London among Ontario cities singled out in tighter rent-control push

A national tenants' rights group is calling on Ontario to bring back rent controls for all apartments and to tighten the rules to prevent landlords from raising rents between tenants to what the market will bear.

London is one among eight cities across the province being targeted by ACORN in its campaign, with those centres singled out by the group because of what it calls a high volume of both formal tenant evictions to make way for building upgrades and applications by landlords for rent increases higher than provincial limits.

The group plans rallies outside the offices of Progressive Conservative MPPs in those cities, and Wednesday took its London-area campaign to the riding office of Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Rob Flack, the province's associate housing minister.

About 15 people gathered outside and went into Flack's St. Thomas office, holding signs that read "end corporate greed" and "people over profits."

Flack was unavailable for comment, away from his riding office at Queen's Park where Premier Doug Ford's government began a new legislative session this week after a 10-week break. ACORN has scheduled a meeting with Flack for March 11.

In an email, Michael Ramnanan, a spokesperson for Flack, said the government has taken a "balanced approach" to rent control, with the exemption of new rental housing encouraging construction of more units and the maximum increase allowed for rent-controlled buildings this year held to below the inflation rate.

Rental housing has become tight in much of the province, with soaring rents, low vacancy rates and headlines about landlords legally evicting tenants to make way for building upgrades – what critics call renovictions – that can lead to higher rents in a hot market with not enough supply to meet demand.

“They (the government) may think that we're just out there making noise, but we really do have specific requests,” Sharon Hodgson, an ACORN member from London, said before the rally in St. Thomas.

Besides London, ACORN's campaign is zeroing in on Toronto, Hamilton, Mississauga, Waterloo, the Niagara area, Ottawa and Peterborough.

Newer rental buildings in Ontario, those occupied after mid-November 2018, were removed from provincial rent control after Ford's Tories swept to power earlier in 2018. That leaves landlords free to charge what the market will bear for those units.

Older buildings remain subject to annual provincial limits on rent increases, with this year's rate a maximum 2.5 per cent. Landlords can legally raise rents between tenants, however, so the amount charged can be raised once a unit is declared vacant.

Landlords can also apply for above-limit increases to offset major capital costs.

ACORN says it wants to see all rental housing brought back under rent control, with new curbs brought in to prevent rents from being hiked on vacant units, and to stop the ability of landlords to seek increases above provincial limits.

No stranger to being cleared out to make way for building upgrades, Hodgson lives at a two-building London complex on Webster Street that made headlines last year after tenants were issued so-called N13 letters for evictions related to the upgrades.

“Once they served us our notices saying that the building was deteriorating – and, surely, we know that – so they have to terminate our lease, and then a month later, we saw our units being advertised (at) double the rents that we were paying,” Hodgson said.

ACORN maintains rents are skyrocketing in Ontario because of "glaring loopholes" in its rent controls, including for new developments and vacant units.

In its latest rental market survey of Ontario last fall, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. reported an average Ontario rent for all types of units of about $1,600 a month, which was up about eight per cent over the previous year. The provincial vacancy rate stood at 1.7 per cent.

In London, the average rent charged for all units in the same survey was $1,366 a month, up six per cent over the previous year, with a 1.7 per cent vacancy rate. Rents charged for two-bedroom units averaged $1,479, up 6.4 per cent over a year.

According to a CMHC report last month, rents charged for two-bedroom apartments in London that turned over to new tenants in the year leading up to last October averaged 27.6 per cent higher than other two-bedroom apartments in the same buildings.

"Most renters in the London (area) would find it hard to afford rents on units that turned over," the agency said, citing an average monthly rent of $1,820 for such apartments.

Brian Williams, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press