The threat of homelessness looms over Toronto tenants

As evictions increase, tenants say support from the city is nowhere in sight.

Hachim Alasbachi was attending a demonstration at the MetCap office in downtown Toronto, Ont., when he passed by a man asleep on the sidewalk. At that moment, he was overcome with emotion—“choked up,” as he recalled it.

Looking down at the unhoused man, he realized that he wasn’t so far from the same scenario.

Alasbachi came to Canada from Lebanon through a sponsorship two and a half years ago. He’s spent over half of that time fighting alongside his neighbours and friends against unfair evictions in Toronto.

“We have been involved in a lot of actions in East Toronto, in downtown, and all over the city, helping my friends and everyone who [is] facing eviction,” he told The Pigeon in a phone interview.

Alasbachi worked as an electronics repair person back in Lebanon, but in Canada, the language barrier has made it difficult for him to hold steady employment and his monthly disability support cheque isn’t enough to cover basic needs along with rent.

“I applied to many jobs [and] even though I have the experience, I was getting refused because I don’t have the experience in Canada,” he explained.

Like so many other tenants in Canada’s most unaffordable city, Alasbachi couldn’t keep up and soon found himself in debt to his landlord for months of rent. His eviction hearing was originally scheduled for March 15—just a few days after the city went into lockdown.

The hearing was postponed during the first three weeks of March as COVID-19 restrictions forced courthouses to adapt. Soon, Toronto’s eviction moratorium was put into place, and that was the last Alasbachi heard of his pending eviction for the months to come.

As April crept closer, it became increasingly obvious to many tenants in Toronto that they were not going to be able to pay their monthly rental fees. Many had been laid off in the weeks prior and were put in positions where they had to choose between food, utility bills, and housing.

When it came to the decision to feed their families or pay their landlords, many felt they had no choice but to fall behind on their rent. Toronto Mayor John Tory had been promising no one would lose their homes because of COVID-19 and said everyone was safe under the city’s eviction moratorium during his daily press briefings.

For a few months, the city lived under that safety blanket. No one was forced from their homes.

However, tenants and activists alike knew that the moratorium would come to an end and that when it did, tenants would face dire circumstances.

The Pigeon spoke to Bryan Doherty of Keep Your Rent Toronto on what eviction moratoriums meant for the city’s residents. Keep Your Rent has been working alongside tenants to support direct actions and the logistics of community organizing, Doherty explained over the phone.

“All [an eviction moratorium] does is kick the problem down the road and compound matters. The actual problem is that people cannot afford to pay rent, and the moratorium only means that you won’t be evicted right now. Instead, you’ll be evicted in the future,” Doherty said.

So, despite the moratorium, tenants began to organize, bracing themselves for the impact that would inevitably hit.

In anticipation of the passing of the new Bill 184 during July of 2020, which would simplify the eviction process for landlords across the province and allow them to negotiate rent repayment plans without a mediator, tenants began to hold demonstrations outside of Mayor John Tory’s condo.

“We held a […] press conference where we laid out the legally legitimate arguments that can be made for exactly what it is that John Tory can do [for tenants],” Doherty said.

Sam Nithiananthan of Peoples Defence Toronto, a tenants’ rights and community aid organization, spoke on the necessity of action within the community.

“Our line has always been consistent throughout the pandemic: You get to hide, we don’t. We’re not hiding from COVID-19 because COVID-19 is ravaging our communities. There’s nowhere to hide, so we’ll come to you.”

In addition to large demonstrations outside prominent politicians’ houses, tenants were working diligently behind the scenes to build strong frameworks for organizational efforts.

“Tenant unions [were growing] and taking a life of their own, with tenants being at the forefront. There’s tenant organizations and tenant unions set up all across the city—everything from Parkdale to Lansdowne and DuPont, to Jane and Finch buildings,” Nithiananthan explained.

“What people have been doing is organizing within their neighbourhoods [and] actually showing up for their neighbours.”

Despite tenants’ best efforts, the eviction ban was lifted in August.

As it turns out, Alasbachi’s eviction hearing had not been cancelled, but postponed—this time to be held over video conference.

Unfortunately, Alasbachi was not informed of this change. He ended up missing his hearing and was served with an eviction order while not present.

He wasn’t the only one. Since August, this has been the Ontario Landlord-Tenant Board’s (LTB) method of holding eviction hearings. The pivot to digital hearings has increased barriers for many residents, including those who don’t speak English or don’t have access to the internet.

In so many of these cases, tenants are either unable to show up or miss their hearings, and oftentimes evictions are enforced without them.

“What [we’ve] noticed [is] that most people are showing up to their hearings not knowing about what’s about to happen, or unprepared, or not showing up at all,” said Nithiananthan.

These hearings, held over Microsoft Teams, are accessible to anyone with the link. As of today, the LTB is hosting up to thirty hearings a day, with up to seven taking place simultaneously, Nithiananthan said.

In these meetings, the most common scenarios are discouraging. A majority of those summoned to these hearings have trouble speaking English. More than once, children have been forced to translate for parents and coerced into unrealistic payment plans because there is no appropriate mediator.

If a tenant isn’t made aware of the hearing or cannot access the meeting, they can be evicted without being present—but if the landlord can’t make the hearing, it can be rescheduled.

Some of these hearings have lasted as little as 60 seconds.

“It’s so crushing,” expressed Nithiananthan.

When asked to comment, the Tribunals Ontario board—on behalf of the Ontario Landlord-Tenant Board—stated digital hearings are the most accessible option.

“Our intent is to pursue a digital-first strategy to meet the diverse needs of Ontarians and enhance the quality of our dispute resolution services. Hearings are being scheduled to be digital by default; requests for in-person hearings will be considered on a case-by-case basis to ensure access to justice for those who require accommodation under the Human Rights Code or to ensure procedural fairness,” they told The Pigeon in an email.

The board stated that tenants “may submit a request to reschedule [a hearing] on consent five (5) days in advance,” and provided a toll-free number that tenants were able to call into their hearings with.

According to Doherty, tenants and neighbours have taken on the responsibility of supporting their communities during these hearings.

Meetings have been planned by support groups both before and after hearings to brief tenants and neighbours in legal matters and support them if needed. Multiple times, witnesses in the hearings have rushed across their apartment building to knock on another door’s unit, alerting them that their case is being discussed and ensuring they aren’t evicted without their knowledge.

“It’s been a show of strength,” Nithiananthan added.

Tenants gather outside building owner Tom Falus’ home to demand a meeting. Photo courtesy of: Keep Your Rent Toronto

While some tenants have been fighting their evictions online, others have spent the past four months hitting the streets and taking part in direct action demonstrations.

In August, residents of Toronto’s Crescent Town neighbourhood and activists stood side-by-side to block a provincial eviction sheriff from physically leaving his office in the morning, preventing him from enforcing eviction orders. Alasbachi was one of the tenants present at the sheriff blockade, fighting against both his own eviction and his neighbours’.

“[We blocked] the sheriff’s office and stopped him from going out with his cars to [evict] tenants. In that moment, it was all we could do—to physically stop him from evicting our neighbours and friends,” Alasbachi recalled.

The following month, tenants of Goodwood Park formed a human chain, physically preventing the sheriff and Toronto Police Service (TPS) from evicting a neighbour. They continued to patrol the property from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m for six weeks, ensuring that if the police showed up unnoticed, their neighbour wouldn’t lose their home.

In the end, TPS arrived somewhere around 2:00 in the morning and removed the tenant.

 The City of Toronto and the Ontario government have split hairs over whose responsibility it is to enforce, or ban, evictions during the pandemic.

Activists and tenants have called upon Mayor John Tory to enact the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act to ban evictions. Tory maintains that evictions fall under provincial jurisdiction, as they are ordered by the Ontario Landlord-Tenant tribunal, and that the city can do nothing to ban them.

However, the TPS has shown up in droves to help sheriffs enforce evictions; approximately a dozen were present at the Goodwood Park blockades.

When reached for comment, Meaghan Gray, media relations for TPS, explained in an email that “evictions are orders from the Landlord Tenant Tribunal, enforced by sheriffs and, if police officers do attend, it is because of a public safety/non-compliance issue.”

In TPS’s own words, tenants must comply with their eviction or they’re liable to have police at their doorstep

In Doherty’s eyes, it doesn’t matter what TPS says.

“They can say we’re all in this together, but at the end of the day, if you’re sending men with guns to drag people out of their homes during a pandemic, there’s nothing about that that says that we’re all in this together,” he said.

Community members have begged Tory to use his power to ban evictions and waive debts time and time again.

Alasbachi said Tory has not only ignored their calls for aid, but has refused to meet with his tenant union, despite numerous requests.

“He’s supposed to be working for us, but he doesn’t want to hear from any one of us,” Alasbachi said. “He should have time to speak with the tenants, to hear them, to see what they are suffering from.”

The City of Toronto did not respond to The Pigeon’s requests for comment.

As of now, tenants and their communities are still battling over their rights in video conferences, protesting in the streets, and demanding more for themselves and their neighbours.

“We are not looking for just another eviction moratorium. We need the forgiveness of arrears or people will never emerge from the pile of debt they’re under,” Nithiananthan explained.

When asked, Alasbachi had a simple conclusion for the problem.

“Our message to John Tory? Stop evictions. Stop Bill 184. He must help us. Just look how many people are already in the streets. We need your help.”

Abby Neufeld is a writer at Narcity Canada. She studied professional communications at the University of Victoria and her past work has been published in The Toronto Star, Bitch Media, Canadian Dimension, and more. In 2019, Abby co-founded The New Twenties, an environmentally-focused literary and arts magazine.

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