odour floated through the vents—like a sweetish burning plastic—and we were certain she had to be smoking crack in the basement. “What if she passes out and sets the curtains on fire?” I whispered, terrified that if she heard me, she’d decide to lash out at us. My girlfriend mapped out a step-by-step plan for how we could safely evacuate the house with all three animals. We seriously considered trekking up to my parents’ house in Don Mills. We barely slept that night.
I suppose I should be grateful that our tenant never left us surprise turds out of spite. Those were the parting gifts deposited by Nina Willis, Toronto’s notorious “nightmare tenant,” when, after months of LTB-mediated disputes, she was forced to leave the Don Mills apartment she was occupying. Willis’s was one of two heated, high-profile landlord-tenant conflicts that surfaced this summer. Her case made headlines in part because of how unabashed she was in her efforts to exploit the loopholes in the Residential Tenancies Act. The problem is that as a homeowner, you have no recourse when someone is willfully taking advantage of the odds in their favour to screw you over.
That’s precisely what happened in the case of Melissa D’Amico, a Toronto woman who rented a building in the Kensington Market area to a decent-seeming guy and his partner in October 2011. The tenants signed a 12-month lease and agreed to pay $3,600 a month (the property itself was half-commercial, half-residential). As soon as they moved in, though, D’Amico’s tenants refused to cough up the rent. She initiated a formal eviction process—N4, L1, etc.—and proceeded to a hearing, at which point the tenants produced a cheque that covered the amount they owed in full. The application was dismissed, the eviction order was not given…and that cheque, of course, bounced. This was just the beginning of a Groundhog Day–like series of manipulative feints on the part of D’Amico’s tenants, who racked up approximately $25,000 in arrears by July 26, 2012, the time the case was heard in the Ontario Superior Court.
“The legislation governs an area of law that’s in place to protect a weaker party—people who could lose their housing,” says Douglas Levitt, the lawyer who represented D’Amico in her eviction case. “It’s designed to correct a natural balance—or rather, imbalance—but in its effort to remedy the consequences of having slum landlords, the government has gone too far. They’ve created slum tenants.”
Like Superior Court Justice Ted Matlow, who cited the D’Amico case to draw attention to a key problem with the Residential Tenancies Act as it stands, Levitt says the case highlights two areas in the legislation that have created an avenue for unscrupulous tenants to take advantage of landlords. “First, there’s the pay-and-stay provision of the Act. If a landlord takes you to the Board because you haven’t paid your rent, you can void the entire process by paying the landlord”—even if you’re pretty sure you’re giving your landlord a cheque that won’t clear.
“Another provision,” Levitt continues, “says that after the landlord gets an eviction order, but before it’s enforced, you can hand the landlord money and file a motion with an affidavit that says you’ve paid money. The Board automatically hears this and issues a notice voiding the eviction order, taking the renter’s word at face value.” If that affidavit pertains to a cheque that then bounces, the landlord’s forced to go back to the LTB and apply for yet another hearing.
Taken to their most extreme, these loopholes essentially create a structure in which it’s feasible (although not likely) that a tenant could ward off an official eviction order even as a homeowner goes into foreclosure for failure to pay her mortgage as a result of losing regular rental income. Nobody I spoke to—not Levitt, not Mrvaljevic, not the lovely and very helpful LTB client services reps—could definitively say that was not a possible outcome.
77,393: Total number of applications received by the Landlord Tenant Board in the 2010-2011 fiscal year
1.5%: Toronto’s average vacancy rate, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, April 2012 data
91: Percentage of complaint applications to the LTB submitted by landlords (2010-2011)
53,182: Total number of requests for lease termination for non-payment of rent in that same period
The day of our hearing, my partner and I made our way through the confusing muddle at the LTB office into Hearing Room A. There were fluorescent lights buzzing overhead and a pair of small microphones—to record the proceedings—dangling from the ceiling.
After witnessing a series of heartbreaking disputes that I couldn’t rule on if you paid me, we discovered that Traci had failed to show up. We were promptly bumped to an identical room down the hall, and when our names were called, we nervously prepared to present our evidence.
“Ah, well,” said the adjudicator, a man who uttered everything in a slow and slightly bemused cadence. “There’s a problem here.”
It turns out that, in my haste to process the application, I’d neglected to write “basement unit” on the initial N4 form I gave Traci. The rest of our paperwork was pristine, but that one glitch cost us the case. We were welcome to start the process again, our adjudicator offered, this time based on Traci’s unpaid September rent. We left stunned and enraged and unsure how we were going to survive another month—both financially and psychologically.
In the end, the system didn’t help us solve our problem. Several days after the hearing, I knocked on the door of the basement unit and told Traci, quietly and tensely, that we wanted her to leave by the end of the month. She consented, but I insisted that she sign a form (the N11, if you’re playing along at home). It would be the second time she’d agreed to move out. This time, though, it worked. Three days later, when she drove back to her hometown in a giant moving van with all of her belongings, we were in shock. Relief didn’t hit for another few days—first, while we were cleaning up the dozens and dozens of empties she’d hidden all over the apartment, we felt like assholes who derailed a troubled woman’s effort to start some kind of new life. This is the weirdest and thorniest part of the process, the ethical quandary that comes from casting your lot on the side of The Man.
The apartment is empty now, and I can’t describe how freeing it is to be the only humans in our own home, to know we can yell at top volume or watch the musical episode of Buffy on repeat if we want—without worrying about disturbing someone else’s peace. It’s even more liberating to know there’s nobody beneath our feet plotting to pull the rug out from under us. Someday, maybe, we’ll be able to afford property in Toronto without having to lease a piece of it to somebody else. Until then, though, we will proceed with caution, a cynical reluctance to give people the benefit of the doubt, and a new commitment to running complete credit checks. •
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