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Renovictions are fuelling Toronto’s housing crisis

How an invisible eviction epidemic is shaping Canada’s most populous city

Economic CrisisHousingHuman Rights

Renoviction is a landlord strategy designed to permanently displace tenants from their homes by claiming that empty units will undergo renovations. Photo by sonicgregu/Flickr.

Renoviction is a much-discussed but poorly understood aspect of the housing crisis. Many politicians, non-profits, academics, and journalists use the term “renoviction” but have not articulated a coherent analysis of the issue. As a result, misconceptions abound and do a disservice to tenants who face renoviction. To contribute to a better understanding, we wrote a report which examines the conditions which give rise to renoviction, the ways landlords go about renovicting tenants, and how tenants facing renoviction have organized to keep their homes. The report is based on over 160 buildings where tenants have faced renoviction and 23 in-depth interviews with tenants.

The City of Toronto and many non-profits describe renoviction as a form of “illegitimate” or “illegal” eviction. Yet in Ontario, evictions for extensive renovations are legal and a landlord doesn’t need to break rules to renovict a tenant. Undue attention is also often paid to whether the proposed renovations are extensive enough to warrant a tenant vacating or whether the landlord will actually carry out the renovations they say they will do.

These common misunderstandings perpetuate the myth that there are landlords who follow the law to legitimately evict tenants to upgrade rental properties and others who abuse the system and commit illegitimate “renoviction,” and that a better knowledge of the law is all tenants need to protect themselves. These assumptions not only pervade the public discourse, they are embedded in government policies responding to renoviction, ensuring their ineffectiveness.

Renoviction is a landlord strategy to permanently displace tenants from their homes based on the claim they will renovate empty units. Landlords apply financial, physical, and legal pressure on tenants to push them out. Renoviction is primarily about displacement, not renovations, and is simply one way landlords work to close rent gaps.

Closing rent gaps

A rent gap is present where there is a large difference between actual, capitalized rent and the potential to increase the rate of rent extraction if land is given a more profitable use. In Ontario, most rental units are subjected to rent regulation during tenancies, however, there is no limit to how much a landlord can increase the rent between tenants. This is called “vacancy decontrol.” As asking rents for vacant units have risen, large gaps have opened up between what many sitting tenants are paying and what landlords can charge new tenants.

Landlords buy buildings where tenants pay rents that are significantly lower than asking rents, in areas where they anticipate land values will rise. The removal of sitting tenants from their homes under these conditions not only allows landlords to significantly increase their rental revenues, it can also increase the value of the property. While most landlords who renovict tenants keep a low profile, others like Pulis Investments and Riley Real Estate Ventures have been open about their business model in public statements. Renoviction is, therefore, a landlord strategy to close rent gaps on a unit by unit basis. It is not the only strategy landlords use to close rent gaps, but is a distinct practice that warrants inquiry.

The landlord playbook

In Toronto, renovictions are common when low-rise apartments change hands. Landlords often buy buildings via numbered companies to hide their true identities, avoid potential backlash, and to add to tenants’ confusion and stress. Landlords then informally approach tenants and encourage them to move out because of extensive and disruptive renovations. Tenants learn that the new landlord has a plan for the building that does not include them.

Landlords usually offer buyouts at this stage to encourage tenants to leave. Offers of a few or even several thousand dollars may be presented as being the best offer tenants will see. Many tenants do move out at this stage because they believe they are not allowed to refuse the landlord’s offer or because they do not think they will be able to successfully challenge the eviction, among other reasons. With buyouts, landlords use the social power of money to displace lower-income tenants who they know are likely to have urgent, immediate expenses and debts.

Tenants often notice a decline in conditions once their building is sold. Landlords reduce or curtail building maintenance, dismiss on-site superintendents, and ignore tenants’ requests for in-unit repairs. At the same time that landlords refuse to maintain properties and conduct in-unit repairs to make tenants less comfortable, they may commence disruptive construction work in common areas and in vacant units, further adding to tenants’ discomfort and stress.

When landlords issue N13 eviction notices, they significantly increase the pressure on tenants to leave their homes. While buyouts and neglect can be ignored by tenants, a formal eviction notice is the first step in the legal eviction process that can result in a tenant being ordered evicted and removed from their home. Many tenants move out after receiving an N13, either because they believe they are obligated to leave or because they don’t think they can fight the eviction.

If buyouts, neglect, disruptive construction work, and N13 notices don’t get the job done, landlords may resort to outright harassment and intimidation. Tenants often receive frequent phone calls, emails, and texts from landlords demanding they accept buyouts and move out, as well as repeated intrusions into their homes on the pretext of unit “inspections.” Legal threats made in lawyer’s letters may follow too, addressed to tenants who organize to fight renoviction.

Finally, a landlord can escalate the level of legal pressure on tenants by applying to the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) on the N13 notices that have been issued. The LTB will schedule a hearing, and if the adjudicator orders an eviction, the order will include the date whereby the sheriff can remove the tenant. While there has been a significant increase in applications filed by landlords in Ontario on N13 notices, relatively few renovictions make it to this stage. Notably, even if an adjudicator dismisses the landlord’s case, there is nothing stopping the landlord from issuing new N13 notices the following day, claiming different renovations.

The law says tenants who are issued N13 notices have the right to return to the unit after renovations have been completed. In reality, landlords prevent this from happening and the LTB won’t stop them. We are not aware of a single tenant who has been able to move back to their unit after being evicted for extensive renovations. This is unsurprising once we understand renoviction to be primarily about displacement.

Organizing against renoviction

How tenants respond to renoviction can impact their landlord’s plans. A landlord may try to renovict tenants and even issue N13 notices but back down if tenants fight back. This does not mean that the landlord had no actual plans to renovate; rather, tenants succeeded in changing the landlord’s plans. In Toronto, tenants at 12 Lansdowne Avenue, 2419 Keele Street, and other buildings have stopped renovictions through self-organization, non-reliance on legal strategy, and directly confronting their landlords.

Last week, the Ontario government introduced new measures to increase fines against landlords found to have evicted tenants in bad faith. In 2022, Toronto City Council voted to approve a framework for developing a renoviction by-law which would essentially require landlords to evict tenants by the book. These policies do nothing to change the conditions which make renoviction possible. As long as renoviction is so potentially profitable to landlords, fines will not deter them from using the legal eviction process for extensive renovation along with extra-legal tactics to renovict tenants. As governments continue to allow and encourage renoviction, only tenant organizing has the potential to become a countervailing force capable of contesting the power of landlords.

Cole Webber (@colefwebber) is a community legal worker at Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto. Philip Zigman is a co-creator of RenovictionsTO. They are the authors of Renovictions: Displacement and Resistance in Toronto.

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