Standing in the packed lobby of a Toronto apartment tower Wendy Lum fielded questions, broke down rental housing law basics and marshalled volunteers.
It is a familiar and efficient routine. Lum is part of The Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations and half of a two-person outreach and organizing team that provides support and information to tenants facing rent hikes or eviction because of development. Their positions are funded by the city and between the two of them they have handled issues at about 250 buildings across the city over the past year.
“I almost feel like we’re set up for failure,” Lum told the Star Monday night at the Balliol St. building where tenants are facing a rent increase. “It is impossible for us to keep up.”
Whether the FMTA outreach workers and their colleagues, who also handled 30,680 calls to a tenant support hotline last year, can expect any relief will be determined this week when city council votes to finalize the 2019 budget.
Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 12, Toronto—St. Paul’s) intends to move a motion asking council to vote on a $137,500 increase to the shelter, support and housing administration budget that would allow for the addition of 2.5 equivalent full-time staff to the five people in total managing hundreds of buildings and tens of thousands of calls through the hotline. Matlow’s efforts to move the same motion at budget committee last month failed.
“Within the entire city budget this is such a minuscule number but the impact that it could have in the quality of life for renters in our city is priceless,” said Matlow, speaking with the Star on Tuesday. “Given that 50 per cent of Toronto residents are tenants this is a really positive and important way to support them at their time of need.”
In Ontario, landlords can only raise the rent on occupied units a set amount. For the past two years that has been 1.8 per cent. Landlords can apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board to try and get an additional maximum 3 per cent each year, over three years, to recover some costs on major repairs, including to roofs, heating systems and any significant structural issues.
In 2017 there were 241 applications for AGIs before the LTB, compared to 189 the previous year, according to information from Social Justice Tribunals Ontario and provided by the FMTA. Abandoned, withdrawn and denied applications were not included.
FMTA executive director Geordie Dent said in 2018 the support and information they provided to renters around how to negotiate through the AGI process resulted in about a $5-million savings to tenants.
The owners of the Balliol St. building applied for the yearly maximum starting in 2017 but haven’t heard back from the board on whether that cost can be passed on to tenants. If approved it would mean tenants would have to pay a 4.8 per cent increase in rent for both 2018 and 2019, in the form of back rent.
The owner of the building applied for the increase after spending $3 million on new elevators, an emergency generator and repairs to the garage roof deck, said Justin Taylor, chief operating officer of Greenrock Real Estate Advisors, which manages the building.
Taylor said communication with tenants began before construction started, adding residents can always reach out with concerns. He said nothing has been set in stone because the board hasn’t agreed to the increase.
The work was essential to ensure the safety and structural integrity of the building and the quality of life for residents, Taylor said. Landlords who do extensive, required work in good faith, he said, must have some remedy to recover costs.
“If we didn’t do it you certainly wouldn’t be able to provide long-term properties for people,” he said.
If approved, the increases would only apply to tenants who moved in before the May 2017 application.
Tenant Alana Ratcliff, 25, her boyfriend and their dog moved into their junior one bedroom on May 1 of that year so they could have to pay the increase.
“Neither of us have legal training. We were poring over it trying to figure out is this true, is this valid, do they have the right to do this?”
Having Lum come to the building and answer questions was a relief, she said. The couple pay $1,630, which includes the provincial increases they were required to pay by law until the board makes a decision. Ratcliff, an art director for an advertising agency, said rising rent in Toronto will soon price out young professionals. More worrying, she said, is what it means for people living in poverty who have next to no options.
Dent said confusion over renters rights has resulted in a surge of calls to the FMTA tenant hotline.
“A lot of people are calling now because the market is so out of control,” Dent said. “We are getting crushed.”
The hotline has been run by the FMTA since the 1980s, first through a sole source contract and then a series of successful bids once the contract was put out to tender.
Dent said people taking the calls must not only have expertise but the ability to manage the expectations and emotions of people who could lose their housing. “It is difficult. We have to spend most of our days just returning messages.”
City staff have been extremely responsive to questions and concerns, Dent said, but the FMTA is struggling to keep up with demand.
“We’ll make do with whatever we get,” Dent said. “But more money to be able to help tenants is always helpful.”