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CBC News: Ontario has a rental housing enforcement unit. It investigates a fraction of cases and fines even fewer - ACORN Canada

CBC News: Ontario has a rental housing enforcement unit. It investigates a fraction of cases and fines even fewer

Posted December 7, 2023

A Hamilton tenant fighting a renoviction hopes she can find justice with the RHEU, despite its track record

After being renovicted from her home of nearly 20 years, Darlene Wesley says she doesn’t care how long it takes, she wants Ontario’s rental housing enforcement officers to investigate and fine her former landlord.

The Hamilton tenant alleges her landlord illegally evicted her last winter from her affordable, $720-a-month apartment, under the guise it would be temporary to allow for major renovations.

He’d done the same to her daughter and two other neighbours, she said. But as soon as they’d all moved out, he was quick to rent their units to new tenants for over $1,600 a month.

While the landlord has been allowed to carry on with his business, Wesley said her life has been turned upside down.

“Who’s looking out for the little guy?” Wesley said.

The landlord did not respond to a request for comment.

Wesley said she wasn’t given the first right of refusal to the renovated space, which is required under the Residential Tenancies Act. Now she wants Ontario’s Rental Housing Enforcement Unit (RHEU) to hold him accountable.

The RHEU, run by the province, is mandated to uphold landlord and tenant rights. It has the power to investigate complaints and fine individual landlords up to $50,000. It works independently from the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB).

“I don’t care if it takes five years. I want him to pay for what he did to us,” said Wesley, who is now paying hundreds of dollars more a month in rent despite living with her daughter. After covering rent and other expenses, she has no money left over and is close to using the food bank, she said.

The chances of her landlord getting fined are incredibly slim.

CBC Hamilton obtained RHEU data in the last three fiscal years through a freedom of information request.

The RHEU’s receives over 18,400 calls a year, on average, from landlords, tenants and other parties.

Data reports show the RHEU opens 1,500 cases a year, on average, and the vast majority are closed at the “compliance stage” most often when a “successful intervention has been reached.”

That means only about 200 cases a year, or 13 per cent, go to the investigation stage, and less than one per cent of cases end in a conviction at the Ontario Court of Justice.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, which oversees the unit, declined to provide an on-the-record comment or answer questions about why some calls result in opened cases and why so few result in convictions.

The RHEU is mandated to handle complaints against landlords and tenants reportedly not following the law, including, for example, evicting tenants illegally, withholding vital services like electricity, entering a unit unlawfully or not providing rent receipts, say the reports.

It’s supposed to work in conjunction with the LTB and provide a low-barrier way for people to resolve housing disputes, said Douglas Kwan, a director at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario.

Instead of retaining legal counsel and waiting months for an LTB hearing, tenants could theoretically give the RHEU a call.

“It has powers to investigate, but a lot of their work includes simply informing the parties of their rights and responsibilities,” Kwan said.

“It’s unfortunately not effective.”

Of the ministry’s $1-billion operating expense budget for its housing program this year, $1.8 million goes to the RHEU, according to the ministry’s website. The RHEU’s budget is expected to stay the same next year.

In comparison, Ontario’s animal welfare service agency, which also employs officers to enforce provincial law, has an annual budget of $21 million.

RHEU issued $121,800 in total fines for 2022

As rates for rental units continue to rise, and landlords have a greater financial incentive to kick out old tenants and charge new ones more, the RHEU is not investigating or issuing fines “nearly enough,” said Kwan.

“What we’re seeing is people acting with impunity,” he said. “Certainly the RHEU is not utilizing those fines, and neither is the Landlord and Tenant Board.”

His organization is calling for the Ford government to double the budget of the RHEU so it can investigate and prosecute more cases.

The maximum penalties for landlords found guilty of breaking provincial law are $50,000 for an individual and $250,000 for a corporation, according to the Residential Tenancies Act. (The province recently doubled the fines for each category going forward.)

These fines do not include damages the LTB can order the landlord to pay the tenant, but rather go directly to the government and are meant to act as a deterrent, said Kwan.

Last year, the RHEU gave out a total of $121,800 in fines — across 17 convictions.

The data does not show the individual breakdown of fines, but court bulletins about RHEU cases posted to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing’s website give some insight.

In Coboroug, Ont., in 2021, a judge fined a corporate landlord just $1,500 for leaving a tenant without electricity for over three months, says a bulletin..

A Windsor corporation was fined $15,000 in 2022 for evicting a tenant for renovations, and then not honouring the tenant’s right to move back into the unit, a bulletin says. The landlord rented it to a new tenant for more than double the previous rate.

Last month, a judge fined a Toronto corporate landlord $3,500 for illegally locking a tenant out of their unit and never allowing them back in, according to another bulletin. That’s equivalent to a little more than one month’s rent from a new tenant, said Kwan.

“It’s the cost of doing business,” he said.

Wesley said she wants the RHEU to take action because she’s not optimistic the LTB will hand down the kind of harsh penalty she thinks is necessary to prevent illegal renovictions from happening in the future.

She and the three other tenants are at different stages of fighting their evictions at the LTB. In one of their cases, an LTB adjudicator ordered the former landlord to pay $5,000 in damages but declined to fine him, according to a written decision from last April.

The LTB appears to rarely issue fines. CBC Toronto reported since 2020 it had issued 13 fines total, most of which amounted to less than $3,000 per landlord.

As Wesley’s case makes its way through the backlogged tribunal process, she’s turning her attention to the RHEU, which got in touch with her after CBC Hamilton first reported on her situation in March.

Wesley and her paralegal Kimberley Farrell provided them with all their documentation, they said. Farrell said in her eight years of practice, she’s never heard of the RHEU prosecuting anyone in the Hamilton area, but hopes to see that change as Wesley’s case is “pretty straightforward.”

A few weeks ago, an RHEU officer got in touch to set up interviews with the tenants, Wesley said. She feels like it’s her last chance for justice.

“We’re in the hands of the RHEU now,” Wesley said. “I hope when they hear our stories, they’ll go after him.”


Article by Samantha Beattie for CBC News