New rules for landlords sound good to tenant of much-lamented building

Bedbugs and elevator buttons covered in saliva are just two of the complaints about 500 Dawes Rd. But city bureaucrats might be backing away from the idea.

Robert Gay, a tenant of 500 Dawes Road, said his hallway’s carpet used to be green but has been soiled to the point of turning black.
Robert Gay, a tenant of 500 Dawes Road, said his hallway’s carpet used to be green but has been soiled to the point of turning black.  (VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR)  

She lives at 500 Dawes Rd., where there were 453 complaints lodged with the city between 2010 and 2015. From those complaints, city officials issued 238 violations against the 14-storey building.

“The current fines are laughable and anything but an incentive to effect needed and ordered repairs,” said Stevens, adding that the current penalties need more teeth to ensure landlords follow the rules. “I’ve lived here for five years and it takes ages to address problems in this building. The wall is decaying; the paint is sliding off.”

Stevens said she was still reeling from her unit’s recent bedbug infestation that forced her to bag all her possessions. She said the small, brownish insects left her with welts on her legs, feet and ribs — a parasitic presence that made it “impossible to sleep.”

A Star analysis of data logged by Toronto’s Multi-Residential Apartment Building Audit Enforcement Program shows the city received more than 55,000 complaints from residents from 2010 to 2015.

In the same time span, investigators issued close to 32,000 violations for issues that range from long grass and weeds to malfunctioning heating and ventilation systems.

Privately owned properties also make up the majority of Toronto’s top 10 most-complained-about apartment buildings. The most complaints and violations originated from apartment buildings in wards like York South-Weston and Beaches-East York, with counts of more than 4,000 respectively.

Geri Stevens, a tenant of 500 Dawes Road, has had horrible experiences dealing with their landlord.
Geri Stevens, a tenant of 500 Dawes Road, has had horrible experiences dealing with their landlord.  (VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR)  

Stevens believes a landlord licensing system would help to ensure landlords better adhere to regulations.

City council backed that idea in June, specifically directing staff to consult the public and return in the fall with a draft plan that would include a draft bylaw to implement licensing.

It was a hard-fought win for tenant advocates, after Mayor John Tory questioned the need to create a licensing regime and his staff actively worked but ultimately failed to sideline the attempt at an earlier committee meeting. In the end, Tory and most of his executive voted with council to move toward licensing in a decisive 33-6 vote.

But with city staff recently publishing details about the upcoming consultation, the city appears to have taken a step back from that direction.

On licensing, the consultation website says the city is “exploring the strengths and weaknesses associated with developing a licensing bylaw or a regulatory bylaw to impose additional requirements on rental properties.”

But council did not request staff look at regulatory alternatives to licensing.

“That was the direction, but when we do consultation we look at all the options,” Mark Sraga, director of investigations for the city’s licensing division, told the Star on Saturday.

“We haven’t done the consultation so it would be premature to say the only thing we are going to do is license landlords. . . . Just because council said go do this consultation, that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing we talk about. It would be foolish of us to do a public consultation on only one idea.”

When reached for comment, ACORN Canada president Marva Burnett, whose group has been pushing for licensing, said “it is clear that the best option is licensing but the fight is not over.” She added that her organization plans to attend the consultations “en masse.”

Currently, 16 officers make up the city’s apartment standards enforcement unit. The group responds to tenant complaints and issue orders related to property standards, graffiti and waste violations. They also conduct audits in potentially high-risk buildings.

On the consultation website, however, the city states this approach “is not always helpful in finding poorly maintained buildings and making sure they remain in good condition over time.”

Public consultations on what the city is now referring to as “Improving Living Conditions in Rental Apartment Buildings” begin on August 17. Among the proposed initiative’s aims is to bolster the city’s existing inspection program and subject landlords to a higher range of fines.

Property records show 500 Dawes is owned by Havcare Investments Inc., a company run by East York couple Carolyn and Harvey Krebs. A woman who answered the phone at the couple’s Thornhill residence told the Star “all complaints are addressed and repairs made in a timely fashion” before hanging up. Neither of the Krebs responded to multiple letters delivered to 500 Dawes’ property management office by the Star requesting comment.

Another tenant the Star spoke with expressed a desire to live in a safer, more secure complex, but claimed Toronto’s lack of affordable housing didn’t leave him much choice.

The apartment building at 500 Dawes Road has the most complaints in a Toronto city database.
The apartment building at 500 Dawes Road has the most complaints in a Toronto city database.  (RICK MADONIK/TORONTO STAR)  

Robert Gay was unemployed in 2014 when he moved into 500 Dawes. He recalled “feeling lucky” at the time that he finally found a place to live.

Yet it wasn’t long before he said the “nightmare” began. Gay, who now works as a contract social worker, told the Star his hallway’s carpet used to be green but has been soiled to the point of turning black. The elevator buttons, he added, are constantly coated with spit.

Toronto police confirmed they had responded to “lots” of calls originating from the apartment. Gay said he’s contacted police at least 10 times in the last six months over his neighbours’ blasting of music at all hours.

He described the noise as a mix of polka and rock, a sound so loud “it vibrates the walls” at 4 a.m.

“I can’t take it anymore,” he said.

While the Star’s analysis looked at individual buildings, a new website launched last month focuses on landlords and aims to give Toronto renters a heads-up into which ones are issued the most violations in the city.

Using figures pulled from the City of Toronto’s open data catalogues, tracks how often city officials investigate apartments but also uses tax assessment rolls to reveal the owners and companies who oversee the problem buildings.

Canada’s largest landlord, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, topped the website’s list with 1,044 complaint-prompted investigations. Spokeswoman Lisa Murray stressed the public housing agency is one of Canada’s largest, operating 58,500 units in 2,100 buildings.

“Based on sheer size, it’s not surprising TCHC would be high on the list,” she said, emphasizing TCHC performs 400,000 maintenance repairs annually to improve its buildings.

“We’ve been pushing hard on our 10-year, $2.6-billion capital repair plan on buildings across the city and (last) month hit a milestone of 30,000 repair projects completed since 2013,” added Murray.

Yale Fox, who runs the site through his company RentLogic, created the online tool in partnership with the ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

He said LandlordWatch empowers would-be renters by giving them some extra insight into an apartment building’s history.

“By knowing which landlords are bad, tenants can seek out the ones that are good,” he said. “The information is now in plain sight rather than inside a database in an office.”

Daryl Chong of the Greater Toronto Apartment Association argues that a “simple count” of violations doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of a building or landlord.

“A burnt-out light bulb the day the inspectors are on site is documented as a violation. As do dozens of other minor issues,” he said in an email. “Using only the number of violations isn’t very useful for prospective tenants shopping for a new home.”

Chong said the association supports the city’s effort “to aggressively pursue bad landlords,” a group he believes is “a small minority,” further stating that “apartment licensing does not focus on bad landlords as it spreads city resources thinly to inspect thousands of good buildings each year.”

“The vast majority of apartment buildings in Toronto are well-run and provide safe, affordable housing,” said Chong. He further predicted “city-imposed fees and higher administrative costs” associated with licensing would “certainly increase rent across Toronto.”

Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations, disagreed.

“The rent will go up because of landlord greed and what the market will bear, not because of the (licensing) fees,” he said, adding the existing complaint-based system is toothless.

Sraga said whether or not landlord licensing becomes a reality, “there is (no) silver bullet if you have a bad landlord.” In the meantime, he said, the city is looking into how to better enforce the rules for not only landlords but tenants as well.

“It isn’t the landlords spraying graffiti, defecating or urinating in the stairwells,” he added.

The data for this analysis was sourced directly from the City of Toronto’s Multi-Residential Apartment Building Audit Enforcement Program because there were discrepancies between the Municipal Licensing and Standards – Investigation Activity dataset through Toronto’s Open Data Portal and the data made available on their Bylaw Enforcement page.

The data contains two primary categories – investigation requests (IRs) and investigation violations (IVs) – all of which were initiated between January-December, 2010-2015.

Only records containing a full address were used in the analysis and addresses that contained a specific unit number were generalized so that only the building address would be used in the totals counts.

With files from Jennifer Pagliaro