This blog is the first of a series in which Jonathan Robart and Kaitlin Schwan explore the relationships between housing law and homelessness in Canada.
Research has consistently demonstrated linkages between intimate partner violence (IPV) and homelessness. A 2008 study in Edmonton found that “[h]aving abusive relationships and housing problems (62.3%) were the main reasons why women had come to the shelter” (p. 13). IPV is disproportionately experienced by women and trans-identified people, and the Canadian Women’s Foundation reports that on any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters due to safety issues in their home.
How do experiences of IPV affect a person’s ability to access affordable, safe, and adequate housing? What legislative tools in Canada protect the rights and housing of survivors of IPV?
In this blog, we tackle the connections between IPV and tenancy rights and law in Canada, specifically exploring recent changes to the Residential Tenancies Acts in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. These changes have the potential to positively influence a survivor’s ability to escape violence and obtain alternative housing, in combination with targeted supports and services. It is essential that knowledge of these changes reach survivors and those working to support them - please share widely!
What is Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)?
Intimate partner violence (IPV), often used synonymously with the term “domestic violence,” refers to some form of violence or abusive behaviour by one person upon another individual in a past or current relationship. The term “intimate partner violence” acknowledges that abusive dynamics occur across the gender spectrum and regardless of marital status. This violence or abuse can manifest in many forms, including physical, verbal, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. IPV does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, socio-economic status, religion, sexual orientation, or level of educational attainment. Research also demonstrates the intersectional nature of this issue, revealing that people who face multiple forms of marginalization are at increased risk for experiencing IPV and face additional barriers to obtaining help. For example, research shows that Indigenous women in Canada are at increased risk of experiencing IPV, as well as violence more generally. The cycle of abuse is extremely challenging to break without external support systems and interventions, as well as legislation which supports the rights of survivors.
Intimate Partner Violence and Tenancy Issues in Canada – Barriers to Fleeing Violence and Abuse
Tenants experiencing IPV face a range of barriers to fleeing unsafe living environments and obtaining safe, affordable, and adequate housing. Research has shown that financial barriers are particularly powerful. A 2014 report by the University of Alberta and the Centre for Legal Education Alberta concludes: “The biggest legal problem that victims of domestic violence appear to face in obtaining and maintaining rental accommodation is dealing with the financial obligations that have arisen with respect to the accommodation.” Key financial challenges include:
- Financial penalties or threats of legal action due to breaking a lease early
- Lack of access to funds, bank accounts, or credit cards in the survivor’s name or under their control
- Securing the funds for first and last month’s rent, as well as security deposits, for new rental housing
- Costs associated with moving (e.g., storage, moving of belongings)
- Costs associated with setting up a new home (e.g., purchasing new furniture)
Importantly, it is often the survivor that the landlord pursues for overdue rent and damages, rather than the abuser. This means that the survivor may be left with such poor tenancy records and poor credit ratings that obtaining new rental accommodation is extremely difficult. Given that multiply marginalized peoples are also more likely to experience IPV, some survivors are likely to face additional challenges when fleeing violence, including discrimination when trying to obtain new rental accommodations or employment.
How do changes to Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia’s Respective Residential Tenancies Acts impact IPV survivors fleeing violence?
There are some important recent changes to Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia’s and respective Residential Tenancies Act that address some of the barriers to leaving abusive and violent homes. Here are the top three legislative changes you need to know about:
1. Providing Notice to Landlords
Tenants fleeing IPV need to do so quickly, flexibly, and with minimal cost. Unfortunately, the Notice requirements for legally terminating a tenancy agreement in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia are lengthy, rigid, and not suited to the financial realities faced by tenants fleeing IPV. Until 2016, legislation specified that:
- Tenants in Ontario and Alberta fleeing IPV would have to provide their landlord at least sixty (60) days Notice to terminate a yearly or fixed-term tenancy agreement. This meant that tenants fleeing IPV were legally liable for all outstanding rent up to and including the date the tenancy agreement is terminated.
- Tenancy agreements in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia could not be legally terminated prior to the last day of a tenancies term (i.e., the end of a yearly tenancy or the end of a monthly rental period). This means that tenants fleeing IPV were not legally allowed to terminate a tenancy on the date of their choosing.
- A tenant fleeing an abuser one month into a year-long tenancy agreement could potentially be legally liable for a monetary amount equal to 11 months of rent. Given that the average monthly rent for a one bedroom apartment in both provinces’ largest cities exceeds $1100.00, the financial consequences for terminating a tenancy agreement early could be ruinous.
Under the new legislation in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia changes to Notice requirements allow tenants fleeing domestic violence to avoid many of these barriers. The new legislative changes allow for the following:
- Tenants in on Ontario and Alberta fleeing IPV can now terminate tenancy agreements, whether month-to-month or yearly/fixed-term, by providing twenty-eight days written notice to their landlord
- In Ontario and Alberta, the termination date does not have to be the last day of a tenancy agreement. This means that tenants do not have to wait until the end of the lease and/or the end of a monthly rental period
- In Ontario and Alberta, tenants fleeing IPV are able to terminate a tenancy on any date of their choosing, so long as the tenant fleeing IPV provides at least 28 days written notice
- Tenants in British Columbia who are fleeing IPV can now terminate a fixed term tenancy by providing their landlord with one-month’s Notice. It should be noted, though, that the termination date must be the day before monthly rent is due. This means that, unlike in Ontario and Alberta, tenants in British Columbia who are fleeing IPV cannot terminate a tenancy on a date of their choosing.
- Tenants in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia who are fleeing IPV face no financial penalty or the threat of legal liability for early termination of their lease.
2. Supporting Documents Required
Under the new legislation, tenants in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia fleeing IPV must, in addition to giving proper Notice to their landlord, provide supporting documents that confirm the tenant is experiencing intimate partner violence.
In Ontario, tenants are able to use the following documents to satisfy the requirements of the new legislation:
- A peace bond issued under subsection 810 (3) of the Criminal Code (Canada);
- An order issued under section 46 of the Family Law Act;
- An order issued under section 35 of the Children’s Law Reform Act; or
- An N15 - “Tenant Statement About Sexual or Domestic Violence and Abuse” form issued by the Landlord and Tenant Board
Tenants attempting to obtain the above noted Court orders may face lengthy delays and the additional trauma and confusion associated with navigating a complex web of courtrooms and legal paperwork. These barriers impede a tenant’s ability to flee violence quickly and without additional trauma.
To assist tenants in avoiding these barriers, Ontario also gives tenants the option to complete a form (“Form N15”) to satisfy the requirements of the new legislation. Relative to most court forms and procedures, completing the N15 form is quite easy:
- The N15 form is easily accessible online and can be completed by tenants themselves, with or without assistance from a third party
- The form does not require tenants to identify the abuser by name or specify the type of abuse they are experiencing
- Tenants who use this form (or one of the other allowable documents) will benefit from the presumption that the contents are true and will not be subject to cross examination about the details/content in the form at a hearing at the Landlord and Tenant Board
Those who work with and assist survivors and or vulnerable people should know about and familiarize themselves with the above N15 form. It’s an accessible, easy to complete and, most importantly, is grounded in the presumption of survivors telling the truth. This presumption will encourage survivors to come forward and seek assistance.
In contrast, the procedures for obtaining the required documentation in Alberta and British Columbia are far more onerous and places an unfair burden on tenants by requiring corroboration that the tenant is experiencing IPV from a designated third-party professional. These procedures require that:
- In Alberta, tenants fleeing IPV must obtain a “Certificate Confirming Grounds to Terminate Tenancy” (“Certificate”)
- To get a Certificate, tenants in Alberta must first either obtain a “protection order” (which includes an Emergency Protection Order; a Queen’s Bench Order; a Restraining Order; or a Peace Bond) or a statement from a third-party professional (such as a doctor, nurse, or social worker) that confirms the tenant is experiencing IPV
- Once the tenant obtains either the protection order or the statement, they must then apply to a Safer Spaces Processing Centre ( a department of Alberta Human Services) for a “Certificate”
- Tenants must then either wait to receive their Certificate from a Safer Spaces Advisor by either mail, fax or in person at an Alberta Supports Centre or Alberta Works or request that the certificate be sent to a support worker or the police.
- In British Columbia, tenants must obtain a “Ending Fixed-Term Tenancy Confirmation Statement” (“Statement”)
- The “Statement” must be completed by an approved “third party verifier”.
3. Privacy and Confidentiality
Both Alberta and Ontario have adopted similar legislative changes that help protect the privacy and confidentiality of tenants fleeing IPV. Importantly, these provisions apply whether or not tenants live with their abuser. These privacy and confidentiality protections include, but are not limited to:
- In Ontario and Alberta, landlords are forbidden (with very limited exceptions) from disclosing that a tenant is terminating a tenancy if tenants give notice pursuant to the new rules
- In Ontario and Alberta, landlords are forbidden (again with limited exceptions) from disclosing copies of the Notice of Termination/supporting documents, or any of their contents
- In Ontario, if tenants fleeing IPV share a lease with other joint-tenants, landlords are not allowed to tell (a) joint-tenant(s) (including the abuser) that a notice of termination has been given until after the termination date in the Notice and after the tenant experiencing IPV has moved out
- In Alberta, tenants that are fleeing IPV and share a joint-tenancy with other tenants may be required to advise a “Safer Spaces Advisor” that they have given their landlord Notice pursuant to the new rules. The Safer Spaces Advisor may then contact the landlord and coordinate an effort to advise the other tenants in the joint-tenancy that a Notice has been given and the termination date.
British Columbia’s Residential Tenancy Regulation and Personal Information Protection Act forbid landlords and third-party verifiers from disclosing the tenant’s “Statement” and/or its contents to anyone, including other tenants, without consent of the tenant. This means that landlords and third-party verifiers must keep the existence of the “Statement” and its contents strictly confidential.
These protections are crucial given that the ability for tenants to protect their privacy and confidentiality when fleeing IPV is directly related to the ability to flee safely and quickly. Without the above protections, many survivors may be dissuaded from fleeing their abuser and this may extend their abuse and threaten their life / lives of children. In addition, the above protections help ensure that the abuser does not become aware of the survivor’s intent to flee, which may lead to retaliation.
A Step in the Right Direction
Survivors of IPV face long-term financial, social, economic, and health consequences, including a high risk of experiencing homelessness. The recent changes to Ontario and Alberta’s Residential Tenancies Acts are an important step towards supporting survivors’ right to live free of violence in housing that is safe. Given that these changes are recent and survivors may not be aware of them, it is essential that knowledge about this new legislation is distributed widely. Please share!
We also know that greater action is needed to ensure survivor’s access to affordable and safe housing. Survivors’ ability to escape violence is severely limited by the lack of affordable housing stock across Canada, as well as the low wages and social assistance rates that make obtaining housing so difficult. With nowhere to go, or no funds to get there, survivors may be forced to stay in abusive dynamics in order to maintain a roof over their head. We know that these challenges are even more pronounced for women experiencing multiple exclusions. For example, research has shown that women escaping IPV who have a lower socio-economic status, are racialized, and/or face mental health challenges are at greater risk of becoming homeless. This means that in addition to significant investments in housing and social assistance, we also need to address broader structures of classism and racism in all systems and sectors of society.
Need help? Here are some key resources:
Assaulted Women’s Hotline (available 24 hours):
Toll Free 1.866.863.0511
Toll Free TTY: 1.866.863.7868
Mobile: #SAFE (#7233)
Multilingual hotline for male survivors of domestic abuse (available 24 hours):
Toll free 1.866.887.0015
Do You Know A Woman Who Is Being Abused: A Legal Rights Handbook
Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic: offers legal representation & professional counsel
Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC): Legal information and education for vulnerable women and community service providers. Multilingual interpretation to women who have experienced abuse.
Emergency shelter intake: for information on numerous shelters in Toronto with direct admission. For 24 hour intake hotline, call: 311 or 416-338-4766 or toll-free 1-877-338-3398.
Shelter Safe (Ontario): An online resource for women and their children seeking safety and shelter from violence and abuse.
Nellie’s Women’s Shelter: Nellie’s runs a shelter, housing, outreach and other programs for women and children experiencing homelessness.
Care & Treatment
Ontario Network of Sexual Assault / Domestic Violence Care and Treatment Centres: A network of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centres providing access to medical and legal services for all survivors, men and women, of domestic violence and sexual assault.