Justin Cowen is a PhD student studying pancreatic cancer at the University of Toronto. When his apartment building in Toronto was bought by corporate landlord, Harrington Housing, he became a victim of harassment to drive himself and his neighbours out of their rent-controlled homes.
Here’s how Justin described it. “We have had to live through unlivable conditions. I’ve had to walk down the stairs in the dark for months because they refused to fix the lights in the hallway. I’ve had to go to bed cold when they failed to maintain the boilers. I’ve seen my neighbors try for weeks to get repairs for water damage in their ceilings, or get a working fridge in their apartments, to no avail. I have even seen my neighbours locked out of the building because the landlord changed the locks and didn’t give some tenants the new keys.”
When tenants give up and move out, Harrington rents individual bedrooms in each apartment on a weekly basis at ridiculous rates. A “deluxe” 115 sq foot bedroom in a basement apartment costs $310 a week. This isn’t deluxe, it’s exploitation.
I recently hosted a forum to hear from students about their housing experience. Students spoke of being harassed and evicted by landlords, sleeping two to a bedroom, and the impossibly high price of rent. Students, particularly international students, are especially vulnerable because they earn less and have less knowledge of their rights than other tenants. While some students live on campus for their first year the vast majority of students live in private-market housing.
Welcoming and keeping young, highly educated people in our province is good for society and the economy. If we want people to stay, not flee, then Ontario’s housing market needs to provide safe housing to people at an affordable price. Here’s how we can do it.
To immediately improve student housing, Ontario needs to bolster staffing and resources to enforce our rental laws. Currently, vulnerable renters like Justin have nowhere to turn. Police don’t intervene. Provincial and bylaw officers rarely step in, and it can take two years for the notorious Landlord and Tenant Board to hear a tenant’s case, and even if they win, enforcement is scant.
Take Ontario’s Rental Housing Enforcement Unit, which is responsible for upholding provincial rental laws. The department received 16,000 calls last year, investigated one percent of them, and prosecuted just 21 cases.
Second, Ontario needs to quickly pass stronger rental laws. The NDP is calling for Ontario to extend rent control to all homes, as well as bring back vacancy control, so there’s a cap on how much the rent can be raised between tenancies. Rent control is the single most effective way to stabilize rent for 1.7 million Ontarians and stop illegal eviction activity. Currently, student housing is exempt from rent control, as are homes first occupied after 2018.
It’s time to pass legislation to restrict short-term rentals to people’s primary residence only in areas with low vacancy rates. There are thousands of short-term rentals in investment properties being listed for 28 days or more on platforms like AirBnB. These homes are increasingly not for tourists, but for residents, like students, who can’t find a permanent home. By renting out bedrooms on a short-term basis, Harrington Housing is one of thousands of companies flouting the rules.
Third, Ontario needs to build more homes to address current and future demand. This will involve recruiting people to work in our construction sector, as well as zoning reform to make it easier to build apartments in towns and cities, especially those with colleges and universities.
Meeting our housing needs will also require Ontario getting back into the business of building and financing the construction of thousands of non-market and affordable homes, including homes on public land. The private sector cannot meet Ontario’s housing needs on its own. New home construction has plummeted as interest rates have gone up and profit margins have shrunk. New private-market housing supply is very expensive - try $2900 for a 490 square foot apartment in the Waverley on College St - and will likely remain so. Justin can’t afford that kind of rent. Not many students can.
Justin has decided to stay and fight to keep his apartment. He is also becoming more politically involved, like thousands of other renters. Ontarians deserve a housing market that puts people first, not investors. The Conservative government should take heed. The affordability of our province is at stake.