This post was written by Tracy Heffernan and Emily Paradis
Though few evictions end in homelessness, it is clear that many episodes of homelessness begin with eviction. Preventing eviction is key to preventing homelessness – but how can services reach tenants facing eviction in time to help stabilize their housing?
Ontario’s Tenant Duty Counsel Program (TDCP) is doing just that. The TDCP is funded by Legal Aid Ontario to provide legal assistance to tenants who come before the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) at any of its 44 sites across the province. Legal workers, most of them from local legal clinics, provide advice, referral, and occasionally representation to tenants on-site at the LTB. The vast majority of these tenants are facing eviction: of 81,748 LTB cases in 2013-2014, 91 percent were landlord applications for eviction, 75 percent of these for non-payment of rent.
A new report on the TDCP demonstrates that eviction prevention is a vital component of homelessness prevention. Based on a survey of more than 200 tenants accessing TDCP services in Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton, as well as interviews with service providers and legal workers at sites across the province, the report sheds light on the circumstances of tenants facing eviction, the supports they require, and the system changes that are needed to break the cycle of eviction and homelessness.
It’s already well-known that tenants are an economically disadvantaged group, with average incomes significantly lower than those of homeowners. But in spite of tenants’ generally low incomes, and ever-increasing rents, only a fraction of tenancies are ever threatened with eviction at the Landlord and Tenant Board. What sets these ones apart?
As expected, a key factor in housing insecurity for tenants is poverty: three-quarters of tenants surveyed had incomes below the Low-Income Cut-Off, and almost half were spending more than 50 percent of their monthly income on rent.
But for many tenants who access TDCP services, it appears that poverty is only one factor in their risk of eviction. Half of all respondents had faced previous discrimination in housing, on the basis of their race, gender, income, and other grounds. Almost half identified with a racialized community. More than one in three said that they, or a member of their household, had a disability – in most cases, a mental health or cognitive disability.
Most striking of all, two out of three tenants surveyed had been homeless in the past. Half of all tenants surveyed had stayed at someone else’s place because they had no home of their own; 43 percent had left their home because it wasn’t safe for them; 31 percent had spent time at a shelter; and 24 percent had slept outside, or in a place not meant for human habitation.
In spite of the deep vulnerability the survey reveals, service providers interviewed for the study said that their most disadvantaged clients never even make it to the LTB. Many with histories of homelessness, mental health and addictions issues, and other disabilities are in very precarious tenancies – renting a room in someone else’s place, staying in a rooming house or apartment only as long as the landlord “lets” them. Even those whose tenancies fall under the protection of the Rental Tenancies Act are usually not aware that there are legal remedies available to them – or past conflicts with the law make them reluctant to go to “court.” If the person they are renting from tells them to leave, they leave.
Tenants with histories of homelessness are not the only ones who walk away before they get their day in court. Housing workers and legal clinics are concerned about an epidemic of economic evictions of low-income tenants, especially in large cities. Often tenants will leave their home after receiving an eviction notice but prior to a hearing application. This can be for many reasons: they cannot afford the rent, their apartment is in serious disrepair, they are afraid to attend a hearing. Once the unit is vacated, the landlord can raise the rent an unlimited amount – so tenants living in gentrifying neighbourhoods are especially at risk.
Of those who do receive a notice of hearing, fifty percent of tenants do not attend at the LTB, most for the same reasons listed above. One legal worker interviewed expressed the frustration of seeing tenants evicted in absentia: “Two things cause people not to go to their LTB hearing: they believe the landlord will be a hundred percent effective, and the forms they receive from the LTB read extremely scary … That’s why people don’t show up. Often it’s over stupid amounts of money, like $600. I hear the case and I think, ‘I really wish that tenant had shown up’.” Unfortunately, though, the Landlord and Tenant Board does not track the results of eviction applications – so there is no way of knowing how many tenants in Ontario are actually evicted each year, whether before their hearing or after.
For those who do make it to the LTB and manage to access Tenant Duty Counsel services there, the threat of eviction creates enormous stress and anxiety, which impedes their ability to represent themselves in the intimidating environment of the Landlord and Tenant Board. With current resources, though, Tenant Duty Counsel are only able to provide full representation to a small fraction of tenants they serve – most receive only legal advice. As several US studies have demonstrated,representation is key to eviction prevention. A key recommendation of the report is that Legal Aid Ontario should increase resources available for representation, particularly for vulnerable tenants.
But as the report suggests, many tenants facing eviction need more than just legal assistance to help them maintain their housing: they need emotional support at the LTB, financial assistance to pay off arrears, and ongoing services to stabilize their tenancy. Some Tenant Duty Counsel sites have found innovative ways to meet these complex needs. York Region’s Eviction Prevention Program, for example, funds a social worker who works in tandem with Tenant Duty Counsel to support tenants facing addiction, mental health issues, domestic violence, and risk of homelessness. This program supports tenants at their LTB hearing, provides case management and referral to other services, helps them find new housing if necessary, and follows up three months and six months later to ensure that housing is still stable. The City of Toronto should consider incorporating this promising model in the new Eviction Prevention Strategy it is developing.
But local service improvements can only do so much. The eviction of vulnerable tenants into homelessness is a systemic problem, and it requires system-level solutions. Another key recommendation from the TDCP review is to introduce a diversion program at the Landlord and Tenant Board. Similar to mental health diversion programs and Gladue courts in the criminal justice system, a diversion program at the Landlord and Tenant Board would be mandated to respond more holistically to vulnerable tenants facing eviction. Instead of evicting tenants into homelessness, a diversion program would put supports in place to help stabilize the tenancy.
Many advocates interviewed for the report noted that as it currently functions, the Landlord and Tenant Board is like an eviction machine, in which vulnerable tenants face near-certain eviction unless they have adequate legal and social supports. This needs to change if the Province is serious about its commitment to end homelessness in ten years. “We need a system to catch the person in the middle,” the York Region social worker says, “not let them fall all the way through.”
In the end, though, the vast majority of evictions are economic, and governments must address the structural economic factors that cause them. The Province must reinstate rent control on vacant units and units built after 1991. It must also increase incomes by raising minimum wages, protecting precarious workers, and and reversing cuts to income security programs. And the federal government’s forthcoming National Housing Strategy must demonstrate political will to address the crisis in affordable housing, through major investments in affordable and social housing.