Landlords and the law

Most students renting houses ‘don’t know about their rights as tenants’

Town-Gown Relations Co-ordinator Joan Jones says students can negotiate with landlords.
Image by: Tyler Ball
Town-Gown Relations Co-ordinator Joan Jones says students can negotiate with landlords.

In the hunt for housing, many students worry about running into problems with their landlords. The difficulty, according to Town Gown Relations Co-ordinator Joan Jones, is lack of understanding of the leasing process. But there are a number of measures students can take to avoid hassles—and legal issues—down the road.

Jones said students often approach her with problems, such as what to do when one housemate moves out without paying rent.

“We talk about student housing quality and those sorts of things, but really the predominant thing is something falling apart within the workings of the house,” she said.

Contracts usually have terms granting 100 per cent of the responsibility for the house to its tenants. If a tenant leaves without paying his or her rent, co-tenants have the right to sue, Jones said.

“Sometimes that’s hard because the amounts owed are often beneath the minimum for a legitimate small-claims court case,” she said.

“If somebody leaves you need to pay up their portion … and then hope that you can recover the loss from them.”

Jones also helps students communicate with their landlords.

“There will always be tenants who are living in a place where the landlord is not being responsive,” she said.

If a landlord isn’t answering tenants’ requests, their first step in taking action should be demonstrating that they’ve asked for something.

“Hopefully they have some kind of notes—either about telephone conversations, or they’ve written a letter,” Jones said, adding that e-mail isn’t considered a lawful form of communication because it’s so easy to tamper with dates.

The next step for tenants left out in the cold would be to call the city for a property standards assessment, she said. In conjunction with that, if necessary, the tenants could approach Queen’s Legal Aid.

Jones met with a group earlier this year whose landlord promised to install a second bathroom in their house and has yet to follow through.

“It’s now January and they still only have one bathroom. So that’s a big deal. While they would want the bathroom finished, they would also probably be seeking some sort of [rent] reduction.”

In another case she dealt with this year, a landlord decided to add a new bedroom in the basement of a house, but due to strict regulations regarding how much of a room should be above ground, the plans turned out to be unlawful.

Jones said many other students come to see her with questions about safety—such as whether a house requires a carbon monoxide detector—and privacy. A number of student groups approach her for help understanding how to deal with their housing problems and then deal with their landlords themselves.

“What I really try to do is equip students with information so they can resolve this without lawyering-up,” Jones said, adding that more than half of those who visit her with a legal issue don’t end up going to Legal Aid.

“Lots of this stuff really can be resolved just with conversation and a little bit of knowledge.”

Susan Charlesworth, acting senior review counsel at Queen’s Legal Aid, said although students are familiar with tenants’ rights matters by the time they reach her, the average student probably isn’t.

“Most students, I suspect, don’t know about their rights as tenants,” she said.

Tenant-landlord disputes are handled not by the courts, but by a separate tribunal, the Landlord Tenant Board.

Charlesworth said Legal Aid’s job is to prove the tenants’ rights have been denied.

“As long as the issues are ones that we can prove we have a fairly good success at the tribunal,” she said. “That’s part of what we do—help gather evidence so it might be a successful hearing.”

The tribunal can also order the landlord to do repair work, Charlesworth said. But she said Legal Aid prefers to settle cases before they go to trial.

“Settlement happens pretty regularly,” she said. “We always try to settle before we ever have to make an application.”

Charlesworth said most Queen’s students seeking Legal Aid assistance are pursuing landlord-tenant cases.

“About 20 per cent of our clients are Queen’s students, but it’s much higher for landlord-tenant because that’s mostly the area that we assist Queen’s students with.”

Queen’s students automatically qualify for the service, Charlesworth said. Other clients have to be below a certain financial level to qualify.

Jones said it’s important for students to remember that they have the right to ask questions when signing their lease.

“You’re allowed to negotiate anything on the lease,” she said.

For instance, tenants can ask for different rent, lawn care or parking space. Town-Gown Relations hosts housing talks during the first week of classes to encourage students to ask questions of their landlords and take time signing their leases. She said it’s important to take measures to offset the level of panic that often accompanies house-hunting.

“I think students really perceive this huge power imbalance, that landlords are in control of everything,” she said.

But while tenants have rights, they also have responsibilities—most of which are built into the lease. For instance, most landlords require their tenants to keep the house clean, to ensure it’s heated during cold weather and to limit the wear and tear “to a reasonable standard,” Jones said.

She said landlords come to her for advice, too. Parents who purchase houses in the ghetto and people who rent out rooms in private homes—neither of whom are covered by the Residential Tenancies Act of Ontario—often have questions, she said. And on occasion, landlords warn her if they’re having difficulties with their tenants.

But on the whole, Jones said, students seem to be fairly comfortable with their living conditions at Queen’s. Last winter, most of those who signed leases took a lot longer than usual to sign. In the end, prices dropped and students were happier. And in a survey of 406 Queen’s students conducted by Queen’s Business Consulting this year, 89 per cent said they were satisfied with their living situation.

For AMS Municipal Affairs Commissioner Paul Tye, who has been working to highlight the positive aspects of student housing, those numbers say a lot more about the housing situation than do landlord horror stories.

The week before Reading Week, the MAC will present its annual Golden Cockroach and Golden Key awards. Last year no one received the Golden Cockroach, which recognizes Kingston’s worst landlord. Kaitlyn Young, MAC commissioner at the time, said the award wasn’t justified because the landlord hadn’t been aware of all the winning house’s problems. In 2006 and 2007, the award went to landlord Phil Lam.

The Golden Key—which until the MAC’s Ghetto makeover was called the “Key to the Ghetto”—was awarded to landlord Robert Reid in February last year to honour him as best landlord.

“For a long time and for good reasons the focus has been on the bad landlords,” Tye said. “But what I’ve tried to do is work with good landlords and focus on the positive relationships.”

When the Town-Gown survey was first conducted in 1991, Tye said, the number of students satisfied with their housing sat at about 82 per cent, and the number has never gone below that level.

“I’m not suggesting there aren’t problems; I just think there’s a benefit from shifting the focus to be something a little more positive.”

Eric Tozzi, Student Property Assessment Team (SPAT) co-chair, will help assess the houses entered in the landlord awards this year. Tozzi said SPAT also accompanies students who are hunting for houses upon request and does inspections for students who are concerned about the state of their houses.

A few times each year, SPAT also performs “inspection blitzes,” where they hit anywhere between 20 and 50 houses. In the fall, the group did a blitz on Division Street, Tozzi said. Using a checklist from Kingston property standards, they compile a list of infractions and e-mail it to the tenants.

“They can then either forward it to their landlord and ask for it to be fixed or they can call the Kingston inspectors,” Tozzi said, adding that most houses have minor infractions—such as cracks and leaks—but there are rarely major problems.

“Most problems come from … someone trying to repair it themselves and not doing it properly,” Tozzi said. “Like instead of fixing they patch it and it’s good for a year until the next tenants.”

—With files from Michael Woods

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