NOW Weekly, October 28, 1999
by Andrew Cash
After all, this is the home of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and demos here are a dime a dozen.
But there's something different about this mini-protest -- a quietness, a reserve that's a long way off from most boisterous anti-Tory happenings. That's because the crowd of mostly African and Asian newcomers are carrying some uncomfortable memories along with their picket signs.
Anna Thaker, who grew up in Uganda during the reign of dictator Idi Amin, puts it succinctly. "This is scary for us. We come from places where you don't do this sort of thing lightly."
But such are the times that even normally reticent folks get shoved beyond intimidation. In this case, these low-income residents of 103 and 105 West Lodge have no choice -- on November 1, they face a 30- to 50-per-cent rent increase in a building full of mould and neglect, and they wonder if they'll have a home by Christmas.
In a province where activists warn that 300,000 households are at risk of homelessness, this is a mere microcosm of the disaster wrought by the Tenant Protection Act (TPA), which even Tories are beginning to quietly admit is a lemon. And add to the equation the cutbacks and megacity mess that have left city officials without the resources to inspect buildings for jerked-around tenants.
"Mike Harris has turned us into political activists," says Thaker. "First we get hit with a 21-per-cent reduction in social assistance and then this rent increase."
Few landlords could get away with raising rents this much on units with existing tenants.
But West Lodge has always been a world unto itself. This is a building with a long and sordid history of mismanagement and disrepair, and in 1990 the former city of Toronto froze all the rents until the landlord made a number of costly repairs.
All those were finally completed to the city's satisfaction this summer, paving the way for the landlord to play catch-up with the rent.
In a perfectly legal move, the infamous Wynn family, depicted in the media for the last 20 years as a slum landlord, simply added up the yearly 2- to 4-per-cent rent increases that could have been charged on each unit since 1990 and dinged the tenants with the total, all at once.
"We can't believe the city was satisfied with the repairs," says Thaker. "This place is still falling apart."
The tenants have ensured that West Lodge is in the news again. That's probably why, when I visit the buildings the day after the demo with a photographer, I'm met by two guys doing good Russian-mobster imitations. They say they're the building's security guards and no one's allowed to take photos.
They remind me of bouncers at bars who are supposedly there to break up fights but end up starting them. Since they say they are "security," I take the opportunity to alert them, as a courtesy, to the fact that the back door to one of the buildings has no lock, so anyone can get into the building at any time.
One "guard" smiles and says, "That is not a security issue. That is a building issue. That's up to the landlord to deal with."
When I meet Thaker inside the building and tell her about this encounter, she says, "Now you see what I've been telling you. There is constant harassment and intimidation.''
As an example, she shows me a notice prohibiting her to enter 105 West Lodge (she lives at 103) that appeared after she delivered flyers to each apartment announcing an upcoming tenants association meeting.
"They tell me I'm not allowed to go into the building. And I'm the president of the tenants association."
Thaker has faced eviction before. Growing up in Uganda, she and the rest of the Indian community there were sent packing by Amin in 1972. "We were given 24 hours to get out of the country," she tells me.
She's lived in West Lodge for 18 years, and for the last two she's been unemployed and draining her RRSP savings. She's been so busy organizing tenants, she tells me, that she hasn't had time to look for another job.
She takes me on a guided tour of the building, walking me through hallways where water-damaged plaster hangs from the ceiling, heavy with mould.
None of the elevators have provincial permits on their walls, and the front-door buzzer system hasn't worked in years. I ask a woman who, along with her eight-year-old boy, is dragging grocery bags into their apartment, what her place looks like.
She laughs, "You wouldn't want to see it." Suddenly I'm swarmed by other tenants, all anxious to tell their stories. Some are speaking to me through interpreters. The stories are all the same: leaky ceilings, darkened stairways, lots of roaches, lots of landlord harassment and little action on repairs.
One woman tells me that when she cleans her stove, she has to be careful; once she received an electric shock from it that threw her across the kitchen. Mice had been chewing on the wires.
Another tenant, Leilani Munoz, says so many cockroaches lived in the vent above her stove that the critters were hopping right into whatever she cooked. She had to cover up the vent.
Among the complaints, one rises above the rest. There's not a single freezer in any fridge that can keep ice cream frozen. I glance over at the eight-year-old. Our eyes meet and we silently agree. That's an injustice.
For the last 25 years, the tenants of these two semi-circular high-rises have seen it all. In the bad old days, there were crack houses, prostitution, urine-soaked hallways and non-existent security. The buildings were a fire hazard and the underground parking lot a nightmare.
Finally, a rent strike got the attention of local politicians in 1990 and the city slapped the then landlord with 600 work orders, including a multi-million-dollar repair on the underground garage. Until the repairs were done, the rents were frozen. During Christmas of 1994, people started freezing -- the buildings had no heat throughouut the holiday season.
The landlord, Montreal-based Zaidan Realty Corp., owing the city millions in taxes, gave the keys to the city and simply walked away.
In 1995, the city placed it in receivership and installed a management company that began methodically working its way through the repair schedule -- West Lodge was starting to improve.
But in 1997, the Wynns, who owned the building once in the 70s and continued through the years to hold a second mortgage, bought the building out from under the tenants, who had an offer in to purchase it themselves and turn it into a cooperative.
This summer, the Wynns finished all outstanding work orders and, perhaps more significantly, paid the back taxes owed to the city.
This put them in a legal position -- under a glitch in the notorious TPA -- to add up all the maximum allowable rent increases that could have been charged on each unit since the 1990 rent freeze and roll them into one whopping increase.
Landlord Jeff Wynn doesn't know why the tenants have a problem now. "We have spent millions on these buildings. We have cleared up all the work orders.
"Before we came in, this place was like the Bronx," he says. "Now it's one of the nicest apartment buildings in Parkdale."
The buildings, however, were in such bad shape that by the time the repair orders were completed -- a full decade after many of them were initially requested -- there were a whole host of new problems.
"Even many of the things they said they'd fixed, like the garage and the roof, are still leaking," says Thaker.
But if the city took a firm hand a decade ago, it certainly isn't showing much muscle now.
"We've given up on the city," she says. "We have been asking and asking the city to come and do a wholesale inspection, and they simply won't."
What is going on here?
Councillors for the area try to be reassuring.
"If there is any complaint, then the tenants should contact us," says Chris Korwin-Kuczynski. "The Wynns aren't the greatest apartment owners and West Lodge has been put on a special list so that problems get dealt with immediately."
Councillor David Miller tells me that if tenants have repair orders that aren't getting tended to, they should call him.
"There have been communication problems," says Miller. But then he admits the city "just doesn't have enough inspectors," a consequence of amalgamation and the tax freeze.
Still, he says, he hopes "the tenants see the city as their ally."
The tenants, however, don't. "Chris may say this, but try phoning him when you have no hot water or your apartment is leaking. You see what kind of action you get then," says Thaker.
Bart Poesiat of Parkdale Legal Services is more blunt.
"We're getting no response from the city, and I think it's for the simple reason that the city has flatlined financially."
It is becoming a huge problem, he says, as a number of buildings hit the 20- to 30-year mark, when they begin to need major repairs.
"The housing stock in Parkdale, for example, is going downhill fast. Without inspectors out there, landlords can simply pocket the money they would otherwise have to pay out in capital costs."
So do we really have an inspector shortage, and is that why no one has recently inspected 103 and 105 West Lodge?
Curtis Sealock, manager of the municipal licensing and standards office for South District (the former city of Toronto) answers the question carefully. "Since amalgamation, our office is considerably leaner, (in) both management and staff," he says.
His office is extremely busy not only trying to keep on top of the city's housing stock, he says, but also dealing with issues brought on by amalgamation, such as the harmonization of property and building bylaws.
"It is a bit overwhelming, actually. We just don't have the resources to blitz a building like we used to."
There are currently 25 building inspectors out in the field looking at property standards for the existing housing stock in the former city of Toronto.
Senior brass at the city, however, have another story altogether. They say none of those cuts affected building inspectors.
"We have the same number of inspectors in the field now as we did before the cut," says Harold Bratten, acting executive director for municipal licensing and standards.
In 1998, he says, the urban planning and development office (which oversees municipal licensing and standards) reduced its staff by 13 per cent -- about 120 workers.
"Those cuts did not affect inspectors," Bratten says.
But Miller insists, "That is just not true. The number of inspectors in my ward has been sizably reduced and the new structure is less efficient than it was before."
Miller says that in the past, one inspector could do both property standards inspections and new building inspections. But in the megacity the departments have been split into separate offices.
"That means in some cases now you need two inspectors to come out to some buildings instead of one," he says. "That just slows everything down."
Miller estimates it would take five inspectors two weeks to properly inspect West Lodge.
A proposal being debated this week in city council would change the way building inspections are done in the former city of Toronto to deal with the backlog of cases and to ensure the problem doesn't reoccur. The proposal will take about $1.35 million over five years, raised through licensing fees, and pay for enough inspectors to make sure building inspections are done regularly instead of on a complaint basis.
That means buildings with a bad reputation like West Lodge could be monitored every six months, while others could be looked at every five years.
While this isn't going to save the tenants of West Lodge from a rent increase, Sealock maintains that there is a system in place to deal with issues as they come up at those buildings. He says the problem is that the tenants aren't following the proper protocol.
If there is a maintenance problem, the tenant should notify the landlord and fill out a work order.
If the landlord doesn't act on the order, the tenant should contact the city's municipal licensing and standards office.
If there isn't an immediate danger, the city will call the landlord. If the matter does pose a danger, the city should be there fast.
But even if the city does send a work order, the landlord has, on average, 30 days to comply before facing a penalty.
"The problem at West Lodge is that the tenants keep calling the city when they should first be calling the landlord," says Sealock.
I ask Mohamed Albik, a former soldier in the Syrian army and now a wholesaler of fruits and vegetables, if he's filled out any work orders to get the leaks fixed in his kitchen ceiling.
"Yes, I have, but they have never come and done the work and I've never been given a copy of the order," he says.
Albik makes me a cup of sweet instant coffee and tells me he's been paying $383 a month, so while he lives in a dump, he can console himself that at least it's cheap. But November 1, his rent goes up to $605.
Thaker says that if there is a system, it is the landlord that's not following it. "Tenants will report a problem, and if the landlord doesn't want to fix it, then he just gives the tenant Curtis Sealock's phone number and says, 'Here, phone the inspector.'"
The demonstration at the ministry had one interesting consequence. No, the tenants didn't get to meet with then minister Steve Gilchrist (who couldn't have been looking at the issue at all, as he was writing his cabinet resignation letter at the time.)
And no, they didn't get assurances about their concerns from the ministry spokesperson who listened to their delegation.
What they did get was an admission, says Thaker, that the TPA is in a mess.
Hmm, that's the second time in a week I've been told the Tories are quietly admitting that things have gone wrong with this law.
"I've never heard anyone say that," says Adrian Mann, communications director for municipal affairs and housing. "But any piece of legislation as new as the Tenant Protection Act is being looked at on an ongoing basis."
But Kevin Sullivan, who works in the ministry's housing policy branch, inadvertently signals a whole lot more -- a tacit recognition that something unanticipated has fouled the works.
The issue of charging accumulated maximum rents, as is happening at West Lodge, is being looked at, but changes will not come soon enough for tenants, he says.
"If there is a decision to make changes, it would require a legislative amendment to the TPA," he says, "and that's not going to happen overnight."
Go back to the West Lodge (Toronto) Tenants Association home page.