Citywide survey reveals big problems in low-income housing

Landlord licensing one possible solution, advocates say

by Kathryn Hunt

On March 10, local anti-poverty group Ottawa ACORN revealed the results of a housing survey conducted with tenants across the city.

Spokesmen say that for the 10 years that ACORN organizers have been going door to door in low-income neighbourhoods, housing concerns have been low-income residents’ top priority.

ACORN stated, “Motivated by our members’ stories of bedbugs, cockroaches, rats, mold and years of disrepair, Ottawa ACORN members initiated a city-wide tenant survey to bring some hard numbers to these disturbing tales.”

Aside from the cost of rent, the biggest problem identified by low-income families who rent in Ottawa is the state of disrepair in apartment buildings.

The problems include pest infestations, elevators not working for long periods of time, problems with proper heating, safety issues related to doors not locking properly, and basic repairs in apartments, which tenants are entitled to but not receiving.

Among other things, the survey showed that more than half of respondents had moved into apartments that were already in need of repair. Over 30 percent of respondents had been without heat in winter at some time in their tenancy, 22.4 percent had bed bugs and 34.5 percent had dealt with cockroaches.

Long-time ACORN member and Centretown resident Shannon Lee Mannion responded to the survey, saying that she has been struggling with her landlord for quite some time and alleging that there have been problems with vermin in the building.

The problem is that it is difficult to enforce property standards. Currently, the property standards bylaw has more procedural steps and delays than most bylaws, in addition to any notice of violation being unenforceable. This issue has left the state of housing in Ottawa at an all-time low.

Low-income tenants want to see a landlord licensing program to make landlords accountable to their tenants.

University of Ottawa student and ACORN member Declan Ingham, having faced his own housing problems, describes landlord licensing as “the City stepping in and regulating landlords like they regulate every other business in the city.”

This would mean annual inspections, timelines for repairs, online and physical postings of landlords who pass inspection versus those who fail and other preventative measures.

The City of Toronto’s Municipal Licensing and Standards Committee recently also called for landlord licensing. Toronto passed an amended property standard bylaw which requires landlords to register with the City and have a clear complaints and resolution process.

The bylaw also requires clear communication between landlords and tenants, and comprehensive plans for pest management, waste management, cleaning and repair.

Opponents to landlord licensing point out that there is already a provincial landlord-tenant board (LTB) and a municipal property standards system. The LTB was created in 2007 by the Residential Tenancies Act and gives residential landlords and tenants rights and responsibilities, and sets out a process for enforcing them.

Those who object to licensing programs argue that bad landlords who disregard rulings from the LTB and property standards orders are no more likely to obey a registration system.

But ACORN members say that annual inspections by the City would force landlords into more regular upkeep of their buildings, and a public listing of landlords who do not pass would help tenants looking for a new apartment avoid moving into one that might look fine at first glance but be hiding serious problems.

They also argue that some tenants put up with unhealthy or unsafe conditions, or apartments in poor repair, because they are afraid to speak up and report their problems. If the City were to license and regulate landlords, it would be able to deal with problems that might otherwise go unreported.