Man left plugging a payphone for tenant hearing

1
585

Complainants left out in the cold

By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Henry’s story is a prime example of what happens when lower income people try to cross the ‘digital divide.’

Faced with eviction earlier this year, the Chatham resident was scheduled for a Landlord Tenant Board Tribunal Zoom hearing to plead his case. The senior didn’t have a cell phone or computer, so he was forced to use a payphone to attend the virtual hearing.

With no alternative, Henry found himself outdoors, feeding coins into the slot to stay on the phone. But due to delays, he eventually ran out of money and disappeared from the call.

Presumably, he was evicted.

According to Chatham-Kent housing stability worker Jeff Wilkins, stories like Henry’s illustrate the all-too-common host of problems associated with Ontario’s Landlord Tenant Board moving to an online service model in 2020.

“I assume he was evicted,” Wilkins said. “He vanished from the hearing and was unable to tell his side of the story. I was a little crushed listening to him and I could tell he was stressed. And then he just dropped off.”

Examples of the difficulties of the online system, such as the ones Henry faced, were outlined to Chatham-Kent council recently. Douglas Kwan, director of advocacy and legal services for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, provided an update on the current status of the province’s landlord tenant board, detailing the pitfalls faced by those attempting to navigate the system.

Kwan informed council that problems within the virtual system are worsening, which in turn is fueling homelessness.

A May 2023 Ontario Ombudsman’s report titled “Administrative Justice Delayed, Fairness Denied” on the landlord tenant board tribunal found numerous failings within the system. It described the online meetings as “chaotic,” with people struggling to maintain audio connections or gain access to documents.

All told, the Ombudsman’s report made 61 recommendations to help remedy a broken system.

“The barriers erected by the board have worsened the housing crisis across Ontario,” Kwan told council. “Barriers against participation prevent tenants from telling their stories and there are fewer opportunities for intervention prior to their eviction order taking place. As we know, every time we lose a sustainable tenancy, that unit is lost forever.”

According to Kwan, 39 per cent of households earning less than $40,000 fail to meet the minimum CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) requirement for broadband access. A total of 55.6 per cent of tenants attend hearings by phone, 74 per cent of landlords attend by video. Ninety-eight per cent of tenants are self-represented.

The current system “favours one group over another,” Kwan concluded.

The ombudsman’s report stated the board has proven itself “unequipped for the task of reducing its extraordinary backlog of applications and that it’s fundamentally failing in its role of providing swift justice to their landlord tenant issues.”

According to Kwan, ongoing delays are troublesome, with tenants waiting two years on average for a hearing, while landlords wait seven to nine months.

Before the system transitioned to the remote service model, the province maintained 44 brick-and-mortar locations. As part of the London site, Chatham-Kent was serviced in-person three times a month with access to duty counsel at the W.I.S.H. Centre.

In C-K, 31 per cent of renters are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent, with nine per cent spending more than 50 per cent. It was found that 10 per cent of rentals were in need of repair.

Following the presentation, council voted to send a letter to top Ontario officials, including Premier Doug Ford, the Attorney General, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the chair of Tribunals Ontario requesting the province move forward with the 61 recommendations detailed in the ombudsman’s report.

The letter calls for a return to the in-person hearings and regional scheduling, as well as the creation of a navigator assistance program, with an eye to preserve affordable units, tenancies and the “safety and security” of both landlords and tenants in Chatham-Kent.

All Ontario municipalities are to be copied on the letter as well.

Several councillors spoke in support of the recommendations.

“It seems like we’re discussing homelessness and housing insecurity almost every meeting, which I think is appropriate in the current environment,” said Chatham Coun. Brock McGregor. “I also think it’s not a surprise to any of us that provincially centralizing a service puts smaller communities at a disadvantage.

“Unfortunately, it seems like when these systems are broken it puts added stress on services that we provide municipally,” he said.

Chatham Coun. Alysson Storey also commented.

“This seems to be blatant discrimination and disregard for the rights of both landlords and tenants in lower income brackets, “Storey said, adding the social housing sector is “almost criminally small and underfunded.”

1 COMMENT

  1. The library, which is a Municipal service, offers several alternative connections to the internet, which can be booked in advance. Private rooms and pods are available, as well as the lending of laptops and Hotspot for meetings of this kind. Social services, another Municipal service, should be aware of this service, as they are partners with the library, I think, in this programme.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here