Rent Strikes by Tenants – Are they Legal?
In a nutshell, no. The only provision for a tenant withholding rent from a landlord noted in the Residential Tenancies Act, 2006, section 12, and is in the situation where the landlord has not, within 21 days of starting a tenancy, provided the tenant with a proper and signed tenancy agreement. Landlords must provide that information including a legal address where correspondence can be delivered to the landlord within that time period or a tenant can withhold rent until it is provided.
The rent strikes currently in the news are illegal. There is a formal avenue of remedy for tenants and it is the Landlord and Tenant Board. A tenant can, for no cost, file a T6 maintenance application with the Board and have their case heard and adjudicated in the same manner that a landlord can have a non-payment of rent or damage case heard and adjudicated.
These cases, like the one in Hamilton, are big news makers because they provide the press with a vulnerable victim (the tenant) and a greedy ogre (the landlord). Sexy for the headlines but not always reflective of the real nature of the landlord and tenant relationship. Sometimes tenants are being unreasonable and sometimes landlords are not being responsible. There are good and bad in every group.
A closer reading of the most current article is a good example of how the relationship between landlord and tenants can become untenable and lead to issues like this. The buildings in question have had maintenance issues for years. There are leaky taps, cracked windows, pest issues and aging structure that should definitely be addressed. One might well ask why replacing the sod on the property would be a priority worthy of rent increase with all the other problems that should be addressed first. That would be on the landlord.
However, what is not clear is how often or within the legislative guidelines, the tenants have made the failings known to the landlord and used the Board to get their issues addressed. From my own experience with the Board, numerous problems like the aforementioned, having been reported in writing to the landlord and left untended would be a “slam dunk” at a hearing to get the landlord to comply with basic maintenance. Bigger issues like a rampant pest problem can be reported to the city and the landlord will be given a time frame to fix them or face a bill from the municipality for doing the work in their stead.
So, the question is begged. Did these tenants avail themselves of the avenues of remedy they have before deciding that withholding rent is the way to go? My guess would be no. Calling the press, having a rally and hitting the landlord’s pocketbook would be the easier and more “squeaky wheel” approach.
Blame is on both sides here. As is usually the case, there are two sides to a story and somewhere in the middle is the truth. And then there is the above guideline increase that started all of the problems. I can sympathize with elderly tenants on fixed incomes to whom paying for the landlord’s lovely new lawn is not only ridiculous but terrifying if it means they face eviction or having to move. That is not something I would want for my elderly parents nor would most of us want our loved ones to face that.
I would hope that the Board would make a reasonable ruling on the increase in light of the people whom it will most adversely affect. However, there is no guarantee of that given the restrictions and criteria under law. The tenants still have the opportunity to organize and oppose the increase at a hearing and to be heard on the matter in the same equal venue as the landlord. There is a remedy. And, under the law, where there is a remedy, it must be used to mitigate the circumstances before radical action can be acceptable or reasonable.
For landlords, my advice is always this: Work within the law. Serve the N4 as is your right and follow through. Understand not only your responsibilities under the Act but also those of your tenants so when issues arise, you can approach them from a position of legal and reasonable rights for all. Don’t let maintenance issues slide or get away from you and clarify with your tenants when and what needs to be reported to you for repair.
If your building is going to require major maintenance, get more than one estimate, share the findings with the tenants and work with them if possible to get the job done without having such hardship imposed on people who have been residents for years and may be facing a dire circumstance. That is not to say you are responsible for their financial woes but merely that, as landlords, you are also small business operators who do bear some community responsibility. Taking a less adversarial position at the start or employing the services of a mediator to assist would be prudent, proactive and go a long way to avoiding situations like the one in Hamilton.
Withholding rent is illegal. The rent strikes are illegal. But, as a landlord, if you operate within the framework of the Act, you are not only protecting yourself, but your investment and your tenants in the long run.