A key prescription for containing the spread of the coronavirus has been social distancing, which requires people to stay at home and avoid crowded areas. The social consequences of COVID-19 have become clearly evident: the differential ability of Ontarians to protect themselves from this deadly virus stems partly from their access to safe and relatively spacious housing.
In Canada, the wealthy are staying in their multi-million dollar mansions with various luxuries available to them; the middle class work from home with their children running around in the background of Zoom meetings; and the poor and working class have been forced to spend their savings—or risk their lives as front-line workers—in order to continue to afford basic necessities.
Amidst this crisis, tenants, who are more likely to be single-parent families and low-income individuals, are particularly vulnerable to the hardships brought about by COVID-19. Renters also do not have access to many of the legal and financial protections given to homeowners. Their situation has become exacerbated because many are experiencing job losses or reduced incomes due to the pandemic-induced recession. This has led to intensified calls for an eviction moratorium and for rents to be waived.
The response from landlords has been aggressive. Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) has received almost 6,000 applications to evict tenants, and the number of applications is rising with each passing day. In such a volatile environment, it remains to be asked: has the province ensured that all Ontarians are equally protected during this crisis? What does Doug Ford’s legislative record on housing tell us about the intentions of his conservative government?
Pre-pandemic: Doug Ford’s approach to housing
Since winning the provincial election in 2018, Premier Ford has made critical interventions in landlord-tenant relations. Rather than tackling the affordable housing crisis to secure safe sheltering for all, Ford has instead centered the affordability of housing to make the price of owning property competitive for developers and real estate firms, and to bring more houses into the market. In declaring Ontario ‘Open For Business,’ Ford has made a concerted effort towards privileging landlords and developers at the expense of tenants in both market and legal adjudication.
Two vital foundations of Ford’s neoliberal economic policy include austerity and deregulation. Housing in Ontario has felt the effects of these measures deeply. On November 15, 2018, the provincial government released its Fall Economic and Fiscal Outlook, detailing the new rental controls outlined in Bill 57. It articulates that new units (those that are newly built or occupied by a tenant for the first time), and existing buildings with new additions would be exempt from restricted rental pricing increases, which the province had previously set at 1.8 percent. In other words, landlords now have the freedom to raise rent as high as they want with little to no accountability.
These changes reversed the Liberal government’s rent control legislation, Bill 124—the Rental Fairness Act—that former Premier Kathleen Wynn introduced in 2017. Bill 124 included badly needed reforms that provided some protections for renters, especially for those living in Toronto, one of the world’s most unaffordable cities. The reasoning given for the PC’s repeal of previous rent control policies is that it supposedly creates a positive investment environment for new housing supply; in other words, these changes incentivize investors and encourage developers to build new units. Yet in reality, deregulations of this nature place corporate interests above human needs by increasing the pricing of housing in Ontario, thus exacerbating the existing housing crisis.
These measures precede the unveiling of the provincial government’s 2019 budget in which Ford used a policy of austerity to mercilessly attack provincial housing supports. While alcohol and beer were mentioned 46 times in the budget, the affordable housing crisis was not named even once. Further, Municipal Affairs and Housing received the third largest cut, after education and healthcare, equaling nearly 25 percent of its previous budget, including reduced funding for housing and rent supports, and homelessness prevention efforts. For example, the Affordable Housing Program received $78 million in cuts, the Ending Homelessness program saw a $10 million decrease, and rent supports received a $21.9 million reduction.
The Minister’s spokesperson, Julie O’Driscoll, explained that these cuts were necessary because the PCs found several administrative efficiencies in housing that were supposedly wasting taxpayer dollars (she did not mention the tax cuts for businesses). These efficiencies that the government is saving only entrench the existing power imbalance between landlords and tenants, in favour of landlords. NDP housing critic Suze Morrison presented the social costs of the housing plunder by stating “Ford’s cruel cut to affordable housing will push even more Ontarians into precarious situations as rents continue to rise out of reach. Families should not have to choose between keeping a roof over their heads and putting food on the table.”
The Ford government also announced three other policy maneuvers that undermine tenant’s rights as a part of their Housing Supply Action Plan, which aims to create more homes and improve affordability for developers and investors. First, the PCs have revived the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) rules under the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), which was previously struck down in a reform made by the Liberals in 2017. These new changes under Ford make it easier for developers to create new homes quicker and cheaper. The PCs have given the provincial tribunal the power to supersede municipal decisions regarding the permission or refusal to construct houses. This makes the city subordinate to the appeal tribunal’s decisions and undermines community concerns, which is undemocratic and directly challenges municipal autonomy. In the past, the OMB has permitted the construction of poorly planned projects despite the objections of the local population and the municipal government. The Liberal’s reforms were created to specifically to address these issues. Bringing these rules back after Ontarians fought to have them reformed is a further step towards precarity because it remove public considerations from the decision-making process—a move lauded by developers.
Second, the PCs are considering proposals that reduce the waiting periods of eviction notices and allow private bailiffs to remove renters from their homes by force. The current Bailiffs Act stipulates that bailiffs must be government-appointed and cannot forcefully seize possessions or evict tenants from their homes without an executive court order. However, the new proposal would reverse these laws and make it easier for landlords to evict tenants with little notice. The purpose of this proposal is to boost the supply of rental housing, but in reality, it makes housing in Ontario far more precarious.
Third, Ford has made sweeping changes to social housing eviction rules. Now, social housing providers are allowed to refuse applications from individuals who have been previously evicted from a social housing building in the last five years for an “illegal act,” even if they have not received a criminal conviction. So, something as simple as an individual having a verbal altercation with a neighbour means their entire family could be denied housing. The official reasoning given for these changes is that it purportedly protects seniors and children in community housing. People who live in social housing, particularly lower-income and racialized residents, are already over-criminalized. This is a punitive measure that eliminates an important safety net that many Ontarians rely on.
The housing and homelessness crises in Ontario were already in a grave state well before the pandemic began. The stark power imbalances that exist between landlords and tenants is deeply institutionalized, so exploitation and abuse are always ongoing. Ford’s 2019 budget and other policy maneuvers further corporatize the housing market, which prioritize maximum unit turnover regardless of the social costs. The COVID-19 crisis has only intensified this, demonstrating the cruelty of the system and the urgent need for action. Moreover, the measures advanced by the Ford government are contrary to the public interest and they attack the health and safety of Ontarians. These are the volatile conditions that were in place when the pandemic hit.
The rights of renters during COVID-19: the ‘Art of the Bait-and-Switch’
The economic crisis of business closures, layoffs, and a federal benefit that, after taxes, would not cover the average cost of a one-bedroom rental in most major cities, is a substantial material concern for the over (and undercounted) 30 percent of Ontarians who are renters. While mortgage relief was offered to homeowners by the federal government, British Columbia’s provincial administration offered a minimal $500 per month rental subsidy for three months. Elsewhere, Alberta froze rent increases. But, back in Ontario, the Ford government could only offer a temporary reprieve in the form of a freeze on the adjudication process for evictions.
In reality, the freeze only covered a closure of the LTB as it pertained to approving or rejecting evictions filed for by landlords. This is designed to ignore two real concerns: first, many evictions are done either illegally or against tenants who are unaware of their rights of appeal (one merely has to go onto any tenant groups on Facebook to read horror stories about unethical landlords). Second, it did not suspend filing for evictions, meaning that the eviction backlog was officially reopened when the freeze lapsed on August 1. As mentioned above, there currently are over 6,000 eviction filings by landlords based on the “non-payment of rent” by tenants. This is despite Ford’s consistent (and empty) platitudes during his daily pandemic updates that people should not pay their rent if they could not afford it and that they would be protected from eviction.
An additional consequence of this is that although rent has been temporarily waived, it does not mean that renters will not have to pay back their missed rent. This has meant that that lower-income Ontarians are amassing thousands of dollars in debt during a time when they are already experiencing significantly reduced incomes. The federal government announced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) at the start of April, which provided individuals with up to $2,000 per month to help them acquire basic necessities like food and housing. As an indirect result, landlords have been applying overwhelming pressure onto renters to direct all of their CERB money into paying their rent. In the absence of provincial protections for renters, CERB has effectively become a subsidy for landlords. In the current moment, renters are staying afloat because of this short-term emergency cash and temporary eviction bans. But this will not last past the summer. For many renters, the end of these emergency stimulus measures means the elimination of safe sheltering, leading to increased precarity and a life stripped of dignity.
For those hoping for help from the tactfully named Bill 184, Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing, what they receive instead is further attacks on vulnerable renters in a time of crisis. Despite the benevolent-sounding name, this law removes tenant protections and enforces policies designed to discipline low-income tenants and persons struggling to meet rent during COVID-19. The law has received criticism from numerous tenant advocacy groups, the provincial NDP and was even legally challenged by Toronto City Council in a 22-2 vote (Ford’s nephew was one of two dissenting votes).
There are three main contentions to this pernicious overhaul of Residential Tenancies Act protections for renters. First, it sneakily allows illegal rent increases to be enacted if a tenant does not file an appeal within a year. This allows landlords to knowingly file for illegal rent increases beyond the provincial limit with the hope that the tenant simply does not or is unaware of how to appeal. This is designed to further consolidate the power of landlords to raise prices outside of rent control regulations, preying on the precarious, marginalized, and new immigrants who are more likely to be unaware of the LTB process and the illegality of such practices.
Second, it changes evidentiary regulations, making it more difficult for tenants to provide counter-evidence, counter-claims of harassment, or serious repair neglect by the landlord. This is done in the usual neoliberal discourse of “streamlining” and “cutting red tape.” Tenants will no longer be allowed to present “new” evidence at the hearing itself. Instead, they will be forced to file counter-motions ahead of the hearings, meaning all claims of harassment and legal violations committed by landlords will be invalid if not filed in advance through the bureaucratic system of the LTB. The only aspect of the process it “streamlines” is the rejection of evidence presented against landlords, with a clear goal of reconsolidating the power of corporate landlords who are often overseeing illegal repair backlogs and living conditions for their tenants.
Finally, and most importantly in the context of the pandemic, it directly targets tenants who have not paid the entirety of their owed rent during the last five months and attempts to make it easier for landlords to evict them. At the onset of the crisis, many landlords (both corporate and small) and their lobbying associations pushed the idea that tenants could enter into “repayment agreements,” setting forth a schedule for rent payment in recognition of the economic crisis and widespread layoffs. These agreements were considered informal but at least still had the weight of the LTB and its processes regulating them and their implementation.
Supported by lobbying groups like the Federation of Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario, Bill 184 retroactively alters these agreements by allowing for the inclusion of eviction clauses and the possibility for tenants to waive their rights to a hearing regarding any potential eviction. This effectively means that if a tenant is even $50 short on their rent yet within a repayment agreement, they could still be instantly evicted without notice. Morrison notes that tenants will feel pressure to sign these “official-looking” agreements because Bill 184 also gives them a certain importance before the LTB, influencing adjudicators to consider whether the tenant made any effort to negotiate a repayment plan. This is intended to give both more formal and informal power to landlords and further skew the power dynamics and relationship in the favour of the landlord class. In other words, it is meant to discipline tenants who are struggling during this crisis.
These lobby groups are attempting to manipulate the public debate in their favour by portraying themselves as “mom-and-pop landlords.” The reality is that small landlords make-up less than four percent of Canadian households. It is multi-million dollar firms that are raking in record high profits, consistently inflating rents, and callously benefitting from the housing crisis; and they are able to do this in Ontario because they have the protection of Ford’s political office.
What does this mean moving forward?
Ford’s populist press conferences have attempted to obscure the neoliberal policy realities on full display throughout the pandemic. The provincial government’s goals are clear: strengthening the power of those who own property at the expense of renters, further aiming to displace and impoverish tenants across Ontario.
Bill 184 builds on the landlord-tenant policy regime that Ford put forward in 2018 and is rooted in the neoliberal legacy of one of his biggest political inspirations, former Premier Mike Harris. The neoliberalization brought forth by Ford necessitates privileging commercial and residential landlords in both the market and legal system. It is predicated on the idea that all landlords are inherently ethical actors. And since landlords are all framed as such, tenants are seen to be better served by the free market, unfettered by government intervention and regulation. While speaking about corporate landlords, Cole Webber of Parkdale Community Legal Services puts it simply: “The purpose of Bill 184 is to allow landlords to more easily remove the greatest obstacle to increasing their already massive profits: working class tenants”.
This creates an environment of deepening inequality, a housing affordability crisis, and the spectre of increased homelessness through mass evictions. This is made doubly dangerous by the community-based transmission of the virus. The Ford government’s actions on housing could therefore compound the effects of COVID-19 spread across Ontario.
Over the last 50 years, more and more “small” landlords have entered the market, using one mortgage to pay for another in a potentially risky house of cards. The neoliberal economy is built around interest and making financial gains through assets rather than wages, and in this manner, small and commercial landlords are completely alike: their income is made through accumulating property and extracting rents.
Despite tenant groups occupying the LTB, demands for rent strikes, protests at the mansions of landlords and their corporations, and consistent protests against Toronto Mayor John Tory (which lead to him opposing Bill 184), the crisis of non-payment of rents has been represented by the government as an issue of a loss of income for landlords, not a potential loss of housing for tenants. Ford’s policies are being imposed to reconsolidate the power of those landlords in a moment of crisis for their bottom line, not the good of wider society, despite his claims.
We must continue to resist these neoliberal attacks on housing and renters in a time of crisis. The “Keep Your Rent” movement (KYR) has sprung up throughout Ontario, most notably in Toronto. It represents a groundswell of grassroots resistance that organizes at the community, city, and provincial level to challenge evictions and protect tenants.
On August 18, KYR and People’s DefenceTO organized a blockade outside a Toronto courthouse to prevent the city’s rental enforcement units from carrying out evictions. One of the organizers, Kabir Joshi, explained that “People who are just holding on by the skin of their teeth to continue existing in this city … this pandemic was going to push them out.” KYR will be key to ongoing resistance against Ford’s plans for housing in Ontario.
Right before our eyes, Doug Ford is using COVID-19 simultaneously as both a cloak and justification for reconsolidating neoliberalism and class power in a moment of crisis. The question is, will we let him?
Shehnoor Khurram is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at York University and the Associate Editor of Re:Locations: Journal of the Asia Pacific World, an interdisciplinary peer-reviewed journal that invites critical engagement with ideas that shape social, spatial, cultural and political dialogues.
Ryan Kelpin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at York University. His area of research pertains to Toronto and Ontario politics, neoliberalization, and de-democratization.