This question came from Kristina B. via our latest website survey: “Do you have any tips on how to educate landlords about human and tenant rights; as well as dealing with slumlords?”

Landlord engagement has been a popular topic lately. A few weeks ago, I wrote about some ways to work with landlords, and people have been sharing their strategies in the Community Workspace. Educating negligent, unwilling or altogether absent landlords, however, is an entirely different task.

Most landlords know what their responsibilities are and want to maintain the value of what they own. “Slumlord” is a derogatory term for absentee and/or negligent property owners, especially those who own multiple properties, ignore repairs and other tenant needs, and profiteer. These types of landlords are in the minority, but they do exist. Furthermore, people experiencing homelessness, living in poverty, and who are new to Canada, are all especially at risk of ending up in housing that is overcrowded and/or otherwise unfit for living in. So it is important to ensure we do what we can to engage with landlords and make sure they know the rights that tenants have and how they can honour them. 

Share legal information

Rental housing is governed at both the provincial/territorial level and the municipal level, and there’s a great many different laws involved: building codes, human rights frameworks, tenancies acts, and so on. Presenting the information – perhaps in partnership with local community legal clinics – in an easy-to-understand format can help further landlords’ understanding of what they’re expected to do. 

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has plenty of plain language resources for landlords, including a guide for new landlords and fact sheets for every province and territory. Such information can be repurposed in simple formats and shared with landlords at local community meetings, on websites written for landlords, small-scale informative campaigns (ie. on social media), and so on. This information is equally important for tenants to have, and many local tenant organizations and community legal clinics specialize in creating easy-to-read resources. (The housing law section of the Community Legal Education Ontario website is an excellent example.)

Address discrimination

As one 2008 Ontario-based report highlighted, discrimination during the rental process is not uncommon. While most landlords know that they can’t list a preference for some tenants over others, this happens regularly. For example: The Ontario Human Rights Commission (ORC) has an information section for landlords that outlines human rights in housing. Though the ORC states that landlords cannot discriminate against potential renters for various reasons, rental listings (especially in tight rental markets) regularly describe the only kinds of tenants that the owner will consider (“quiet couples,” “students,” “working professionals,” etc.). 

Filing a claim is often simply too much work for most people looking for housing, so there is little action that is taken against such discrimination. In very tight rental markets where vacancy rates are low, landlords have a lot of control over who they rent to and some feel comfortable openly discriminating against some groups of people (ie. “No welfare” postings). A Regina study conducted in 2011 found that while many people on social assistance can be good tenants, a small minority have been disruptive, destructive and failed to pay rent – resulting in widespread discrimination against people on assistance, even though these problems often arise with people who aren’t on social assistance. Dispelling negative myths about potential tenants is a key issue that should be included in any communication strategy with landlords. 

Highlight the lived experience of poverty and homelessness

Legislated protections are important, but so are grassroots bills of rights developed by people with lived experience. Last year, The Dream Team created a bill of rights for people in permanent supportive housing to raise awareness to issues of secure tenancy and quality of housing/services, and more importantly, to ensure housing providers consider the voices of their tenants. The Homeless Charter of Rights, developed in 2013 through the Calgary Homeless Foundation, is another example of highlighting the needs and desires of people with lived experience of homelessness. 

Highlighting documents like these adds a social element to housing, often forgotten in situations where owners are simply trying to make a profit. It also ensures that people who are vulnerable are being represented beyond being painted as “difficult.” 

Include a focus on social housing organizations

Much of Canada’s existing social housing is owned by municipalities, and some of these buildings are among the most poorly maintained. In 2014, BC Housing tenants in Vancouver claimed they’d been living in mould-infested apartments for two years while waiting for repairs. Some participants in the At Home/Chez Soi study noted that they gave up on waiting for social housing due to the poor condition that many BC Housing units were in, and the time it took to get transferred/receive housing. As Chris Selley pointed out in the National Post, Toronto Community Housing is plagued by spending scandals and a $2.6 billion repair backlog. 

Engaging these types of landlords requires more political action – reaching out to local councillors, representatives for housing organizations, tenant boards, etc. - as well as advocacy around multi-level government commitment to improve existing social housing and ultimately, build more. 

Inform landlords about Housing First and other programs

Some landlords will discriminate against certain people (ie. those who make lower incomes), but as the At Home/Chez Soi study showed, many are willing. Housing First programs can be particularly attractive to landlords because they offer guarantees on rent and evictions planning, as well as other crucial social services for the tenants who need them, therefore decreasing the amount of time and money they spend on what some call “problem tenants.” 

Having designated people to support both landlord and tenant and mediate potential problems is incredibly important. Landlords are primarily concerned with maintaining their property’s value and covering expenses, but they’re not necessarily immune to understanding individual circumstances. 

Help tenants organize

Unfortunately with some landlords, no matter how much engagement takes place, problems may continue. In these instances, it’s crucial to help affected tenants organize and take action through the development of tenant groups and in some cases, legal action. 

In 2014, tenants took Akelius, a Swedish company that has been aggressively buying up rental buildings in Toronto and beyond, to the Landlord and Tenant Board after the removal of onsite superintendents led to neglect. (The same company has been accused of forcing out low-income tenants by ignoring repairs until they leave, then renovating and renting to higher earners.) Parkdale Community Legal Services represented the tenants in the case, who were awarded a $50,000 collective settlement in 2015. Though the settlement doesn’t solve the issue that tenant concerns are not dealt with as quickly as they were before, tenants at least saw some reimbursement for their struggles – and Akelius was ultimately held responsible. 

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