(24 April 2022) by Princess Doe.
A long-standing issue in the City of Windsor has been the deteriorating rental housing stock. As summarized in a report to city council (Item No. 11.02), issues related to lack of property maintenance, insufficient space in dwellings, lack of fire safety, and overall health and safety concerns have been increasing in the past decade. A main factor that has engendered this issue have been ‘absentee landlords’, landlords who do not physically reside in the city. This makes it more challenging for tenants to get in contact with their landlords for repairs and maintenance issues, leading to “utterly deplorable conditions” and unsafe living environments. This becomes more challenging as rent prices continue to rise in Windsor at unprecedented rates.
Housing is a structural determinant of health. Upstream policies in areas such as housing are one of the mechanisms in which social and economic inequities translate into ones of health. The Wellesley Institute stated that “people with low-income, single parents, racialized groups, newcomers to Canada, and [disabled persons]” are more likely to face housing conditions that negatively affect health. The identities often intersect and compound the risk and impact of these inequities.
The director of RentSafe also stated in an interview with TVO that complaint-first systems to trigger action “ […] simply does not work – nor is it ethically justifiable – to place the burden of raising concerns about housing conditions on the back of our society’s most marginalized people”. Using legal tools to address the substandard and unsafe environments marginalized groups often subjected to is important in ensuring healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities. One tool that has been found is residential rental licensing (“RRL”) by-laws.
Under the Municipal Act, 2001, municipalities (other than Toronto which has its own statute) have general powers to pass by-laws on matters such as health, safety, and well-being of a municipality, and to protect persons and property. This includes the authority to pass licensing bylaws covering the business of renting residential units.
The purposes of Windsor’s RRL by-law are to bring more properties into compliance with applicable laws and safety regulations such as the Ontario Building Code, the Fire Code, and the City’s Property Standards By-law 9-2019; to support and enhance existing enforcement mechanisms; and to preserve Windsor’s existing rental housing stock. The by-law secures consent of the landlord for officers to inspect units, confirms contact information for the landlord, and documents the rental housing stock in Windsor, with the aim of reducing illegal and unsafe rental units.
To maintain a license, landlords would need to consent to preliminary property standards and fire safety inspections. They would also be required to post their issued license; maximum occupancy; owner and agent contact information; site, floor, fire safety, maintenance plans; and information plaques regarding rights and obligations of tenants and landlords, and contact information for relevant resources such as 311, Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board, and legal aid services.
If a potential unlicensed rental unit is identified, under the proposed by-law a municipal by-law officer will be required to investigate. If found to not be licensed, an officer will order the landlord to secure a license or issue a ticket if the order is not applied. Charges can be filed, as well as possible injunctions.
There are currently 4 municipalities in Ontario which have licensing regimes: London, North Bay, Oshawa, and Waterloo. Each of the models for their RRL by-laws is unique to their local needs. In 2014, a survey showed that these communities received much quicker responses from their respective city administrations on complaints about poor living conditions in their units, normally within a week. In comparison, Windsor had a backlog of 450 complaints dated back over a year, meaning that people were waiting months to have their concerns heard.
Windsor modeled a recent pilot project in part on the City of Hamilton’s RRL pilot by focusing on Wards 1 and 2, where residential rental units are concentrated by the the University of Windsor and St. Clair College’s downtown campus. While these pilots are focused on student-areas, the issue of poor and substandard housing is city-wide. To measure success, the city will look at improved level of property standards, voluntary compliance with fewer noise, garbage, and yard complaints, reduced rates of enforcement escalation, and decreased litigation costs.
There has been critique that RRLs would transfer the costs of licensing from the owners to tenants. However, housing unaffordability already exists city-wide, and the impact of RRLs on this would likely be negligible. Further, the lack of affordable housing is a contributor to unsafe rental units in which lower-income residents are currently forced to reside.
Another concern is that licensing would lead to more evictions if landlords were found not to be in compliance with the RRL bylaw. This concern is unfounded. First, city by-law enforcement cannot order a rental unit to “stop operating” in the same way public health officers can for restaurants or businesses not in compliance with public health regulations pursuant to relevant legislations, such as the Ontario Health Protection and Promotion Act. Second, eviction orders are the sole jurisdiction for Landlord and Tenant Board (“LTB”) under the Residential Tenancies Act.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission (“OHRC”) posted guidelines to ensure that city staff and planners always apply a human rights lens to rental licensing. Recommendations include working to secure existing rental stock, consulting with Human Rights Code-protected groups, and enforcing the bylaw against property owners, not tenants. For example, the OHRC pointed to a promising practice in Waterloo’s RRL bylaw, which mandates the Director of By-Law Enforcement to consider any impact of license revocation or suspension on tenants, and to have a reasonable time period before the license revocation or suspension takes place to permit tenants to find new housing or seek relief in a Court or before the LTB.
While a multifaceted approach is essential to addressing the holistic needs of renters, preserving the existing rental stock in Windsor is an important step and requires implementing a by-law which keeps landlords accountable, builds further power and capacity for tenants to make informed choices, and allows the City to make evidence-based policies.
Princess Doe is a 3L Windsor Law student and a Centre for Cities Student Research Associate. The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s alone and do not represent an official position of the Centre for Cities or WIndsor Law.
Main image credit: CBC Windsor