The Right to Adequate Housing: Maintenance and Repair Issues in the GTA

September 24, 2021

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The right to adequate housing is derived from international human rights law. In international law, housing is seen as more than four walls and a roof. For housing to be considered adequate, it should meet a number of minimum conditions. One of these conditions is habitability, which means that adequate housing should guarantee its residents a place that is physically safe to live, provides adequate space where residents aren’t living in overcrowded conditions, and protects its residents against weather conditions like the cold, as well as other health or structural hazards.

Another minimum condition for a home to be considered adequate is the availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure. This means that its residents can access safe drinking water, have proper sanitation and disposal facilities, and can heat their home to just name a few examples. These minimum conditions ensure that a home is a safe and adequate place for its residents. When the right to housing and the conditions mentioned above are translated on the ground, it means that people can live in well maintained homes that are in a good state of repair. For Ontario renters, it is the responsibility of landlords to carry out maintenance and repairs, with regulations in place to hold them accountable.

Municipal and Provincial Protections for Renters

The Residential Tenancies Act (RTA) is the Law that regulates the relationship between landlords and renters. The RTA applies to most rental housing in Ontario, such as rooms, apartments, houses, mobile home parks, and retirement homes. The RTA says that landlords are responsible for the maintenance and repair of everything that comes with renters’ homes, including appliances in the home and the common areas, such as hallways, parking garages and elevators. The RTA also says that landlords are responsible for taking steps to get rid of any pests and vermin, provide heat in cold weather, and are not allowed to cut off or interfere with any vital services such as the supply of water, electricity, or heat.

If a renter has a problem in their home, the first step is to inform their landlord about it and ask them to fix it. It is best to do this in writing, such as sending it in an email. If the landlord does not fix the problem, the next thing the renter can do is to call 311. This move will connect the renter to the City’s services department, such as those enforcing Property Standards, who can send an inspector to investigate the problem and order the landlord to fix it.

At the City of Toronto, another resource for tenants dealing with repair and maintenance issues is RentSafeTO, which can also be reached by calling 311. RentSafeTO is a bylaw enforcement program that launched in 2017 to ensure that owners of multi-unit housing structures (with three or more storeys and 10 or more units), such as apartment building owners, adhere to the building maintenance standards in the city. One of the goals of the program is to ensure that tenants are living in safe and adequate conditions, and to hold landlords accountable to keeping their buildings in a good state of repair. Owners of these apartment buildings are required to register with RentSafeTO and are responsible for complying with the rules of the program. If a landlord is not complying with the maintenance standards, the RentSafeTO team can issue orders and charge landlords.

The RentSafeTO program can be a critical component of ensuring that rental homes are safe and adequate places for their residents. Since its launch, the RentSafeTO program has audited most apartment buildings across the city. However, the program has also been criticized for failing to effectively carry out its mandate. Some have pointed out that not all buildings registered with the program have been audited. Others have pointed to the lack of standard operating procedures, which has left tenants waiting to know when their maintenance and repair problem will be resolved. Housing advocates have also raised issues with the lack of knowledge about the program across various communities.

If a renter continues to face maintenance and repair issues that their landlord is not responding to, and there is no resolution at the municipal level, they can then apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) – the body that resolves disputes between tenants and landlords. Renters can make an application based on maintenance and repair issues and ask the LTB for remedies like ordering the landlord to fix the problem or for a reduction in rent for the months during which the problem persisted. After renters make an application, a hearing is scheduled at the LTB where they can present their case, and show evidence to support it.

While it is crucial to have the LTB process in place, there are a number of challenges that renters face. Many renters often have to navigate the process by themselves without legal representation. They have to prepare for hearings on their own and gather the evidence they need to support their case. This requires legal know how. Additionally, sometimes hearings may take several months to be scheduled, which means that the problems in their rental home may not be fixed for a long period of time. Depending on the issue at hand, waiting for the hearing can mean living in unhealthy and hazardous situations. Meanwhile, if renters are successful at their LTB hearing, the financial remedies awarded, such as rent reductions, are not typically very high. In some cases, if the LTB orders a landlord to fix a problem, landlords may not follow the order and it can be challenging for tenants to get their landlord to do so.

Looking Beyond Municipal and Provincial Protections

The gaps in protections for renters, coupled with an affordable housing crisis, means that many individuals living on lower incomes are forced to stay in homes that are in a state of disrepair as there are limited alternatives they can afford. This has become a widespread phenomenon that can be identified as a systemic housing issue.

In order to respond to systemic housing issues plaguing the living conditions of many renters living in Canada, it is important that the voices of those most impacted are heard by decision-makers. One of the main ways that people living in Canada can bring forward these systemic housing issues is through the National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA), which recognizes the right to housing domestically. The NHSA requires the government to create mechanisms 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 Housing Advocate is to investigate systemic housing issues and to hold our government accountable to meet its own policy to progressively realize the right to housing over time.

Once the Housing Advocate is appointed, submissions can be made by impacted communities on systemic housing issues. It is the hope that as renters learn more about these mechanisms, they can use them to push our governments to address systemic housing issues, such as those related to maintenance and repair.

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