Toronto legal clinic asks city's top doctor to suspend evictions during the pandemic

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TORONTO — A Toronto legal clinic has written to the city's top doctor asking that she suspend residential evictions amid the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter issued Tuesday, Downtown Legal Services argues that evictions currently pose a public health risk.

Lawyer Benjamin Ries wrote that Dr. Eileen de Villa has "legal authority and responsibility" to take the measure.

"This decision is especially yours to make because it requires the application of public health evidence to temporarily restrict an activity likely to spread a communicable disease," the letter said.

"Tenants facing eviction may end up as patients in a hospital emergency room or long-term care facility; some of them already work as frontline staff in those facilities or in our factories, kitchens, grocery and hardware stores,"

The provincial government has not yet taken action on an Opposition motion supporting a freeze on evictions that passed this month, the letter notes.

De Villa can act in the meantime, the letter said.

At a news conference on Wednesday, De Villa acknowledged receipt of the letter and said she will review it with legal counsel.

"There is no question that access to safe and affordable housing, and for certain populations with particular supports, is absolutely critical to health," said De Villa.

"It is especially important in the context of COVID-19 that individuals who become infected are able to effectively isolate in order to prevent the spread."

De Villa noted, however, that the issue was one best handled by the provincial government.

Evictions were suspended in the province until the summer and the Landlord and Tenant Board is now working through a backlog of cases.

Hearings are taking place virtually, with advocates raising alarms about lack of accessibility.

The Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario reported more than 7,000 cases heard by the Landlord and Tenant Board in November, with 96 per cent of those filed by a landlord against a tenant.

Bryan Doherty, a tenant organizer with Keep Your Rent Toronto, said simply suspending evictions during the pandemic doesn't go far enough.

He said a temporary ban on evictions won't address unaffordable rents in the city, and even more people lose their homes whenever an eviction suspension lifts.

"All that is going to produce is another eviction blitz like what we've just gone through for the last five weeks," Doherty said by phone.

- with files from John Chidley-Hill.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2020.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press