Landlord agreements not always legal

Leases can include a variety of additional rules, but not all can be enforced under Ontario law

Some lease conditions are impossible for landlords to legally enforce.
Some lease conditions are impossible for landlords to legally enforce.
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Credit: 
Graphic by Michaella Fortune

When Madi Trenholm found a broken oven in her new apartment, she thought she would just have to ask her landlord to fix it.

She said the oven wasn’t working when she and her housemates first entered their Birch St. apartment in May 2013 — and despite repeatedly telling her landlord to repair it, the oven remained broken every time she visited over the summer.

Trenholm, ArtSci ’16, had hoped for a different introduction to off-campus housing at the end of first year.

“It wasn’t until the end of September when my mom threatened legal action that they finally got us a new stove,” she said.

Although her landlord’s inaction suggests otherwise, the lease Trenholm signed included a promise to provide appliances, which legally obligated her landlord to provide a working oven. Still, she said legality was the least of her worries at the time.

“It was just like, we need to cook and we can’t,” Trenholm said. “You don’t move into a house thinking you’re not going to be able to cook food.”

With limited on-campus housing available to upper-year students, the vast majority rent housing in the University District, where tenant-landlord conflicts are common.

Landlord disputes led to the birth of Facebook groups like “Kingston Red Alert Housing”, which was created last May. In the group, students collaborated on an open list of houses and landlords with whom they’ve had negative experiences.

The intention, according to the group’s description, is to help new students avoid similarly bad experiences. The group currently has 22 posts about individual properties.

Even simple tasks can be difficult with the wrong landlord.

Kate Finkler-Kemeny said she saw her landlord’s true colours when she and her two housemates tried to compost food from their Sydenham St. house.

“She informed us that she was afraid of the animals … associated with the composting,” said Finkler-Kemeny, MPL ’15, although she believes her landlord mostly resented the hassle.

Because the landlord wouldn’t provide her house with bins, Finkler-Kemeny and her housemates acquired their own from the city. She said they thought that would be the end of it. They were wrong.

“She refused to let us store our composting bins on her property, so we had to use our neighbour’s backyard to store our compost bin,” Finkler-Kemeny said, adding that her landlord then complained that the bin was too close to her property.

Next, the landlord took a ruler to the property line to determine how far the bins had to be before they were technically off her property.

“She did this while sending threatening emails, yelling and screaming.”

The ordeal wasn’t an isolated incident, according to Finkler-Kemeny, and it “sums up every other experience with her in general”.

She stopped renting from that landlord because of these incidents, even though her apartment was “beautiful and the rent was below market rate”.

Finkler-Kemeny said she and her housemates considered legal action several times, but never followed through, either resolving disputes on their own or giving up because they didn’t think they had a case.

“I wish I’d pursued legal aid on some of the issues with her,” she said. “I would actually recommend that to people, because I think that it’s very easy to be taken advantage of when you’re stressed and tired.”

Once you start a conversation about landlords with Queen’s students, it isn’t long before they bring up Daphne Dean. She’s mentioned twice on the list compiled by the “Kingston Red Alert Housing” Facebook group.

Complaints often concern Dean’s extremely detailed leases and the “Rules and Regulations” document she provides each of her tenants.

Some rules seem logical, such as respect for common spaces, while others border on bizarre. Restrictions include prohibitions on “the playing of musical instruments, radios, phonographs, televisions and all parties, in a disorderly manner or otherwise”, according to a copy of the document obtained by the Journal.

Parties are also off-limits. “Occasional quiet social gatherings” are allowed, but there are restrictions on the number of guests, and all attendees other than the tenants must vacate the premises by 9 p.m.

Dean didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Online discussion by groups like “Kingston Red Alert Housing” frequently focuses on whether or not the content of these agreements is legally enforceable.

According to the Residential Tenancies Act — which governs landlord-tenant relationships in Ontario — a lease is only required to include the names of the parties involved, the address of the property rented, the landlord’s address, the length of the lease period, the cost of rent and signatures of the people involved.

Aside from the lease’s requirements, there are two types of additional clauses: those that are legally enforceable and those that aren’t.

Legally enforceable provisions are binding in the eyes of the courts. If either the tenants or landlord have agreed to abide by certain restrictions, they must follow them, even when they feel these measures are unwarranted or inconvenient.

When these provisions conflict with existing laws, though, they might not be legally binding.

A clause that forbids a resident from keeping pets, for example, wouldn’t be legally enforceable under the Residential Tenancies Act, which states that “a provision in a tenancy agreement prohibiting the presence of animals in or about the residential complex is void.”

According to Joan Jones, a student-community relations coordinator at Queen’s, a clause may seem strange or unfair, but that doesn’t necessarily make it legally void.

The Student Community Relations Office provides a resource to students for navigating landlord-tenant negotiations. She said if the Residential Tenancies Act doesn’t specifically cover the content of a lease, and the tenant is aware of a clause’s meaning when they sign, that provision can be legally enforced.

“Whenever it’s in the language of the lease and it’s not hidden in some kind of weird way, it’s considered a reasonable extra condition,” Jones said.

Because the Residential Tenancies Act doesn’t guarantee a tenant’s right to have parties, Jones said the provisions in Daphne Dean’s leases are legally enforceable.

Jones said she encourages students to think critically before signing the first lease that crosses their path.

“If it’s not reasonable, don’t sign it.”

If students aren’t sure if a clause is legally enforceable, Jones said her office could help them make that distinction.

Students can also get advice on housing issues from the AMS Housing Grievance Centre, which is overseen by AMS Municipal Affairs Commissioner Ariel Aguilar Gonzalez. Aguilar, who rents a house from Queen’s Community Housing, said he advises students to get to know their landlords and speak up when something goes wrong.

Although some students believe landlords will react negatively to complaints, Aguilar, ArtSci ’16, said this isn’t often the case.

“A lot of landlords prefer it when their tenants do notify them of any kind of maintenance issues in their homes,” he said, adding that it’s easier to fix problems immediately when they arise.

When things go wrong, he said students should send print letters instead of other correspondence, since the Landlord-Tenant Board — the provincial body that governs tenant-landlord relations — only recognizes formal letters as communication.

“It doesn’t matter if you have emails or anything — that doesn’t count. When you send a letter to your landlord, that’s a signal to them that you actually know what’s going on.”

If a landlord doesn’t comply, students can also seek legal help. Queen’s Legal Aid provides legal services for tenant-landlord matters and conducts interviews with students to determine whether they’re eligible for help.

Ultimately, Aguilar said, understanding a landlord’s personality helps students avoid conflict altogether.

The AMS’s Golden Key Award recognizes an outstanding landlord in the community every year. In 2012, that honour went to Gloria Kao and her husband Richard.

They have been landlords for 12 years and own multiple properties in the University District.

Gloria Kao said they became landlords “because we are retired and we love kids so much”, adding that they understand the role clear rules play in establishing a good landlord-tenant relationship.

“If they don’t have rules, how can they be responsible? How can they do things right?” Kao said.

While the husband-wife duo regulates the behaviour of their tenants, Kao said they do so to create the better housing experience for their tenants.

“We want to help everybody to study here and have a good home.”

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