It’s the start of a new semester, which usually means a lot of new things are being thrown at you. New classes, new friends, new smells on campus, and maybe a new living situation, too.
If the latter is really freaking you out, or just the thought of it freaks you out, exhale – because you’re in the right place. Go ahead, do it.
Alright, so you’re in a new living sitch. You probably just signed a new lease, or maybe you’re in the midst of doing that right now (I see you slackers). But either way, you probably understand that the rental market is a battlefield right now.
The GTA has a 1.1 per cent vacancy rate for rental units, down from 1.4 per cent in 2016. So that pressure you feel to lease a new place as fast as possible is real. The vacancy rate is the lowest it has been in 16 years. All the while, rent prices are on the up and up.
The Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB) told The Globe and Mail that the average cost of renting an apartment in the GTA has reached an all-time high of $1,970 for a one bedroom condominium apartment and $2,627 for a two bedroom.
The TREB also said the competition to find a new place is fierce enough to encourage some renters to bribe landlords with offers to pay more rent than what’s being asked. To which I say, no thank you.
But cost, although catastrophic, is not the only problem facing student tenants. There’s also the problem of discrimination. To landlords the word student is often synonymous with partier. But, legally, landlords are not permitted to discriminate against students, or anyone else for that matter. So take that, landlord.
I sat down with Dania Majid, a staff lawyer at Advocacy Centre for Tenants of Ontario, and asked her what students need to know about their rights as a tenant. If you get through the whole thing, there’s a handy-dandy list of resources at the end to help you get familiar with tenant and landlord rights.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Ryersonian: What should renters know before signing a lease?
Dania Majid: I think it’s very important that tenants read the lease very carefully before signing. It is a binding legal contract and once you sign, you’re bound by the terms. Right now in Ontario we have something called the Standard Form of Lease, so the government has provided a template that every landlord has to use in drafting a lease, since April 30, 2018. If a renter doesn’t get one of those leases, they should ask for one. The Standard Form of Lease should set out the terms in a plain, clear language and it also comes with an information guide, so if you’re unsure about what a term means, you can reference the information guide that comes attached to the standard lease. Secondly, you want to make sure that you understand the terms of the lease. So, what the rent is, what’s included in the rent, what are some of the restrictions that may be included in the lease. There’s a section attached to that lease called additional terms. That’s where illegal terms (of a lease) may appear. A tenant would want to read that very carefully to understand what else has been included in the lease because that section would not have been vetted by the government. If there is an illegal term, and it violates the Residential Tenancy Agreement, or RTA, that term is void. And ask questions. Make sure you’re comfortable with everything you’re signing.
Ryersonian: In this competitive market, there’s often pressure to sign a lease as quickly as possible. When a tenant feels that pressure, what are their rights?
D.M.: That’s why they call it a landlord’s market, because the vacancy rate is only one per cent in Toronto and that pressure is very real. Ultimately, the Standard Form of Lease is trying to balance the power imbalance between the landlords and tenants, so they’re trying to rectify that. Tenants often don’t have time to negotiate when there’s that kind of demand for an apartment.
Ryersonian: What can tenants do ahead of time to be more prepared?
D.M.: I think both parties (the tenant and the landlord) should familiarize themselves with what the RTA says and understand their rights so that in the event that something happens, a person is not scrambling. Or they will be able to identify a problem when something isn’t right. There are some brochures available by the Landlord and Tenant Board. The Standard Form of Lease is available itself on the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing website. So before you go in and rent, download the lease, read what it says. When you’re (viewing the apartment) and you see 60 other people outside the room who also want the same place, you’re going to sign pretty much anything that’s in front of you at that point and realistically you might not feel like you can take a day or two to read (the lease) over. The document looks kind of long, but on the spot it’s going to seem even more daunting. It will also prepare you for the type of questions that a landlord is allowed to ask you. If they’re asking you questions that aren’t on the lease already, then chances are, it might not be a proper question.
Ryersonian: What are some of the most common illegal clauses landlords put into leases that students should lookout for?
D.M.: It really extends to the imagination of the landlord and attorneys have pretty much seen every possible thing under the sun. Some things we have seen are provisions around pets, having no pets (in the apartment). That clause is illegal, but if your condominium has a pet bylaw, then that is something to be aware of. We’re seeing a lot of issues around smoking right now. Again, condominiums might have bylaws, rules and regulations around that. It’s not quite a black and white situation, but it’s something to keep in mind. We have seen provisions around guests and who a tenant is allowed to have over as a guest, when they are allowed to come, and visit and how long they are allowed to stay. We have seen landlords trying to prevent people from having guests stay over night. Another term we see is the landlord asking the tenant to take care of their own maintenance and upkeep of the property. So asking them to clean the common areas, mow lawns, shovel sidewalks, those sorts of things. I think one thing that we see students run into is having unrelated people living in a unit together. It’s a way that some landlords have been trying to prevent students from moving into their unit. So they will say they will only rent to people who are related to each other.
Ryersonian: Actually, that just happened to a friend of mine.
D.M.: Right, we’re seeing a lot of that. And in a case like that I would contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre hotline, or they can call their local community clinic because it could be grounds for discrimination on family status. But we do see a lot of provisions trying to dissuade students from renting. I think it’s important for students to know that as a renter they do have responsibilities under the RTA as well, so it’s a two-way relationship. Tenants have a responsibility to keep their unit in a state of cleanliness, not to interfere with the landlord’s rights or the rights of other tenants. At the end of the day, everyone has to build good neighbourly relationships with one another, and if you don’t adhere to those responsibilities it could be grounds for an eviction by the Landlord and Tenant Board.
Ryersonian: If you do suspect something illegal is happening to you as a tenant, what should you do?
D.M.: I think the important thing is to start by documenting what the concerns are. So keep a journal, write the date time of the interaction and explain what it is, so you have written documentation of the issue. You want to start writing to the landlord and communicating the issues directly to the landlord and see how they respond. If they don’t respond, take note of that and send another (note). You can either call the Federation of Metro Tenants Association hotline or there might be free legal services at the university. I know you can get free legal advice at the University of Toronto Downtown Legal Services. Or if the student meets the eligibility requirements for legal aid, they can go to their community legal clinic and get some advice on whatever the issue is. But keep gathering all of this information, keeping evidence of what has transpired and then a tenant may wish to file an application to the Landlord and Tenant Board. All of the forms are on the website, and there are instructional guides also on the website to help people fill out the forms. Sometimes the case can be settled in mediation before a full hearing, or it could go to a full hearing. The flip side of that is if the landlord has an issue with the tenant. In that case, usually the first form that comes (to the tenant) is a notice. So if you get a notice, that is not an eviction order. Sometimes it might include a termination date in the notice, but you can only be evicted by a letter from the Landlord and Tenant Board. But the notice is to let you know that there is a problem and it could escalate and become an eviction. So if the tenant gets a notice they should seek legal advice and find out what the situation is and what their rights are. But do not ignore those documents.
Ryersonian: Is there anything else you would like to add?
D.M.: Well, one thing that often comes up with student renters is the issue of subletting. They should read the sections of the act around subletting, but generally speaking they should ask permission from their landlord before subletting. But the landlord should not refuse them without a good reason. You can try to negotiate it because maybe there’s something that can be agreed upon with the landlord if they have any hesitations about who’s coming in. Ultimately, if they do sublet the house, then the relationship is still between (the tenant) and the landlord. If the sub-tenants cause any problems, it is basically the tenant’s responsibility. For example, if the subletter doesn’t pay the rent, then the tenant is still on the hook for that. The landlord is not going to be dealing with the sub-tenant. The concern is the landlord refusing to sublet without a good reason to refuse. It’s not really clear in the act what happens when the landlord says no. The tenant can go to the Landlord and Tenant Board to say that the landlord is being unreasonable in withholding their consent. And the tenant should not be sub-letting their unit for more than what they rent it for.