Eviction stories during COVID-19

August 26, 2021

Stories from lawyers on how the pandemic is affecting renters across Ontario

Being evicted from one’s home can irrevocably change their life. It can mean not just losing housing, but losing stability, losing community, and in some cases, losing one’s sense of self-worth.

CCHR and Right to Housing Toronto (R2HTO) recently held a workshop to discuss evictions and the right to housing. To understand the impact of evictions during the pandemic from the ground up, we spoke with three lawyers who assist tenants facing evictions about the cases they see most often, the pandemic’s effect on tenants, and some of the client stories that have stayed with them.

A surge in rent arrears cases

Melissa Bramson and Ryan Hardy are both with the Tenant Duty Counsel Program (TDCP), a program of the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario funded by Legal Aid Ontario. TDCP are a group of lawyers and community legal workers who help tenants facing a hearing at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) by providing basic legal advice, helping to work out settlements with landlords, and reviewing and helping fill out some forms and documents, especially those related to eviction.

Bramson is the full-time tenant duty counsel in Ottawa based out of Community Legal Services of Ottawa, and Hardy is the supervisor for the Tenant Duty Counsel in Toronto and the Peel region. Both Bramson and Hardy say that most of the requests they get for help from tenants facing eviction are related to rent arrears, where the tenant was unable to pay their rent in full.

“I think a lot of my team would tell you it feels like we’re getting a narrower range of issues that we talk to people about,” Hardy says. “People in the pre-pandemic era would come in with all kinds of situations, just a wider range of things and problems that they were dealing with. It definitely feels like it’s narrowed a bit, and so arrears are first and foremost and it really kind of dominates.”

While rent arrears have always made up a large percentage of reasons that landlords file for eviction, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many people losing their income and therefore unable to pay all their rent.

“Recently, a large majority of people who are in arrears are people who lost their job because of COVID. You know CERB came through for a little bit, but maybe didn’t cover the same amount that they were used to. So, there’s a whole new group of people that are now in arrears,” Bramson says. This situation is especially true for those living in some of Canada’s most unaffordable cities to live as a renter, such as Toronto or Ottawa.

Yodit Edemariam is the director of legal services at Rexdale Community Legal Clinic, a non-profit legal clinic that serves people who are living on low incomes in the northwest of Toronto.

Edemariam says she has also seen the pandemic’s impact on people’s ability to pay their rent.

People have had to make impossible choices about going to unsafe work versus trying to keep up with their rent and we have seen arrears across the province at levels that I have never seen in my career.”

The large number of arrears cases currently at the LTB may not just be due to people’s inability to pay their rent in full, but also due to the kinds of applications that the LTB seem to be prioritizing.

“There’s a huge volume of non-payment of rent cases that are being heard at the Board. I can see that based on the file numbers,” says Bramson. “For example, you have a number like EAL-12345-21, meaning that the landlord filed that application in 2021. So, I can see that all of the L1 non-payment of rent cases are from 2021, and I would say in comparison, the tenant applications for things like maintenance and repair, the majority of those that are on our docket are from 2019 and 2020, so it’s very clear what the LTB‘s priority is.”

Hardy says he has seen a similar trend.

“The tenant applications are a small fraction of what the Board is doing,” he says. “It’s a lot more work for most tenants to do their applications successfully, so it’s always been skewed, but it feels more dramatic now, and some of that is the Board scheduling.”

Tenant applications at the LTB can be related to a landlord who is neglecting the rental unit and not doing repairs, it can be related to a major appliance that is not working like a fridge, or harassment issues that tenants are facing by their landlord or representatives, just to name a few.

“I spoke to a gentleman just last week who had filed a pair of tenant applications in November. He was still waiting for his hearing, but his landlord’s hearing for eviction for arrears had been scheduled just in a couple of months,” Hardy says. “So, even though he had filed first, he was waiting much longer to get heard.”

Technological barriers to access to justice

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and public health guidelines, the LTB moved hearings online in March 2020. This has created challenges for some tenants, such as those who do not have access to a computer or reliable connection, those who are not comfortable with technology or those with language barriers.

“I have to do a lot of explaining to people on how to sign in [to the hearing]. People saying ‘I got this link but what does it mean?’” Bramson says. “Over the weekend, I got an email from a tenant who I had sent a PDF document to fill in and she said she didn’t know how to fill it in. This is something that we wouldn’t have dealt with before because we would tell her to go get a physical copy at the counter, but the counters are closed. “

Hardy says having hearings online also makes it challenging to provide the best advice to tenants.

“We provide legal advice and the advice will focus on different ways of trying to defend against the arrears application,” Hardy says. “If there’s technical defects in the landlord’s application, we’re going to try to talk about that. That’s something that’s a lot harder to do these days than it was because before usually people would be sitting there with their documents that you could look over. It’s much more difficult to do that now.”

With the online hearings “tenants and tenant duty counsel are at a huge disadvantage by not having that paperwork,” Bramson says. “And then the landlord’s the person who filed it, so they would have that paperwork and already have the products that they need, which makes it an unfair disadvantage right at the beginning.”

The stories behind the application numbers

The cases that go in front of the LTB all have a letter and a number attached to them; Bramson referred to a hypothetical EAL-12345-21, which could be an application to evict a tenant for non-payment of rent and to collect rent that the tenant owes. Behind these application numbers lie real individuals with their own stories and journeys.

Hardy, who came back to working at the Tenant Duty Counsel in November 2020 after some time off, says the scale of arrears that people were dealing with made an impact on him.

Seeing what people were up against was really shocking. There were so many people who had fallen victim to the pandemic/lockdown in different ways. People whose entire industries had ceased to function,” he says. “I spoke to a guy who was a tattoo artist, working independently, making good money and getting to do something creative, and then it was just done.”

Bramson thinks of tenants who are disadvantaged by eviction hearings moving online.

“I had a tenant who didn’t know how to submit her evidence in one email. I tried to talk her through it with my tech hat on and I said instead of sending one document at a time, you can attach six attachments to one email, but she didn’t know how to do it,” Bramson recalls.

“At the hearing, [the tenant] apologized to the [LTB] member, and for one reason or another, the matter was adjourned, and the member said to her, ‘at the next hearing, organize yourself because if I get multiple emails like this again, we might be talking about costs.’ So, costs are not to be confused with an administrative fine, but it’s something where if someone’s conduct was unreasonable, then the Board can award costs as a penalty. [The member] was saying it was unreasonable that the tenant didn’t know how to attach documents which is something that stuck out to me because she just didn’t understand the process.”

Edemariam, with the Rexdale Community Legal Clinic, says she thinks a lot about poverty and choice when it comes to her clients.

“I think from the Landlord and Tenant Board or the powers that be that there is a real misunderstanding of how people are living. I’ve seen clients’ bank statements, and that’s been one of the most profound experiences I’ve had in my career,” she says. “I think a lot about what poverty does in terms of where people live. I think sometimes people might ask our clients, ‘so why do you stay if there’s like a horrible mouse infestation and the landlord isn’t doing anything.’ And then they’re like ‘where am I gonna go? Where am I going to find a three-bedroom for this amount? So, the things people tolerate because of a lack of choice really sticks with me.”

Edemariam says she also thinks about the pride that her clients have about their communities and the importance of maintaining that community.

“I think there’s a lot of discourse here in social housing like ‘we’ve given you this extraordinary thing for cheap so you just basically take whatever it’s given’, but we see people building their own communities even when they’re told so many distressing narratives about the communities in which they live.”

The importance of community and helping people stay in their homes is also something that Bramson thinks about.

No one is ever evicted into a more beneficial situation than they were in,” she says.

For Edemariam, something that her colleague once said has stuck with her.

“My colleague said that everything she’s been able to do in her life is because she had a safe place to live. And I think that’s a common theme throughout our work: how does anyone deal with anything in their lives unless there is an affordable and safe place to do so?”

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