When Samantha Kranyak began to have issues with her landlord, she wasn’t sure how to handle it. Kranyak, who is now in her fourth year of media production, was dealing with what she later realized were empty threats – a landlord who wanted her to pay for water but refused to provide copies of the bills.
“I kind of had an idea of my situation, but it was mostly just a gut feeling,” said Kranyak, “so I wanted to see what other people thought.”
That’s when she turned to Bunz Home Zone. The Facebook group, which was started in 2016, is a popular way for Toronto renters to search for apartments or roommates, and to ask other renters for advice.
“It did help the situation,” said Kranyak. “Some of the stuff they said I already knew, but it gave me some reassurance.”
There are dozens of Facebook groups used as resources for Toronto renters, but with nearly 92,000 members, Bunz Home Zone is one of the largest. The group was a spin-off of the popular Bunz Trading Zone group, which has since inspired the company to create an app dedicated to transactions without currency. The Home Zone receives between 150 and 300 new member requests a day according to Jessica Switzer, one of the group’s administrators or “admins”.
In order to keep everything running smoothly in a group of this size, there are 12 admins and moderators who spend time approving member requests, monitoring posts and offering information for “a good portion of the day,” said Switzer. “Realistically, from the time you wake up until you go to bed, it’s a lot of work.”
Amy Harper, social content manager and community advocate at Bunz, said that many admins put in approximately two to five hours of work a day on the page.
Though the Facebook group is associated with the Bunz brand, the admins and moderators are volunteers, not paid employees. Many work full-time, or are students, like Switzer. She is currently studying nursing at George Brown College, but still finds time to help other renters.
“My mother taught me my entire life to know your rights,” said Switzer. “I’ve personally researched [housing law] for me to know my rights, and to be able to help people that may not necessarily know their rights or know where to look to understand you absolutely do have rights as a tenant.”
Between lack of affordable housing in Toronto and only around 1.1 per cent of rental units vacant, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the housing market can put renters, particularly students, at a great disadvantage. With so few rentals available, many students will do anything they can to hang on to their homes.
“You have a whole bunch of really good tenants that have black mold in their bathroom, walls are falling down and they just have no idea what to do,” said Sean Browne, admin of both the Bunz and Ontario Tenant Rights (OTR) Facebook groups. “Those are pretty common, especially nowadays where there’s such a pressure on housing that if you leave a place that by City of Toronto property standards bylaws is uninhabitable, there’s going to be 20 people behind you wanting that place.”
With such a competitive market, students don’t always advocate for better living conditions out of fear of having to move, said Bahar Shadpour, communications coordinator for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO). ACTO is a legal clinic that works towards rental law reform across Ontario.
Shadpour believes Facebook tenant groups can be an important resource for renters, but she is concerned about the possibility of misinformation being spread.
The spread of misinformation is actually one of the reasons the Ontario Tenant Rights group, now at nearly 2,300 members, was formed, according to moderator Gilles Frenette. When Rob Maguire founded OTR just under a year ago, Frenette, Browne and some of the other frequent commenters from Bunz Home Zone wanted to help.
“It was really started because there was a lot of misinformation flying around the Bunz group,” said Frenette, adding that it’s mainly due to the large number of members involved. “There’s just a lot of need for people that were committed to doing the research and reading the law.”
Sometimes this involved approach can take a while. Maguire spends anywhere from eight to 16 hours a day researching, answering questions and sometimes even meeting tenants in person. But he hopes he won’t need to do this forever.
“Ultimately, I would like to see the group close down. That’s my goal,” said Maguire. “That the group is no longer needed.”
Instead, he thinks there should be more education programs for students about renting, either through universities or student unions. Students make up about a quarter of people looking for advice in the OTR group and a large percentage of the Bunz Home Zone as well.
Before Kranyak went to Bunz with her landlord issue, she tried to find information from the Landlord Tenant Board (LTB) but received no response. She then turned to Ryerson’s legal clinic, but they only met once a month.
This lack of resources is one of the reasons for the success of Facebook groups like Bunz Home Zone and Ontario Tenant Rights. Another is the sense of community they provide.
“In cities, it can feel really cold, it can feel disconnected, it’s intimidating,” said Harper. “Looking for a rental is depressing, so it’s like people have come together to say, ‘This sucks, but let’s make the best of it by supporting each other.’”
Infographic by Samantha Cumerlato.