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Anti-poverty advocates say they are seeing an increase in cases of tenants who are being unfairly evicted and are calling for better oversight of tenants’ rights.
Ann Wheatley of the Cooper Institute has helped organize two meetings of a new organization called P.E.I. Fight for Affordable Housing. She said the group has drawn together tenants, students and staff members of non-profit organizations and has been discussing many issues. However, tenant rights have been among the most dominant.
"People are being turned out of their places, and they're being ‘renovicted’,” Wheatley said. “Sometimes the landlords may say it's for something like need to upgrade or they need to move a family member in. But there's no accountability for that.”
Wheatley said some landlords are taking advantage of a provision in tenancy legislation that allows landlords to evict tenants to either perform renovations or to allow a family member to live in a unit.
Marcia Carroll, executive director of the P.E.I. Council of People with Disabilities said many low-income Islanders often lack the skills, confidence or calmness to effectively advocate for themselves when dealing with legal bodies like Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission, which adjudicates tenancy disputes. She said more legal assistance and educational services are needed.
“There's a gap in services that we see right now, that there's really no body that's focused on tenant's rights."
The province seems to be acknowledging the issue.
Last Wednesday, Finance Minister Heath MacDonald said a review has been ordered of tenancy rights under IRAC in order to determine if legislative changes are needed to allow the commission to complete its mandate.
"We've sent them a letter indicating we want them to review tenant rights and landlord obligations. It's all a circumference of this whole housing issue, and we wanted to ensure we were covering all our bases relevant to the legal side of things for tenant rights." MacDonald said.
However, said MacDonald, the province has no hard data on key aspects of the tenancy process in P.E.I., such as the number of evictions that have taken place over the last year.
"We didn't have good data on evictions," MacDonald told The Guardian on Wednesday.
"When I was asked to take a lead on it, it was like, 'well, give me some information.' And it was very limited."
The tenancy process under the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission is complaint-driven. This means the commission does not collect data on the specific nature of tenancy disputes heard by the public body. Landlords are not required to seek the approval of IRAC before issuing an eviction notice to a tenant, although tenants have the right to appeal these notices.
But Jennifer Perry, acting director of residential rental property at IRAC, said in the midst of the shortage of rental housing, call volumes from both landlords and tenants have been increasing.
Between April 2017 and March 2018, the number of orders – or decisions by the commission – stood at 328. The number of appeals – for matters like evictions or of withholding of deposits – stood at 26. Since April 1, 2018, there have been 327 orders from the commission, but the number of appeals has jumped to 38.
Perry believes this is evidence that renters, when faced with fewer options in finding another place to live, are opting to challenge evictions through IRAC.
“Tenants have nowhere to go. They are appealing their eviction notices,” Perry said.
Both Wheatley and Carroll said they were disappointed the planned review of IRAC will not include a public outreach component.
Carroll also said she would like to see the commission focus more on a mediated approach between landlords and tenants. She said the commission, as a legal body, generally makes decisions in disputes between landlords and tenants that focuses on adherence to regulation, as opposed to reaching a settlement.
"If they weren't so black and white, then that opens up an opportunity for landlords and tenants to actually talk about a possible mediation or negotiation for the conflict,” Carroll said.
Carroll estimated that the Council of People with Disabilities assists 10 individual each year with tenancy matters. But, she said it is often more helpful for staff to simply pick up the phone and call landlords in hopes of settling disputes.
"I think maybe if landlords knew, really knew, how much it affects a person's life and how really difficult it is to get another apartment, they might change some of those decisions," Carroll said.
At a glance
Tenancy Orders and Appeals heard by IRAC in recent years
2014/15 455 52
2015/16 462 40
2016/17 384 23*
2017/18 328 26
2018/19† 327† 38†
*Estimated. Incomplete records exist for 2016/17
†To date between April 1 and Oct. 30, 2018