By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
A group of tenant advocates is calling on city council to expand its rental licensing system across Oshawa in order to increase education, transparency and accountability for landlords not doing their jobs.
The proposal was put to councillors by Christeen Thornton and Donna-Leigh Rowley, Oshawa tenants and ACORN Canada representatives at the most recent meeting of the Corporate Services committee on April 24.
ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is an organization that assists low-to-moderate income people and pushes for improvements in social and economic justice issues.
Speaking at the meeting, Thornton said that by expanding Oshawa’s current Residential Rental Housing Licensing (RRHL) system, it could immediately provide benefits for renters in Oshawa.
“We believe that this expansion will provide a great degree of transparency for residents,” she said. “At the end of the day, all of us are renters and have rights that need to be protected.”
Currently, Oshawa’s RRHL system only exists in the area surrounding the Durham College and University of Ontario Institute of Technology campuses in the north end. The system was put in place in 2008 and requires landlords to maintain their premises in accordance with provincial fire, building and electrical codes along with adhering to city bylaws related to property standards and zoning.
Along with expanding the system to all of Oshawa, the ACORN request also includes possible revisions to the program that would make it mandatory for all landlords to be well versed in the laws in the Residential Tenancies Act, acquire sensitivity training for dealing with vulnerable persons, disclose all pest-related concerns to prospective tenants and are financially able to maintain their buildings to municipal codes.
“They’ll finally be held accountable, they’ll finally be brought out into the light, so to speak” Rowley said, pointing to landlords in the city who have handed out illegal fees to residents and have turned a blind eye to tenant concerns.
A similar system was recently put in place in the City of Toronto for apartment buildings or any rental buildings above three storeys. That system, approved in December 2016, will require landlords to register with the city and develop comprehensive plans for pest control, capital repairs and use licensed contractors for all repairs. The system will also develop a process for tracking tenant complaints to ensure issues are identified and resolved in a timely manner.
The new bylaw was a big win for ACORN says spokesperson Natalie Hundt.
“Having set that precedent, we are looking to do the same thing in other big cities that are facing the same problems,” she says, noting that the main problem is simply landlord negligence. “Cockroaches, infestation, vermin infestation, bedbugs, mould, leaky pipes, water damage, broken elevators, unhygienic garbage chutes, the stairs are a mess, broken windows. Any problem you can think of that would occur with a building that is being neglected, that’s what we’re facing.”
A licensing system would hold landlords accountable and lead to better conditions for tenants, Hundt adds.
“If you don’t pay your rent you can get evicted, but if a landlord doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain and provide a safe living space, there really hasn’t been any consequences. There are laws, but the fees are lower than the cost of repairs, so it’s become an operating cost for the landlords.”
For Oshawa councillors, some suggested the issue may just come down to educating tenants of their rights and encouraging tenant associations to form and address these issues.
However, Thornton says those efforts rarely gain traction with people who have become tired and apathetic after years of trying to resolve issues with no results.
“They’re tired of facing these daily problems,” she says. “They just see more work, they don’t want to do anything. That’s where you guys come into play.”
Councillors eventually voted unanimously to refer the item to staff for a report on potential options going forward.
However, it was made clear that making this item a priority would not only require a reprioritization of an already hectic corporate services department, which is dealing with issues related to ride-sharing, a feral cat management system and licensing for food trucks among other issues, it would almost definitely also mean an increase to the Municipal Law Enforcement and Licensing Services staff complement, which has not been increased since 2006.
“I think this is something council is going to have to give a lot of consideration to,” said Bev Hendry, the commissioner of corporate services. “This would take considerable staff work to ensure that we would do things properly.”
Despite the amount of work, something Councillor John Neal recalls being quite heavy when the original RRHL system was introduced, it doesn’t take away from the value of such a system.
“It sure improved the quality of life for all the students and the residents as well,” he said. “The sooner we start on it, probably the better.”
For Councillor Amy McQuaid-England, more staff being required is simply the reality of the situation.
“I really do support having tenant protections in place, but I also believe this committee needs to understand it’s going to take an investment from council,” she said. “I do think we can get on the right track, I just don’t think it’s going to happen overnight.”
– With files from Graeme McNaughton