Eviction trends during the COVID-19 pandemic

August 13, 2021

Eviction trends during the COVID-19 pandemic

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lives of Canadian renters have been impacted in unprecedented ways. We have seen a wave of income loss across the country and with that the rise of rental arrears and evictions. While the federal government provided much needed emergency financial assistance to many, for those paying unaffordable rents in cities like Toronto, these financial supports were not enough to make ends meet. In Ontario, with some of the most unaffordable cities to rent a home, people have experienced increased housing precarity and face the risk of eviction because they were unable to pay their rent in full during the pandemic.

Ontario’s government was quick to respond to the pandemic early on by placing a moratorium on residential evictions beginning in March 2020 but lifted it in August 2020, putting many households at risk of eviction while we were still in the middle of the pandemic. Since then, the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) has been operating digitally, by holding virtual hearings many of which are for evictions based on rental arrears. There have been major access to justice and technology issues for many renters at these hearings. Some temporary measures were adopted by the government to delay the carrying out of these evictions via a moratorium on the enforcement of evictions at different times during the pandemic. However, financial rent relief supports have been missing from our governments, leaving many in a precarious situation not knowing if they’ll have a place to call home.

A rise in rental arrears

The COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and policies to reduce public transmission of the virus, have led to massive income loss throughout Canada, which disproportionately impacted low-income communities. Early on in the pandemic, it was clear that renter households were to face major hurdles in keeping their homes as it was reported that 46% of Canada’s renters did not have enough funds saved to pay the following month’s rent. Ontario was one of the hardest hit during the pandemic and pandemic-related job losses impacted many industries that employed renters working in hospitality, food industry and retail.

Many people living in Canada who faced income losses during the pandemic accessed the Federal Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). However, the maximum $2,000 of CERB support was not enough to help people paying skyrocketing rents in places like Toronto where there has been a rental affordability crisis for over a decade. Some people had to choose between paying the rent in full or keeping food on the table, while others have fallen into debt to keep a roof over their head. The rent arrears levels in Toronto are the highest across Canada, and the threat of mass evictions across the city is alarming. Provincial and municipal supports have also been limited in their impact and reach. In particular, the City of Toronto expanded its eviction prevention programs like the Toronto Rent Bank, by increasing the household income eligibility criteria, freezing all rent bank loan repayments, and providing some grant options instead of loans, all of which are welcomed. However, they remain limited in meeting the demand as well as the increasingly large arrears accrued by many renters.

Another example is the Housing Stabilization Fund (HSF), intended to prevent homelessness by meeting the emergency housing needs of renters receiving income from Ontario Works (OW) or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). While some enhancements made to the HSF to respond to the pandemic were helpful, like helping with paying for last month’s rent deposit, or expanding supports for moving costs, or allowing access of the annual maximum amount for one additional time, these enhancements were limited in supporting individuals because there are strict eligibility criteria. For example, funds for rental arrears are issued to applicants if their housing costs are within 85% of their total monthly income. Due to the fixed low rates recipients receive from OW and ODSP and the lack of affordable rental housing in the city, many individuals are unable to qualify for HSF.

The limitations of CERB and other governmental programs, coupled with high rents and low vacancy rates for affordable rental homes, have left low to middle income renters in Toronto with inadequate financial supports. It was reported in the 2021 Rental Market Report by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), that the highest share of rent arrears in Canada in 2020 were recorded in Toronto, with 11% of all units reporting arrears in rent payments. Many of those disproportionately impacted were lower paid workers in the hospitality and service sectors, jobs that are highly concentrated in Toronto. The federal and provincial governments provided rent relief to help commercial renters pay their rent, but did not extend support to residential tenants to help them stay in their homes.

Access to justice issues at the Landlord and Tenant Board

The LTB shifted its operations from mostly in-person hearings to digital hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic. This move to a digital hearing process has hindered access to justice for many lower income renters due to technology and accessibility barriers faced by many. Many lower income households have difficulties accessing the internet or a reliable computer, and some do not have access to a telephone, which means that they are unable to attend their online eviction hearings. The Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO) observed hearings from March to May 2021 and found that renters were present for less than half of the hearings observed, while landlords were present for the majority of those hearings. ACTO also found that a smaller percentage of renters were attending digital hearings compared to when hearings were held in person. This discrepancy was attributed to the lack of access to technology among low-income renters and what ACTO has called a “digital divide” between renters and landlords. In addition, with the new online platform, little has been done by the LTB to accommodate renters living with disabilities, those who face literacy challenges, or those who face language barriers.

During the hearings observed it was found that LTB Board members rarely asked why renters were not present. This is important because board members have been made aware that fewer renters are attending digital hearings than previously attended in-person hearings. ACTO has noted that given this knowledge and the potential risk of eviction for renters if they do not attend their hearings, the LTB board members need to take extra steps to establish why renters are not present at hearings or are disappearing from them midway through, by asking, for example, whether the renters have access to technology, were aware of the hearing or have any language barriers. In the hearings observed by ACTO, it was found that landlords and their representatives more often participated by video, while renters participated by phone. This creates an unfair situation for renters, as landlords benefit from several advantages by participating by video. For example, they are able to see what is happening in the virtual hearing, including evidence shared on the screen, and have an opportunity to make a human connection with the people present or see the social cues that often help people understand contexts and “read the room” better, which renters are unable to do by phone.

ACTO also reported that between March and May 2021, the majority of landlords were represented at their hearings, while few renters received legal advice or were represented. In over two thirds of the hearings observed by ACTO, renters who participated in hearings were not represented or had not benefited from advice from Tenant Duty Counsel (TDC), who are usually at the LTB to provide free legal advice to renters prior to their hearings. Lawyers who work with TDC have reported many difficulties in providing legal advice to renters since the shift to digital hearings. For instance, renters may be reluctant to provide their phone numbers publicly at the hearing in order to receive a phone call by the TDC for legal advice. In the virtual setting there is also less trust and less privacy for renters who may feel uncomfortable sharing details of their situation as they may be calling from a place where they’re unable to speak freely.

It has been troubling to many that Tribunals Ontario plans to switch to a permanent online system, as part of its digital first strategy. Advocates have urged a change from this approach, as the digital first strategy deepens the uneven playing field between landlords and renters. Advocates fear that this system will continue to be unfair and make it easier for the renters to be evicted from their homes without presenting their side of the story.

More needs to be done

Ontario must take steps to ensure the Landlord and Tenant Board returns to functioning in a way that can guarantee a fair legal process to renters. We also continue to see a rise in eviction hearings based on the non-payment of rent but there remains insufficient financial supports, both on a provincial and federal level, to assist those who were unable to pay their rent and have fallen into rental arrears. This will leave many households owing debts to their landlords, affecting their ability to access housing in the future. It is clear that more needs to be done to provide financial assistance to those in arrears.

Canada may be facing an unprecedented eviction crisis that amounts to a systemic housing issue. In 2019, Canada passed the National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA) which recognizes the right to adequate housing as a fundamental right under international law and commits to responding to systemic housing issues that limit housing adequacy across the country. The NHSA also requires that mechanisms be created to monitor the implementation of the right to housing and address systemic housing issues. One of these mechanisms is the Federal Housing Advocate, who is an independent human rights expert located within the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The role of the Advocate is to promote and ensure compliance with the federal government’s policy to progressively realize the right to housing over time. Submissions can made to the Federal Housing Advocate on systemic housing issues. Pending the appointment of the Advocate, CERA and the National Right to Housing Network (HRHN) began to utilize this mechanism by making a submission to the federal government on addressing the evictions and arrears crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic. The submission included a proposal for a federally-funded residential tenant support program that would help renters stay housed.

We continue to push for a rent relief program to help lift people out of the crisis they may be facing. Our hope is also that the NHSA mechanisms will be utilized to compel the federal and provincial governments to take important steps to protect renters from evictions and ensure their security of tenure.

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