Should an alleged criminal act get you banned from social housing?

Entire households can now be banned for up to five years if one member has previously been evicted for an alleged illegal act. The province says this will improve safety — but critics warn it will hurt the vulnerable
By Tebasum Durrani - Published on Jan 13, 2020
Approximately 250,000 families live in social housing across Ontario. (Deborah Baic/CP)

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Dhaneshwari Naidoo says that, for 26 years, she paid her rent, maintained her three-bedroom townhouse in the former Toronto borough of Etobicoke, and worked with neighbors in the community garden.

Then, in September 2015, Naidoo’s son was charged with possession of illegal weapons and drugs. The following May, even before her son’s conviction, Toronto Community Housing served Naidoo an eviction notice. Her appeals stretched into April 2019, when Ontario’s Divisional Court upheld the public-housing provider’s eviction. About a year after her son was released early for good behaviour, she had to move — although her son was no longer living with her.

“I can’t believe I lost my home,” says Naidoo, who had not realized that such evictions are permitted under the Residential Tenancies Act, legislation that regulates landlord and tenant relations in the province. Under the act, a household can be evicted if an illegal act is alleged to have been committed by a tenant, occupant, or even guest of the unit in question.

In September 2019, the Housing Services Act was amended, and TCHC’s eviction powers were expanded: entire households can be now banned from social housing for up to five years if one member of a household has previously been evicted for an illegal act. The government says that the move is intended to improve the safety of social-housing residents — but housing advocates argue that it will harm Ontario’s vulnerable populations.

The legislative changes will apply to the approximately 250,000 families living in social housing across Ontario, according to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

If a resident is alleged to have committed an illegal act on a rental property, a landlord, such as TCHC, can apply for an eviction to the Landlord and Tenant Board, which settles disputes between Ontario tenants and landlords. If an eviction is ordered — TCHC says that there were 61 illegal-act evictions at its properties in the first 11 months of 2019 — a public-housing provider will then decide whether to apply the ban.

TCHC spokesperson Bruce Malloch says that the housing corporation is “assessing the impact of the legislative changes” and plans on working with the city on implementation. Ottawa Community Housing Corporation “continues to assess how [the amendments] should be implemented,” says spokesperson Nathaniel Mullin.

Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs spokesperson Conrad Spezowka told TVO.org via email that the government is “putting people first by making community housing safer, more efficient and sustainable to help people who need it most.” Proponents of the ban, including Toronto mayor John Tory, also cite safety. In an emailed statement, Lawvin Hadisi, a spokesperson from the mayor’s office, said that “the Mayor is confident that TCHC is working alongside City staff to implement the new policy and are working with the community to ensure that those who are committing illegal activity are not taking advantage of our city’s social housing.”

Toronto councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who says she “cautiously supports” the policy, suggests that it will allow public landlords to ensure that individuals returning to social housing won’t jeopardize community safety. “We have heard from communities of tenants who live in buildings where they have been subject to dangerous criminal activity, and they have repeatedly complained about their personal safety, and they have felt that the landlord was not doing enough to protect them,” she says.

But advocates warn that tenants who aren’t connected to the illegal act could be banned from social housing — and that women will be disproportionately affected.

“Somebody’s son or daughter gets charged with something, and the mom, and possibly other children, face the brunt of what’s happened,” says Yodit Edemariam, the director of legal services at Toronto’s Rexdale Community Legal Clinic, who represents tenants facing illegal-act evictions. “What a position for a mom to be in.” A 2017 review of LTB decisions found that 86 per cent of tenants who were evicted as a result of a third party’s actions were women.

TCHC says that, in some situations, it will seek a mediated agreement at the LTB through which a household member who is alleged to have committed an illegal act can agree to leave the unit so that the household can remain. “An eviction applies to the household, as opposed to an individual in a household,” Malloch told TVO.org via email. “In cases where others in the household, such as minors, are at risk of losing their housing as a result of one household member having committed a serious crime, Toronto Community Housing will consider whether it is appropriate in all the circumstances to seek to reach a mediated solution at the Landlord and Tenant Board whereby the household member who committed the crime agrees to leave the household.” 

Critics are also concerned about the fact that an illegal-act eviction does not require a conviction. Toronto lawyer Caryma Sa’d has represented clients who have been evicted for alleged illegal acts and subsequently had the charges withdrawn (in Ontario, 45 per cent of criminal charges are stayed or withdrawn, according to Statistics Canada). “Housing is a critical part of stability, and where there is a bar to regaining long-term shelter, that doesn’t bode well for an individual’s reintegration into society,” she says. “[This policy] will exacerbate the problems it is trying to prevent.”

Asked to clarify how the five-year ban would apply if charges were dropped or a tenant were found not guilty, Spezowka told TVO.org in an email that “the new ground of refusal only applies where the Landlord and Tenant Board ordered an eviction based on an N6 notice for an illegal act, within the past five years,” adding, “In order to refuse a household, the housing provider must also have reasonable grounds to believe the household would pose a risk to the safety of one or more other people at the housing project (e.g. other residents, staff).”

However, advocates are skeptical about the policy’s ability to enhance safety. “Without housing,” says Alyssa Brierley, executive director of the Centre for Equality in Accommodation,  “people cannot be healthy, hold down a job, or be part of a community — all things that would go much further in preventing crime than policy initiatives such as this one.”

Since her eviction, Naidoo has been relying on family and friends for accommodation, but she’s worried that she might be forced into an emergency shelter. “I’m lost without my housing,” she says, “bouncing around looking for a bed for the night.”

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