Years-long battle concludes with rent hike for senior
Lynda Johnson moved into her apartment 45 years ago, when 165 Ontario St. was among the nicest addresses in the city.
“It was a deluxe building at the time,” she said, adding the building was then only about five years old.
As the 152-unit Valley View building transitioned through various owners, the 71-year-old visually impaired woman said “things keep going from bad to worse.”
Although many of her longtime neighbours have since moved away, Johnson is staying put.
Facing skyrocketing rents at buildings throughout Niagara, the retired hairdresser feels she has no choice but to continue living in her apartment as long as she can.
But Johnson fears that even staying in her eighth-floor apartment is likely to become far more expensive in the months to come.
The provincial government’s Residential Tenancies Act allows landlords to recover a portion of costs associated with allowable building renovations from their tenants that exceed the province’s 1.8 per cent guideline.
And after a two-year struggle with building owner Northview REIT, a subsidiary of Starlight Investments as well as three hearings with the Landlord and Tenant Board dating back to Sept. 17, 2015, the board finally ruled in November in favour of the landlord.
In her Nov. 17 decision, Landlord and Tenant Board vice-chair Elizabeth Usprich overturned a previous review of the case that supported the claims of tenants that new balconies added to the building in 2012 were for cosmetic reasons rather than structural, and should not have been eligible for above-guideline rent increases. The tenants pointed out that the balconies were already extensively repaired two years earlier, and alleged the work was for “corporate branding” rather than structural purposes.
Usprich, however, agreed with the landlord’s assertion that the work was required because “the physical integrity of the building was at risk.”
She wrote in her ruling that the landlord “has sufficient evidence to establish, on a balance of probabilities, that the work was necessary both for integrity of the building and for security reasons, I find that the landlord has met the test for the capital expenditure and it is allowed.”
Usprich also noted in her ruling that the provincial legislation that allows above-guideline increases does not permit the board to consider the financial impact of the rent increase on tenants.
As a result, L.D. Blake, who has led the tenants’ efforts to prevent the rent hike, said tenants at the building, including Johnson, faced an increase in rent that could be as high as 5.62 per cent.
The landlord has not replied to repeated requests from The Standard, asking for information about the issue.
“Needless to say this will not stand,” Blake wrote in an email. “A new review will be filed and there will most likely be at least one more hearing before this is over.”
For Johnson, any rent increase she faces above the nearly $700 a month she now pays will require sacrifices.
And tenants fear their rent could increase more, if the landlord successfully applies to recover costs from other recent investments in the building, including a new furnace, parking garage and roof. The local tenants aren’t alone. Paul Mitchell said he has lived in one of the company’s properties in Victoria B.C. for six years, where above-guideline increases have occurred that tenants there also feel are not justified.
“It’s been quite an ordeal. I’m just one of those tenants who got angry enough that now it’s sort of become a mission to hold Starlight accountable,” he said.
He said the situation is worse in his province, where landlords can “renovict” tenants to allow for extensive renovations of the building and charge residents far more than they were previously paying to move back in. Negative attention has prevented many landlords from taking that action, Mitchell said.
Nevertheless, he said tenants in B.C. and across the country are still being subjected to above-guidelines rent increases due to renovations they say are not needed.
“What we’re seeing across the country is that they perform a whole heap of cosmetic upgrades which are not necessary. They’re absolutely not critical whatsoever,” Mitchell said.
Blake, who posted his extensive research and allegations on a Facebook group called Starlight Tenants Ontario, says the company has taken similar action at nearly 100 apartment buildings it owns across the country.
The tenants in St. Catharines aren’t ready to throw in the towel, yet. Blake said he will seek “a total dismissal of the case,” and plans to file information about the issues with the Attorney General, Minister of Housing, Rental Housing Enforcement Unit and Social Justice Tribunals of Ontario.
But Johnson said the number of concerned tenants attending hearings has dropped significantly as the case has dragged on over the past few years.
During the first hearing in 2015, for instance, Johnson said the room was packed with tenants who shared her concerns about the increase.
“That first case, the whole room was full,” she said.
In comparison, she said only about four tenants participated in the most recent hearing.
Johnson said the dwindling interest is due to tenants, who initially numbered more than 130 people, moving away.
“There’s hardly anyone left in here from that list,” she said.
Mitchell has seen the same thing happening in B.C.
When people become jaded after unsuccessfully appealing rent increases with the Residential Tenancy Branch, he said they have a tendency to become jaded.