Years-long bat­tle con­cludes with rent hike for se­nior

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - NEWS - ABen­ner@postmedia.com twit­ter.com/aben­ner1 ALLAN BENNER STAN­DARD STAFF

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.

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