Ontario landlords forcing renters to jump through more and more hoops to land an apartment

May 2, 2018

Source: Miles Kenyon, TVO

When Kate Rice read the list of application requirements for an apartment up for rent in downtown Toronto, she figured something was off. She and her husband were on the hunt for a new place, having been forced out of their old one when their landlord, hoping to take advantage of the city’s hot housing market, sold the house it was in.

In the span of a week, Rice and her husband looked at six apartments but found only one they really liked. When they received the rental application for it, they were taken aback: the landlord wanted scans of their driver’s licences, their two most recent pay stubs, income-tax statements from the previous year, letters from their employers, and their credit scores. The application form requested their social-insurance numbers, as well as the names of their banks and branch addresses.

“We found this so excessive that we were concerned about identity theft,” she tells TVO.org by email. That’s why she reached out to the Landlord and Tenant Board. The representative she spoke with agreed that the application requests were onerous — but they were also legal.

Despite her initial concerns about the application, Rice filled it out in full, and she says she’s been very happy with her new landlord. But her experience is something many Ontarians today have to go through to land rental units in an increasingly competitive housing market.

Confusion abounds when it comes to housing regulations in this province. In an effort to clarify things, the government this week implemented a standard lease template. Part of Ontario’s Fair Housing Plan, it is intended to eliminate illegal clauses that some landlords have been known to sneak into contracts — such as pet or overnight-guest bans — and outline the responsibilities of all parties.

“We took the time to get it done right because it’s such a foundational document for so many people in terms of spelling out their rights and obligations for their homes,” says Minister of Housing Peter Milczyn.

Many in the property community welcome this new template; they believe it will weed out property owners who would otherwise unintentionally or even maliciously break ordinances.

“The biggest problem for good landlords in Ontario are those few people who don’t follow the rules,” says William Blake, a senior member of the Ontario Landlord Association (OLA). He’s been renting out units for more than 20 years and thinks the standardized lease will increase clarity and accountability.

“I think it’s a good thing, and I think it will help professionalize the industry.”

Now Blake and the OLA are calling on the government to introduce another regulated form: a standard application. The OLA currently supplies its members with a template application to ensure they abide by provincial legislation such as the Residential Tenancies Act and the Ontario Human Rights Code. With a standard form in place across the province, proponents argue, renters like Rice wouldn’t have to wonder whether they were being swindled by unscrupulous landlords.

But the laws surrounding rental applications are complicated and may not translate readily into a standard form.

According to Toronto real-estate lawyer Tim Duggan, a landlord is entitled to exercise due diligence when evaluating a prospective tenant’s ability to afford an apartment. This means they can ask for a T4, tax return, letter of employment, evidence of salary, or anything else they need to feel comfortable with the financial status of an applicant.

There are some limitations, however.

“A landlord cannot refuse somebody a unit simply based on their income,” Duggan says; the applicants’ credit and rental histories must also be taken into account. But given Toronto’s 1.1 per cent vacancy rate — a 16-year low — renters are at a disadvantage.

“It’s a landlord’s rental market,” says Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA). And according to him, there’s “rampant abuse in the application process.”

Dent and the FTMA have been pushing the province to implement a standard lease template for the past five years. He’s glad to see it coming down the line. And while he’s hopeful it will address systemic problems in the rental market, he has also seen more and more prospective tenants face difficulties applying for units.

He says his organization regularly receives calls from would-be renters who’ve fielded illegal requests from landlords, such as to hand over a deposit with their completed application form. While renters are free to offer such securities in order to separate themselves from the competition, they can’t be compelled by a landlord to do so. Still, as rental units become increasingly scarce, many applicants feel they have no choice but to comply.

“Right now, the biggest risk of you asserting your rights when you’re looking for a place is that you aren’t going to get it,” says Dent.

It’s difficult to determine whether a landlord has discriminated illegally in choosing a tenant. Rice may be frustrated that she had to jump through so many hoops to snag her place, but she’s also aware of her relative privilege: as a university researcher with a gainfully employed partner, she’s the sort of tenant many landlords hope for.

Something that many in the housing industry agree on is that the most effective strategy for combating unfair rental practices is to create more rental units.

“As we get more supply built and the vacancy rate becomes healthier, then more tenants are going to have a better chance at competing for apartments,” says Milczyn, citing the province’s plans to introduce more purpose-built residential housing.

But until the vacancy rate increases and the market becomes less competitive, Dent says, disadvantaged renters are less likely to take shady landlords to task.

“Some future settlement while you are homeless or couch-surfing isn’t as attractive as actually having a roof over your head,” he says.

Miles Kenyon writes about human rights, free speech, LGBTQ issues, and animal protection.

© TVO

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