Posted August 14, 2019
Every day Balogh Gyulane cleans the Parkdale bachelor apartment she shares with her husband and her dog Lucinda.
But the mice keep coming back, she says.
“There’s a lot,” adds the 60-year-old, a tiny woman with a gold cross around her neck and a warm smile, speaking in Hungarian while a neighbour translates.
“The smell is so bad. Too many problems in this building.”
She’s a tenant at 81 Wilson Park Rd., a small, brick three-storey walk-up just off Queen St. W. that’s one of the top 20 buildings in the city for complaints under the new RentSafe program.
Across Toronto, a Star analysis of data provided by the city shows the program received 9,285 complaints between Feb. 21, 2018 (the earliest that data is available) and March 10, 2019.
At 81 Wilson there have been 29 complaints from tenants about the building during that time, making it No. 13 on the list, despite only having about 10 units, according to numbers provided to the Star through a freedom of information request.
The RentSafe bylaw, which went into effect in July 2017, was designed to make buildings cleaner and safer for tenants by getting landlords to register with the city, and setting firm timelines for responding to complaints. Two years into a program hailed as groundbreaking, the city says the overall rental housing stock has improved since the launch, while housing advocates are mixed on whether it’s resulted in real change and agree more needs to be done to protect tenants.
Under the new bylaw, landlords are required to respond to urgent complaints — such not having water or heat — within 24 hours, and tackle more minor complaints within seven days. They also need waste management and capital repair plans. Pest complaints need to be inspected in 72 hours and handled by a licensed inspector. It applies to landlords with buildings of three or more storeys and 10 or more units (about 3,500 buildings). Those landlords must pay $11.02 per unit to register under the program — money that goes back into paying for RentSafe.
Tenants are expected to go to their landlords first with problems. If the landlord doesn’t address it the tenant can call 311 and the city will investigate. When a landlord isn’t keeping up with maintenance standards, the city can issue orders and even court charges.
The building with the most complaints (80) is 500 Dawes Rd., a 14-storey East York tower that often tops worst rental building lists.
Across the city, most of the complaints are about property standards (5,286), a broad category that includes everything from pests to hot water to stairways, followed by noise (2,159) and adequate heat (1,018).
Ward 5 (York South-Weston) was the ward with the highest number of complaints, at 771, followed by Ward 4 (Parkdale-High Park), home to 81 Wilson Park Rd., with 671 complaints. Of the top 20 buildings, four are Toronto Community Housing. The rest are privately owned, aging rental buildings, which have some of the only real affordable units in a city grappling with a housing crisis.
Of the complaints at Wilson Park Rd., 17 are for property standards, four for adequate heat, one for graffiti, five for noise, and two for waste. It’s owned by Rakesh Gupta. Reached by the Star on Tuesday, he said there was “no problem at all.”
During a recent visit to the property, just steps from the upscale coffee shops of Queen St. W. in an area that’s quickly gentrifying, the Star observed water damage, peeling paint and cracks in the ceiling and walls.
Gyulane has been in Canada since 2016, part of a wave of Roma refugees who fled persecution in Hungary. She’s lived in the apartment, that she now pays about $800 for, the whole time. And she’s made it her home, hanging sparkly red curtains and instruments on the wall. But the place is small and the conditions are not good.
“I just want to go,” she says.
Several members of her extended family live in a handful of apartments on the second floor of the building. Across the hall, family member Gyongyi Gibok has stew bubbling on a stove while a small brown dog runs underfoot. She wants to leave too, but says it’s hard to find a place large enough for her five children and two 10-month-old twins.
“The mice even go inside the crib,” Gibok, 34, says. “We have to clean it every single day.”
She says she’s told the landlord “but he doesn’t do anything,” adding, “We have to buy sprays and spray inside the apartment, but it doesn’t go away.”
They’ve also had issues with the sink overflowing and flooding, and broken appliances, she says, but the landlord “said we need to fix it ourselves,” so she’s called the city to complain.
Asked about these specific issues and the open work orders, Gupta again denied there is an issue, and blamed the tenants. He said a few of the tenants (not Gyulane or Gibok) are withholding rent, and he is in the process of evicting them.
There are hearings scheduled at the Landlord and Tenant Board in mid-August with tenants in four units, a spokesperson with the board confirmed. One of the tenants involved, Mark Ruszo, a family member of Gyulane and Gibok, told the Star he and his mother made a deal with Gupta to not pay a month’s rent due to the poor condition of the building.
Addressing the work orders, Gupta said, “The city doesn’t have any problem with me.”
Mark Sraga, the city’s director of investigation services with municipal licensing and standards, said staff know him well.
“We’ll call him a slumlord, “ Sraga said, adding they’ve been to the building “several times.”
Gupta is a “well-known negligent landlord,” he said. Sraga described the building as an “extreme example” that presents an “unfortunate ongoing challenge” for the city.
“We do have more than a couple of buildings in the city that need our attention and we’re balancing it out,” he added.
Since RentSafe was introduced he says there has been an improvement in the “overall upkeep” of buildings across the city.
Under the program inspectors proactively inspected and rated buildings based on a set of 20 criteria, he said, and reinspected buildings that scored in the lower third (50 to 60 per cent, which number more than 2,000).
“We’ve seen an overall increase of the scores of those buildings by 12 per cent,” Sraga said.
The last evaluation of 81 Wilson Park road was in March 2019. The property scored 50 per cent, and a full audit, which cost about $4,000 and was charged to Gupta, was conducted in April. The city issued nine orders. Three have been resolved and six are outstanding.
An additional 12 outstanding work orders were issued in mid-July, according to the City of Toronto’s website, for problems ranging from broken appliances to the state of ceilings and walls. These orders were issued after an officer inspected the property in response to a 311 call.
Tenant advocate Alejandra Ruiz-Vargas, a member of anti-poverty group ACORN, calls RentSafe “a joke,” saying it’s not really making a difference in the lives of tenants.
“We see a few buildings that comply. But still it’s not really moving ahead,” she said.
In the housing crisis, “landlords have so much power.”
She’d like to see the city hold rent in a trust if landlords don’t make repairs or do proper pest control. It’s not all up to the city though. In her opinion, the province could put in place landlord licensing or do more to stop above-the-guideline rent increases — where landlords raise the rent by more than the amount they’re allowed to every year because of “capital expenditures” such as renovations.
Geordie Dent of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations said the program hasn’t been a “total disaster” and has brought some improvements, such as the hiring of a dozen more inspection and bylaw enforcement staff, bringing their contingent to 36.
“We’re hearing a big mixed bag from folks about the enforcement of the program,” he said. “We think the program’s great if it’s actually enforced.”
Dent wants the city to hand out of what’s called “administrative monetary penalties,” something similar to a traffic ticket, that makes landlords pay up front for breaking the rules, rather than going through a long process in the courts.
This is something Sraga from municipal licensing and standards says they are planning on doing. They’re also working on getting a “more robust” list of tradespeople and contractors available so they can go in and fix such things as leaky sinks or broken appliances that landlords aren’t doing anything about.
“We’re not there yet, that is where we’re going to be going,” he said, adding he hopes to have it in place by the end of the year.
Staff will also be bringing an update on RentSafe to council in the fall, he said.
While tenants can contribute to problems, by, for example, not disposing of waste properly, landlords such as Gupta represent a “continuing battle,” Sraga said.
“RentSafe is a branding we’ve put to the program to help heighten its awareness. But there’s nothing enforcement wise, authority wise that’s unique,” he added.
“The apartment building program is not going to magically make a negligent landlord a good landlord.”
Article by May Warren for the Toronto Star