This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily (www.thelawyersdaily.ca) a division of LexisNexis Canada.
In 2020, condominium developers Evan Johnsen and Neil Spiegel purchased the fully tenanted, 26-unit apartment building at 12 Lansdowne Ave. in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. After tenants rejected cash-for-keys offers, the new landlords issued them form N13 eviction notices for extensive renovations. The tenants of 12 Lansdowne are now in a public fight for their homes against a landlord with a documented history of flouting tenant protections. The outcome of their case will have major implications for tenants and for tenant organizing across Ontario.
Ontario’s Residential Tenancies Act allows a landlord to seek an eviction order against a tenant for the supposed purpose of conducting renovations that are so extensive that they require the tenant to vacate the rental unit. The law also provides tenants the “right of first refusal” which permits the evicted tenants to move back into the unit once the landlord has completed the work.
However, tenants are often prevented from exercising this right. Landlords frequently install a new tenant in the unit at a higher rent, blocking the evicted tenant from returning, whether or not the stated work was completed. Once a new tenant has occupied the unit there is no legal recourse for the original tenant to move back in. Landlords evicting and permanently displacing tenants on grounds of alleged intended renovations is so common it has become known as renoviction.
Defeating a landlord’s N13 eviction application at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) can be a short-lived victory for tenants. In 2019, a group of tenants at a low-rise apartment building at 394 Dovercourt Rd. had refused buyouts from their landlord, AIPL Canada Holdings Inc. The landlord followed suit by issuing them all N13 notices. The tenants worked together and defeated the landlord’s eviction application at the LTB, which found that the proposed renovations did not require vacant possession. Within months the landlord reissued the tenants new N13 notices, forcing them back to the LTB to defend their homes. A second eviction hearing based on different renovation plans will be heard at the LTB later this month.
In response to a rise in renovictions, a growing number of tenants have opted to organize to defend their homes in the public realm. Last year, all 12 tenants of an apartment building at 2419 Keele St. waged a successful campaign against renoviction by applying public pressure against the landlord and openly questioning and challenging the purpose and validity of the N13 notices. The tenants strategically protested the evictions and invited media attention to their cause. Within a few months, the landlord was removed from the corporation which owns the building and eviction notices were withdrawn. The case of 2419 Keele demonstrates the power of tenant organizing.
The organizing of tenants of 12 Lansdowne is also motivated by the fact that this is not the first time these landlords have pursued renovictions in Toronto. In 2019, they issued N13 notices to tenants at 795 College St. which resulted in a widely reported and now infamous eviction outcome. At the LTB hearing the tenants pleaded that if they were evicted the landlord would not afford them the right of first refusal. Nonetheless, the LTB granted the evictions and the long-standing tenants were displaced from their homes. Unfortunately, the tenants’ suspicions of their landlord held true, and shortly thereafter the landlord re-rented the units to new tenants at nearly quadruple the rent amounts. The evicted tenants were barred from regaining possession and the affordable homes they once held were gone. The landlord was subsequently fined by the LTB for its blatant disregard of the legislation, fines which amounted to a fraction of the new rental profits enjoyed by the landlord.
This recent history provides good reason to be critical of the same owners issuing N13 notices to tenants at 12 Lansdowne. In 2020, after the building was sold, tenants formed an organization and refused the new owner’s attempts to buy them out of their homes. Since then, tenants have reported that the owner has been unresponsive to their complaints about disrepair, building security and lack of maintenance including pest control services. The building’s conditions have continued to deteriorate due to landlord neglect. In January 2022, the tenants received the N13 notices stating the landlord now seeks their evictions because of plans to remove and replace existing kitchens, bathrooms, flooring and doors in units, as well as the building’s boiler system. The tenants responded by writing to the landlord stating that they do not intend to move out and demanding that the N13 notices be withdrawn.
To raise the public profile of their eviction fight, the tenants at 12 Lansdowne hung banners from their street-facing balconies. The banners name the building’s owners and state “stop the evictions.” In response, the landlord issued form N5 and N6 eviction notices to tenants alleging that by hanging the banners the tenants have “substantially interfered” with the landlord and committed an “illegal act.” This retaliation through threat of eviction by the landlords is an attempt to censor the tenants’ appeals to stay in their homes and keep their business of evictions out of public sight.
This is not the first time landlords have retaliated against tenant organizers in Parkdale. Last year, landlord Starlight Investments issued N6 “‘illegal acts” eviction notices to tenants who came together to deliver a demand letter about building conditions to the landlord’s property management office on the ground floor of their high-rise building. In the eviction notices the landlord went so far as to allege that the tenants who delivered the letter had “forcibly confined” the landlord’s employees. Those notices were later withdrawn after hundreds of Parkdale tenants rallied outside the building in support of their neighbours. Despite the law explicitly acknowledging tenants’ right to form and participate in associations, there is a clear pattern of landlords using the same law to threaten tenant organizers with eviction.
Amid the ongoing housing and eviction crisis, tenants at 12 Lansdowne are protecting each other and the existing, affordable rental housing stock in Toronto by organizing against renovictions. Creating these conditions for tenants to resist evictions involves tenants sharing successful organizing strategies and supporting each others’ struggles. Legal practitioners can aid tenant organizers by vigorously defending renoviction cases and landlord retaliation at the LTB. Pushing back against these often dubious claims will correct their overuse and abuse by landlords. The Residential Tenancies Act is meant to embody a “tenant protection focus” but this cannot be fully realized without zealous representation of tenant organizers, whose ultimate goal is the protection of their homes, neighbours and communities.
Cole Webber is a community legal worker at the Parkdale Legal Clinic in Toronto.
Samuel Mason is a staff lawyer and clinic instructor at the Parkdale Legal Clinic in Toronto.