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Toronto tenants give the city's RentSafeTO program failing grade

Last Updated Nov 8, 2019 at 8:31 pm EDT

Christena Abbott

For Christena Abbott, checking her small apartment on Utility Road for bed bugs and cockroaches is part of her routine. She’s been living there, with her dog Simon, for nine years and says the problem has persisted despite efforts to get building management to take care of it.

“It’s a horror story from start to finish,” said Abbott. “I think they’ve handled it poorly. If they had started way back when the issue started, this building wouldn’t have this situation we have today.”

Scenarios like this are common in a city with 3,500 apartment buildings, housing 30 per cent of the population. Tenants often complain of landlords not providing proper living conditions and having little recourse to hold them accountable. That’s why the city created RentSafeTO.

Touted as the first of its kind in Canada, RentSafeTO’s purpose is to keep rental buildings cleaner and safer for those who live there. City council approved the new bylaw in March 2017 and it came into effect four months after that. Landlords of buildings with three or more storeys and 10 or more units are required to register with the city.

“The most important part is we’re making sure that landlords turn their minds to having plans,” said Carleton Grant, the executive director of the city’s Municipal Licensing and Standards division. “A plan on pest management, a plan on cleaning, a plan on capital repair and waste.”

When complaints arise, tenants are supposed to take them directly to the landlord to have the issue dealt with. Under the program, landlords are required to respond within a certain amount of time, depending on the complaint. If the problem continues, tenants can call the city to follow up.

While the city claims the program has been successful to date, with evaluations being done on 3,420 registered buildings and allotted scores going up by 12 per cent in the second year, housing advocates aren’t convinced improvements are being made.

“The city got a whole new basket of tools to force landlords to comply,” said Geordie Dent, the executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA). “The problem is almost none of those tools have been put into place.”

So far the largest fine issued under RentSafeTO has been for $30,000, for failure to comply with an order. Grant says another stand-out was a fine for $17,000 for significant repairs to an underground parking garage. Since the introduction of the program, the City says inspectors have laid 338 RentSafeTO-related charges, 194 of which have been convicted.

A new report from city staff, updating progress on the RentSafeTO program, is recommending changes to the bylaw. Grant says next year the city plans to implement a key piece of the program – having landlords display their building’s score prominently for tenants and prospective renters. Also among the recommendations, landlords would be required to post information about building evaluations, post information related to violations of the Ontario Fire Code and any work being done involving pest control.

Abbott claims that, while some pest control measures have taken place in her building, calls have been made to the city to follow up with the landlord on a number of other issues as well. This summer, records show that Abbott called the City on behalf of an elderly neighbour without a phone, who she said had been asking building management to investigate mould and electrical issues in his apartment.

“Someone from property standards (was) supposed to come to our apartment,” Abbott said. “I never saw anybody, so I don’t know where that information went. I have no idea.”

City records indicate that calls were made from the building on three occasions over the last couple of years and files were created, but inspectors did not issue any orders or fines. The records do not indicate whether a city inspector went to the building to investigate.

The RentSafeTO update is expected to be presented to the Planning and Housing Committee on Wednesday, Nov. 13 before being considered by City Council later in the month.

Grant acknowledges that the program is still young, and that there’s more to do.

“It’s only in its second year, we recognize that it’s in its infancy,” he says. “We recognize that we have a lot of work, and we’re committed to doing that.”

You can check whether the City has received any complaints about your own apartment building at this City of Toronto website.