Hisham Alasbachi was preparing to fight his landlord’s effort to evict him when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board.
Now that Premier Doug Ford’s government has won court approval for the tenancy board to dig into its eviction backlog, the 33-year-old former refugee from Syria is expecting to be among the first to be called up.
“I am expecting it any day and especially under the new law I am expecting them to come to my home and tell me you have to go out directly without anything,” he said in a phone interview.
“It’s really frustrating,” said Alasbachi, who uses a wheelchair and if evicted would have to find a fully accessible alternative. “I don’t know what to do.”
Alasbachi, who is also an executive member of the York South-Weston Tenants’ Union, said he knew of at least three tenants in his high-rise apartment building who have fallen behind on rent since the pandemic, and have in the past week been served with eviction papers.
“It is not just me, all my neighbours are all afraid, they don't know what to do, and they are saying they will be homeless,” he said.
It does not explicitly allow for hearings to be waived as Alasbachi says, unless a tenant signs a rent arrears repayment plan and later misses a payment. Tenant groups are urging renters not to sign such agreements amid the pandemic.
But Alasbachi is already on the firing line. He's one of at least 700 households that lawyers for the province’s attorney general told court on Friday had unenforced eviction orders pending against them, according to a lawyer for a tenant group seeking an immediate pause to evictions.
Benjamin Ries is acting on behalf of the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, which on Sunday heard that its push to pause the immediate resumption of eviction hearings had failed.
That appeal related to court approval on July 6 of a request from the province’s attorney general to amend a moratorium on evictions put in place in the early days of COVID-19.
A judge has rejected a call for a stay on the resumption of eviction hearings at Ontario's Landlord and Tenant Board, meaning those cancelled due to COVID-19 can resume and new applications can be scheduled
The government had asked for restrictions to lift soon after the state of emergency was lifted rather than when courts resume regular operations (as decreed in March) in an ex parte application, meaning tenants and tenant right groups were not privy to the motion or invited to argue its merits.
Ries argues that the government neglected to present a full and fair representation of the circumstances.
“The very next day, on July 7th, the attorney general introduced Bill 195, which in our view changed what the state of emergency even means,” Ries said, referring to the government’s omnibus law to allow for the reopening of the province’s economy.
“It allowed the state of emergency to end on July 24th, while giving the government the power to continue exercising a number of emergency powers for many months to follow,” he said.
Justice Myers of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on Sunday ruled it was not for the courts to decide whether evictions should resume.
“They want to argue about whether evictions should be allowed in Ontario at this time,” Justice Myers wrote in the ruling about both tenant and landlord groups.
“Their concerns, as raised before me, are not properly directed at the Chief Justice’s order re-opening court enforcement services,” Justice Myers said. “Rather, there may be individual concerns for individual eviction proceedings and there may be systemic concerns that are properly addressed with the government.”
And so, less than a month after Bill 195 was introduced, eviction hearings are set to begin again.
Ries said a court ruling on the issue would be better than leaving it to government or the Landlord and Tenant Board to decide, since the same health risks apply to everyone affected, and that not all tenants facing eviction have the tools to navigate the legal system in a way that would force their changed circumstances due to COVID-19 to be addressed.
“And there is no guarantee of what the Landlord and Tenant Board would do in those individual cases anyway,” he said.
Chiara Padovani is another of the organizers of the York South-Weston Tenants’ Union, which includes tenant associations for 13 high-rise buildings, as well as other tenants in the area in the west end of Toronto.
“We’re preparing for a wave of evictions,” she said, adding that efforts to inform tenants of their rights and recent changes to tenancy law had also been made more difficult because of the pandemic.
She said the pandemic had also made organizing harder, with door-to-door work shifting to phone banks and virtual and outdoor meetings that she estimates thousands of residents are unable to access due to technological or other constraints.
“We’re telling our members not to sign anything,” she said. “Because they could be signing away their right to an eviction hearing, which is the last recourse for many tenants.”
Alastair Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer