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Niagara Falls
Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Arch-i-text: More trouble, and potential solutions, to affordable housing crisis
One of many town-owned properties, this severely under-utilized lot could be divided in half with the grass side portion being developed with affordable housing following the Whistler model. BRIAN MARSHALL

In Ontario, the Residential Tenancies Act is the piece of legislation that — while being very broad, generally — provides explicit, legal requirements governing all aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship. 

This act also establishes the structure, mandate, scope and function of the Landlord and Tenant Board, a tribunal that works under the legislation to adjudicate and resolve issues that may arise between landlords and tenants in a fair, unbiased and timely fashion.

Under the act, both tenants and landlords can file specific applications with the board for adjudication and resolution.

The Landlord and Tenant Board receives over 80,000 applications annually, making it one of the busiest tribunals in Ontario.

These applications have a huge impact on the financial and general well-being of tenants and landlords in this province, making the board a critical part of Ontario’s rental housing system.

Unfortunately, the wheels on this bus have never worked well and, in the last decade, have pretty well fallen off – injuring both landlords and tenants.

Eight months ago, Ontario’s ombudsman, Paul Dubé, published a report on the lengthy investigation into the operation of the Landlord and Tenants Board.

This report contained 61 recommendations to address a backlog at the tribunal that, at the time, stood at 38,000 applications.

In his recorded address at the time of publication, Dubé noted: “Where once it took the board a matter of days to schedule hearings, it now takes an average of seven to eight months.” 

“As of February 2023,” he continued, “landlord applications were generally being scheduled for hearing within six to nine months of receipt, and tenant applications could take up to two years to be scheduled.”

The report detailed the following: “There were tenants stuck waiting while they endured harassment, unsafe living conditions, and improper attempts to force them from their homes.”

“And there were small landlords, including those renting out space within their own homes, who were trying to cope with tenants’ abuse, criminal conduct, and facing financial ruin and serious health harms.”

Based on the conclusions of his report, Dubé concluded, “As an administrative tribunal, the board is fundamentally failing in its role of providing swift justice to those seeking resolution of residential landlord and tenant issues.”

“In doing so, it is denying justice to a significant segment of Ontarians,” he said.

While Premier Doug Ford’s government pushed for an additional $6.5 million to hire more adjudicators (and support staff) for the Landlord and Tenant Board to assist in clearing the backlog, I’d submit that this is akin to putting a cast on a broken leg that has not been set – if you don’t fix the problem, then all the support in the world isn’t going to result in a healthy result. 

Meanwhile, we have small landlords suffering on the brink of bankruptcy due to tenants who refuse to move out and are extorting a “cash/for keys” option (see CBC News’ online article from June 13, 2023, “When tenants stopped paying rent, Niagara landlord says she offered them $10k to leave. It didn’t work“).

And, on the other side, long-term tenants, whose rental costs are well below going market rates, face the threat of “renoviction,” wherein a landlord (typically institutional) engages in building renovations, which they claim require the tenant to vacate, allowing the rent to be increased to market rates.

There is also “demoviction,” wherein a landlord chooses to demolish a low/medium-density rental complex to utilize the land for a new high-density development.

A landlord may also allow the building to deteriorate into an unsafe condition, generally to justify either renoviction or demoviction before the board.

Simply put, some landlords and some tenants are taking advantage of a sadly broken system to the detriment of the other party in their rental agreement.

I’m forced to observe that the pain shared by both sides does not, and should not, excuse the use of unethical practices to achieve their respective goals.

And, much as it irks me to say it, the role of government is to intervene and provide a level playing field for all parties, particularly in light of the affordable housing crisis faced by this province.

It behooves the government of the day to get their house in order.

A quick fact to put the “affordable” issue into perspective: across Canada, between 2011 and 2016, roughly 322,600 “affordable” housing units were lost or converted to market-valued units, while a mere 20,000 “affordable” units were created.

That’s 302,600 households that may have ended up homeless or paying shelter costs that they really can’t afford — through no fault of their own.

Nor is there any indication that this year-by-year loss of affordable housing has slowed down.

To combat this disturbing trend, many experts in the field believe that it is necessary to permanently uncouple a certain proportion of all new homes built from market forces.

Patrick Condon of the University of British Columbia defined “uncoupling” to include “any housing protected from market forces, thus offering affordable rents and ownership in perpetuity.”

So, let’s look at one jurisdiction that has actioned this approach.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler in British Columbia has had a long-term affordability crisis with housing.

Similar to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Whistler has both high average housing costs and a large, low-wage workforce employed within the tourism sector in chronic need of housing they can afford.

To address this problem, they established the Whistler Housing Authority an independent, municipally-owned corporation to create, administer and manage price-controlled residential real estate.

This housing is available only to households comprised of either Canadian citizens or permanent residents who are working for a qualified Whistler employer.

As of 2023, the housing authority has 327 long-term rental units.

The rental rates are based on 30 per cent of the applicant’s gross household income (with minimums and maximum rental rates for each building), and unit selection is restricted by household size to ensure the inventory is optimized.

That is, a couple would go into a one-bedroom apartment whereas a household with two children would be eligible for a two or three-bedroom unit. 

The Whistler Housing Authority also manages an inventory of diverse home ownership properties — 988 employee housing units and 202 additional ownership properties — in Whistler with employee occupancy restrictions that are bought and sold to qualified Whistler employees, drawn from a formal waiting list. 

All of the employee ownership housing units have covenants registered on title that require Whistler employees to occupy the homes as their primary residence, to ensure that the employee housing program inventory is used as intended – for Whistler employees.

The employee homes also have restrictions on the maximum resale amounts.

The current covenants tie the resale value to an appreciation formula based on the Core Consumer Price Index.

And, the housing authority continues to grow both inventories, leveraging its local relationships with the municipality (most development has occurred on lands previously owned by the municipality), non-profits, the private sector and financial partnerships with BC Housing and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Its goal is to add another 758 new units in the near to mid-range future. 

As a result of this visionary undertaking, tenants and owners have access to safe, reliable and affordable housing options that allow them to live in the community they work in.

There are many other Canadian examples of solution-based thinking applied to affordable housing.

All by municipalities that understand that a “living” town includes all demographics.

Niagara-on-the-Lake should think about that.   

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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