Hearings at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) are continuing during the current provincial state of emergency and stay-at-home order, though a new regulation prohibits the enforcement of eviction orders until after the state of emergency is lifted.
In response to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the province paused LTB hearings and eviction enforcements on March 19, 2020. The tribunal reopened and eviction enforcements resumed on August 4. Hearings are now held entirely online, and their pace has quickened as the LTB faces a backlog of cases.
Tenant advocates have decried the online hearings as an “eviction blitz,” while some landlords say they are still facing long delays which are costing them money because they can’t evict tenants who aren’t paying rent.
So — how is all this playing out in Peterborough?
Kimberley Weaver, the staff lawyer who focuses on housing at the Peterborough Community Legal Centre, says the clinic had to pull its lawyers away from other files to help address the high volume of LTB hearings this fall. She calls the hearings “chaotic.”
“From our perspective, the virtual hearings are a failed experiment, especially for tenants,” Weaver says. Low-income tenants don’t always have access to computers or telephones, she points out, and when they do, they might not be as fluent in the technology as the landlords and lawyers they’re up against. “It’s just not a level playing field.”
Weaver has also noticed a “high level of tenant absenteeism” during the pandemic, which she attributes to the technological challenges associated with the virtual hearings. When a tenant is absent for their eviction hearing, the ruling almost always goes against them, she says.
The LTB’s online hearings, which are held over Microsoft Teams, possess all the same challenges as other pandemic-era online meetings: dropped or poor phone connections, incessant troubleshooting of the mute button and confusion over whose turn it is to speak.
Tenant duty counsel lawyers, who often jump from one room to another to be present for multiple hearing blocks at the same time, provide legal advice by cell phone when possible.
Evictions prioritized over tenant applications
When LTB hearings resumed in August, the tribunal prioritized L1 applications, which are applications submitted by landlords to evict a tenant for non-payment of rent. “Until November, there weren’t any other cases on the docket, it was all L1s,” says Weaver.
Applications brought forward by tenants, meanwhile, weren’t treated with the same urgency when the tribunal reopened. “I filed three applications on behalf of tenants over a year ago, where the allegations include things like no heat in a unit, broken windows, lack of utilities,” Weaver says. Those are “very serious issues [to be] left for over a year to be resolved.”
The Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO) tracks the number of LTB applications heard across the province and provided its data to Peterborough Currents. According to ACTO, there were 896 applications heard by the LTB in November 2020 for the eastern region of the province, which includes Peterborough. Because the region also includes communities like Belleville and Kingston, it’s not clear how big Peterborough’s share of that number is.
ACTO’s data reveals the extent of the LTB’s prioritization of landlord concerns upon reopening the tribunal.
In November, 98.8 percent of the 896 hearings in Peterborough’s region were for landlord applications. For comparison, in November 2019, there were 607 applications heard in the region, and 91.1 percent of them were landlord applications, according to ACTO’s data.
By December 2020, tenant applications had begun to be heard more frequently. According to the data, there were 329 hearings in the eastern region in December, and about 20 percent of them were for tenant applications.
Landlords going months without rental income
Before the pandemic, landlords and tenants were already facing significant delays in getting their cases heard at the LTB. A spokesperson for Tribunals Ontario told CBC News in December 2019 that these delays were a result of a shortage of adjudicators. In January 2020, the Ontario Ombudsman announced that it would launch an investigation into the delays at the tribunal.
Even with the tribunal reopened and its initial prioritization of eviction applications, some landlords say they are still facing delays that threaten their business and their livelihood.
“The backlog is astronomical,” says Kate Kidd, president of the Peterborough Landlords Association. “What I’m hearing from my members is it’s a minimum six-month delay.”
For a landlord with a tenant who isn’t paying rent, that delay “hurts a lot,” Kidd says. “We’re not deep pocket landlords, we’re just regular landlords with a mortgage to pay.”
For Margaret Slavin, who owns a four-plex near downtown Peterborough, the delay means months of forgone rental income.
Slavin lives in one of her building’s units and rents the others out. She says that even before COVID-19 hit, she noticed a tenant of hers wasn’t able to pay rent on time. When the pandemic hit in March, she lowered his rent and in September she offered him a financial incentive to move out, she says.
But he’s still living in the unit now and hasn’t paid any rent since October, Slavin says. “I require his rent to pay the bills,” she says. “I’m living on my credit cards.” Slavin has an eviction application submitted to the LTB, but she isn’t sure when she’ll get a hearing.
Slavin appreciates that tenants are also facing challenges at the LTB, and she wants to see the system improved so that both sides can have equal and fair access to the tribunal. “Landlords and tenants need to know that we are working within a framework of law that is fair to both sides,” she says.
Eviction worries amid housing shortage
Weaver encourages people to remember the context in which the LTB’s virtual hearings are proceeding: a severe shortage of affordable housing. Peterborough was “already seeing rising issues of affordability and people struggling to prevent eviction” before COVID-19 exacerbated the situation, she says.
According to the CMHC’s newest Rental Market Report, which was released this week, there were only nine units added to Peterborough’s purpose-built rental supply between October 2019 and October 2020. Meanwhile, the average rent in the city increased by 4.9 percent during that period.
“Due to the COVID situation, it’s extremely hard to find a new place to occupy,” said one Peterborough tenant at a hearing on Wednesday, before he received an eviction order for non-payment of rent and arrears over $5,000.
At the Community Counselling and Resource Centre, where low-income tenants can receive financial assistance and counselling, there has been a sharp increase in the amount of money clients owe to their landlords, program manager Annie Hedden told the Peterborough Examiner earlier this month.
Where they might usually help clients who owe their landlords $1,000 or $2,000, Hedden said they are now seeing tenants who owe up to $10,000.
Peterborough Currents has been unable to determine how many evictions have been executed locally during the pandemic, or how many orders have been issued. The local court enforcement office, which would have access to that data, has not responded to repeated phone calls and voicemails over the last two weeks.
At least eight more Peterborough renters are facing eviction hearings next week, according to information provided by the Peterborough Community Legal Centre.