In the city of Ottawa, where the vacancy rate is between 1.4% and 2.1%, trying to find safe, affordable, and adequate housing is a daunting and stressful task. When options are limited, the priority of searching for a home that suits your needs is frequently replaced with a search for something that fits your budget. For those living in poverty in Canada’s capital, this often means settling for units that are abhorrent and inhabitable.
In Ottawa, this is the reality for a startling number of individuals who are forced to live with cockroaches, dangerous levels of mold, bedbugs, and a variety of maintenance issues on a daily basis.
Take for example the residents of Herongate, where over 500 tenants, mostly persons of colour, were forcibly evicted by Timbercreek Asset Management. Despite the many complaints about substandard living conditions, the complaints were left unheard by city bylaw officials. Examples of complaints can be found in a recent report that collected over 90 work orders from tenants of Herongate, all of which show a variety of property-standard violations including broken windows, pests, and non-functional heating units.
So why don’t tenants living in situations like those in Herongate just take legal action by filing a complaint against building owners to the Landlord and Tenant Board?
Frankly, it’s not that simple. For newcomers, understanding tenant rights may be inaccessible due to language barriers. In the Herongate example, in a survey of 165 tenants, 22% of respondents said they didn’t know that the 3-1-1 City of Ottawa bylaw complaint line was an available option. For others, the threat of landlord repercussions is a real and intimidating dilemma. Pair these reasons with the fact that there is a significant lack of alternate housing options and the harsh reality is that many Ottawa renters see no way out of their current situation. As a result, many renters simply stay silent to avoid the risk of being cast out of the only place that fits their restrictive budget.
With no system in place to keep landlords and building owners accountable for failing to keep their units livable, many landlords see no urgency to uphold their legal obligation for adequate repairs and maintenance. Consequently, low-income renters are forced to live in appalling conditions with no hope that their landlord will alleviate their issues.
Recently, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) has stepped in to say “enough is enough”. ACORN, which represents over 130,000 low and moderate-income families across the country, has launched their RentSafe bylaw campaign.
The campaign asks the City of Ottawa to implement stricter penalties for landlords who fail to fulfill their legal maintenance and repair responsibilities.
What is the RentSafe Bylaw?
The RentSafe by-law is an enforcement program that would ensure building owners and landlords comply with maintenance standards. The program would require landlords to have their properties registered and regularly inspected for pests and maintenance issues.
The bylaw would also establish severe consequences for landlords who fail to address the problems in a timely and effective manner. Under the proposed regulations, Ottawa bylaw officers would be able to enter a unit to do repairs then bill the landlord.
Based on a similar model that was passed in Toronto in 2017, the RentSafe program would have landlords pay a small, annual, per unit registration fee to cover the costs of the program. Results of bylaw inspections would be posted online and in rental buildings so future renters might identify “problem landlords” prior to signing a lease.
Why is it important?
The current system is failing Ottawa’s most marginalized individuals. We need to ensure that governments at all levels in Canada, including the city of Ottawa, uphold their human rights obligations. We need only to look to the community of Herongate to see how deeply our current system is failing. By enacting the RentSafe bylaw, Canada’s national capital will be one step closer to meeting its human rights obligations. This must be paired with human rights-based housing and poverty strategies.
This is Canada’s capital. We can do so much better. We must step up to respect, protect and fulfill the right to housing – particularly for the most marginalized.
How Can you Help?
Below are five ways you can help ACORN push forward the RentSafe bylaw proposal:
1. Enter your details here to send an email to Community and Protective Services Committee (CPSC) and bylaw staff sharing your support: https://acorncanada.org/take-action/ottawa-support-landlord-registry-healthy-home
2. Join the list of allied organizations that are making deputations at CPSC on Friday, November 15th at 9:30am at Ottawa City Hall. This will be key and ACORN can help with speaking notes! Enter your details here if you can make a deputation: https://forms.gle/iShVAMZVg3YS1cg2
3. ACORN is leading a rally calling for affordable and livable housing on National Housing Day on Friday, November 22nd at 12pm outside Ottawa City Hall. RSVP that you can attend here: https://forms.gle/jA1uYjUXPVcyxAJQ8
4. Add your organization’s name to the list of groups endorsing the National Housing Day Action. Find out who’s already endorsed on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/543458356411272/
5. Call your City Councillor TODAY to ask them to support RentSafe Ottawa. You can find your Councillor’s contact information here: https://ottawa.ca/en/city-hall/mayor-and-city-councillors
Vanessa Poirier is the articling student at Canada Without Poverty.