For the past two years, Benjamin Pullia says he has been bundling up inside his Dovercourt Road apartment without proper heat in his unit.
It is one of several ongoing issues the tenants of his building in the west end of downtown Toronto have identified with the landlord. Pullia says he has made repeated complaints to the city about the radiators and the heat not meeting the city bylaw’s minimum temperature of 21 C, and although bylaw officers have visited his apartment — including on Thursday — the problem has not been fixed.
The ongoing issues won’t have any bearing on how his building or thousands of others in the city would be publicly rated as part of the city’s RentSafeTO program — what tenant advocates say is a major flaw in the early draft of a ranking system published by city staff this week.
The proposed colour-coded system involving signage to be displayed in buildings would be based on evaluations already being conducted by city staff once every one to three years that focus entirely on common areas such as elevators and hallways and don’t take into account problems in individual units or any history of a landlord not complying with city-issued work orders.
“It’s unbelievable,” Pullia said. “It seems like there isn’t being priority given to actually enforcing the rights of tenants as they currently exist under the law.”
The draft rating system is now open for consultation with tenants, landlords and others. A public meeting is scheduled for Feb. 24 at city hall at 5:30 p.m. and an online survey has been posted that will be open until March 2. The survey will be presented to the planning and housing committee on March 23.
The concerns over the rating system are just the latest issues raised about the city’s RentSafe program.
Three years after council first voted to create the new bylaw for apartment buildings as a way to better enforce building standards with landlords, track tenant complaints and improve the conditions in 3,500 buildings — housing nearly a third of all of Toronto’s residents — tenant advocates say the rating system as proposed does little to help with those goals, while enforcement of other RentSafe rules already in place remains lacking.
“RentSafe was supposed to be modelled off of DineSafe — you go into a restaurant, you find rodents, you shut the restaurant down until you comply,” said Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations, a tenants’ rights advocacy group with more than 3,000 members.
“You can’t shut down rental housing but the idea is if you find rodents you’re supposed to get a failing grade or a conditional pass until you fix it. That’s not going to happen. You’re going to have a building that could be passed, has a complete bed bug explosion and no one’s going to know.”
The overall RentSafe program came into effect in 2017 and forced all landlords of buildings three storeys or more and 10 units or more to register and pay an annual fee — currently $11.02 per residential unit — to help pay for the RentSafe program, including enforcement.
Dent said the point of a public rating system is to get landlords to comply with city rules, with the hope landlords would be compelled to fix issues quickly to secure a better rating and have an easier time renting out their units.
“The way they’ve set it up basically prevents it from doing that,” Dent said. “It’s not what tenants asked for and it’s not what’s needed.”
Staff were directed in 2016 to look at the feasibility of a rating system similar to city’s DineSafe program — Toronto Public Health’s proactive way of alerting patrons to restaurants’ food safety history with coloured signs and a database online.
It wasn’t until November 2019 that staff reported back to councillors, recommending against the idea of a rating system. A city staff report said posting the colour-coded report card could cause “stigmatization” of tenants living there. It also noted staff would likely need to increase the frequency of inspections to ensure a rating system would be up-to-date.
But council, at the urging of Coun. Josh Matlow (Ward 12, Toronto-St. Paul’s), who had led the earlier push at council for the new bylaw, directed staff to create a rating system.
The colour-coded system staff have proposed is a green, yellow or red rating based on the percentage from the last evaluation done by city enforcement officers.
Those evaluations look at common areas in the interior and exterior of a building and score them in several categories.
In the first two years of the program, only one to two per cent of all buildings scored 50 per cent or lower, requiring a further audit at the landlord’s cost, according to a city report published at the end of 2019.
On Thursday, Matlow took issue with the proposed rating system, saying it needs to consider tenant complaints related to their units and landlords’ compliance with orders to fix those issues.
“RentSafe signage has the potential to contribute to Toronto’s renters living in homes that are clean, safe, and healthy,” Matlow said in a press release. “The new colour-coded rating system is an important first step, but must be more flexible to reflect residents’ actual day-to-day experience and hopefully the progress made by landlords to improve the quality of life of their tenants.”
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Carleton Grant, executive director for the city’s municipal licensing and standards division, said they are working to make improvements to the evaluation system, stressing the rating system is still in the draft phase, subject to feedback from tenants and others.
Proposed changes by city staff include increasing the fail rate for buildings to 60 per cent, meaning more buildings would be subjected to a full audit. Based on the most recent evaluations, the majority of buildings after that change would fall into the “yellow” category, he said, with scores between 61 per cent and 79 per cent, and would be re-evaluated within a year. The updated evaluation will also ensure compliance with RentSafe rules to have a tenant notification board and required information posted, he said.
“Regardless of the evaluation score of the building, if a landlord/property owner does not comply with the maintenance standards, the RentSafeTO team can issue orders and charge landlords (and/or) property owners, which can result in substantial penalties,” Grant said in an email.
When asked if the rating system could reflect any deficiencies identified by bylaw officers in between evaluations and non-compliance with orders by landlords, Grant said “the challenge of using indicators other than the evaluation score is in weighting it properly with our current evaluation system” but that they are consulting on different options.
He said staff also plan on creating an online portal where residents or prospective tenants can access information about recent evaluations and work orders, but that website and the new rating system won’t be implemented until “towards the end of 2020.”
Daryl Chong, president and CEO of the Greater Toronto Apartment Association representing landlords, said a rating system wrongly labels people and shouldn’t be used. “It’s a political decision,” he said.
Chong also raised issues with the city’s evaluation process, saying there are inconsistencies with how different officers record scores and that landlords want a manual from the city explaining how the rating in each category is determined so they can better be in compliance. There also needs to be an appeals process for the evaluations, Chong said.
When it comes to Pullia’s building, 394 Dovercourt Rd., the last evaluation score posted was 71 from an inspection examining common areas on Nov. 28, 2019, according to city records, meaning it won’t face evaluation again for another two years.
In the meantime, the city has publicly logged at least eight requests for inspections in that building concerning unspecified property standards problems and inadequate heat, like the complaints made by Pullia.
Despite the heating issues, Pullia, like many residents of the building, does not want to leave his affordable rental home and is part of a group of long-term tenants who have been fighting several attempts by the building owner to remove them during renovations, as the tenants fear their legal right to return will be ignored. Another hearing is scheduled for later this month.
The property owner for 394 Dovercourt, AIPL Canada Holdings Inc., sent a statement through a lawyer saying: “We take all tenant concerns seriously and will investigate and address any issues that come to our attention.”
Pullia said his recent experiences with the heat have caused him to lose faith not only in his landlord, but also in the city.
“I think before I really started having this frustration with the bylaw officers and the inaction on the part of the city, I was predisposed to trust that the system was going to work in my best interest,” Pullia said.
“It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that they don’t seem interested in actually solving problems on behalf of the tenants.”
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