The COVID-19 virus has disrupted society and every element of our lives. In few instances is this as evident as in Ontario’s unfolding housing law crisis, which illustrates both the large scale and intimate ways this pandemic is affecting us. Between the economic disruption, lockdown orders and health and safety measures, the pandemic has placed significant pressure on the places where we live, eat, sleep, and (increasingly, if we are lucky) now also work. PBO’s Free Legal Advice Hotline has answered over 10,000 calls from tenants and landlords since the COVID-19 crisis hit.

The Hotline launched in 2017 to offer approachable access to justice for low-income Ontarians who have difficulty travelling to physical locations to get legal help. It has been there throughout the pandemic to provide timely advice, educating tenants and independent landlords on their rights and obligations and helping them achieve fair outcomes. The Hotline also doubles as a resource that has enabled PBO to conduct an ongoing real-time legal needs assessment and to follow firsthand the evolving housing problems in our communities. The pattern of Hotline calls has shifted throughout the pandemic, as the legal landscape has evolved and as practical needs have changed in response to the ongoing nature of the crisis. But the key issues have one thing in common: they present no easy answers. Intractable situations have been a common feature of the COVID-19 housing landscape in Ontario.

Nowhere to Go

The earliest pandemic Hotline queries surfaced rapidly, as panicked renters and homeowners moved to evict roommates or boarders not protected by the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA). While the courts and the Landlord Tenant Board (LTB) acted promptly with a temporary ban on residential evictions, that ban did not apply to the large proportion of residents – legally known as “licensees”, “occupants” or “non-RTA-tenants” – who can be evicted directly by their landlords without an order from the LTB. People in this group, which includes roommates who rent from a tenant and anyone who shares a kitchen or bathroom with their landlord, are excluded from protection under Ontario’s tenancy laws.

PBO received a spate of calls early on from both occupants and landlords embroiled in a high-stakes standoff: landlords, often with underlying vulnerabilities, worried about the implications for their own health if their housemates should bring the virus home with them, while blameless occupants – including health care workers and other essential service providers – found themselves facing the sudden loss of their homes with nowhere to go in the midst of a lockdown.

Cancelled Plans

At the same time, people who had been planning a move were stopped in their tracks. Prospective students who had signed a lease in a new town, current students who had secured off-campus housing for the summer, and workers ready to relocate for jobs all found themselves with other plans. The Hotline fielded calls regularly in the early months of the pandemic from renters in this situation seeking to understand the implications of canceling their leases.

Limiting Landlord Access

Queries about landlord access to units also increased during this period as wary tenants hesitated to allow landlords in for repairs or real estate showings, and independent landlords struggled to understand their options in this situation, particularly where a tenant identified as medically vulnerable. PBO volunteers helped these callers understand how residential tenancy law intersected with human rights law in this new context and equipped them to advocate for their concerns.

Mounting Arrears and Evictions

While the government responded to the economic impact of shutdowns by introducing income replacement programs, many renters have still struggled to meet their expenses. This in turn has impacted independent landlords who rely on rent payments to support themselves or to pay their mortgages. With the initial ban on residential evictions lifted in August 2020, the LTB resumed processing eviction applications, though with a backlog that has provided some relief to anxious tenants.

The government has encouraged landlords to be flexible and negotiate repayment schedules with tenants, and gave that option teeth by passing the controversial Bill 184 in July, allowing landlords to file repayment agreements with the LTB and then apply to evict tenants without notice if a payment under the agreement is late. This was a welcome change for landlords, but puts the most vulnerable tenants at risk, as renters desperate for any solution may sign agreements with unrealistic payment schedules to avoid an immediate LTB hearing, with a limited understanding of the consequences. In response to a call for submissions from the LTB, PBO joined others in successfully advocating for changes to the standard Payment Agreement form that highlight the implications of filing payment agreements and require explicit opt-in by tenants to the ex parte enforcement option.

Meanwhile, another state of emergency has been declared, resulting in further shutdowns and a second moratorium on residential evictions. This time, however, the LTB will continue to make eviction orders during the ban, with enforcement of those orders postponed for the duration of the emergency order.

The legal and practical landscape will continue to evolve as COVID-19 pushes on into a new year, and PBO’s Hotline remains here to help callers navigate this challenging terrain. Housing law necessarily involves a balance of competing interests and needs, and there is no magic formula to solve all issues, but immediate, low-barrier access to legal advice can empower parties to put their best foot forward.