‘Absolutely out of control’: Brampton cracking down on landlords renting out illegal student rooming houses

Michelle Gauthier, in her neighbourhood of Peel Village in Brampton on Friday, says that many of the rooming houses have up to eight cars per home parked on the street and driveway.SARAH PALMER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Over the past two years, Michelle Gauthier says she has seen her neighbourhood in Brampton significantly change. Homes have been sold off and dozens of people have moved in and out of certain houses, cramming into 1960s bungalows once reserved for single families.

“We’ve gone from houses that have two people living in them, to houses that – in some cases, like the one across the street from me – have 13 to 15 people living in it,” Ms. Gauthier said.

“We just literally counted the number of different people regularly coming and going, in shock.”

Ms. Gauthier, 52, said the change has meant her street now has more cars, noise and garbage. She has complained to the police, bylaw officers and city council. And she’s not the only one – local officials in Brampton say they’ve been inundated with similar complaints, as homes that were designed for small families have now become makeshift student rooming houses, including one that Brampton’s mayor recently said had 25 people living in it.

The student housing situation in Brampton, a city of about 650,000 people in Peel region west of Toronto, has become a flashpoint in the related debates about the region’s housing crisis and perceived abuses of the temporary student visa program. To address the first problem, Brampton imposed a pilot program late last year to regulate rentals and require landlords to be licensed, which prompted protests at city hall and led officials to temporarily pause the policies, though they are expected to return by the spring.

Tenants also find themselves living in illegal and unsafe conditions, at times renting spaces without privacy or proper sanitation.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said that despite the pause, the city is pressing ahead with its plan to require licences for landlords, which is similar to existing policies in other cities such as Hamilton and Waterloo. He said there are some city estimates that pit the number of illegal units at 30,000.

“Probably the No. 1 complaint we get is about illegal rooming houses,” Mr. Brown said in an interview. “This is desperately needed. These slum lords are ruining our neighbourhoods.”

The city argues the program will allow it to target bad actor landlords who don’t keep up their properties or adhere to fire and safety codes, putting tenants at risk. A licence, which would apply to properties with fewer than five units, would effectively treat the rental units as a business, allowing bylaw officers to pro-actively address resident concerns, inspect the areas and issue hefty fines if rules aren’t being followed. Fines would range between $200 to up to $20,000 a day, if a landlord fails to comply with an inspection order.

The city paused the project after less than a month, after just 29 landlords submitted applications. A group of vocal landlords opposed the plan, launching an online petition that garnered more than 7,500 signatures. Critics said it would become an additional financial burden, duplicates other requirements and could discourage people from getting into the rental housing market. It would cost $300 a year to get a licence, but fees are paused until June.

At a city council meeting on Jan. 31, dozens of landlords protested the pilot. Ravi Sohal, a realtor who launched the petition and also has a rental unit, said current bylaws already exist to address problem rentals. He also said the new system creates privacy issues for tenants, who are protected under the human rights code.

“It is not enforceable,” Mr. Sohal said in an interview. “We cannot be responsible for the code and conduct of the tenant.”

A similar fight is playing out in Windsor, which also recently launched a pilot program. The rental licensing bylaw is being challenged in court by a group of landlords, who say it’s illegal. But city councillor Fabio Costante, who has been advocating for it for years, stands by the plan. “I would argue we need it more than ever now,” he said in an interview. “It’s simply ensuring accountability that these landlords are adhering to the current laws of the province, which is our building code and fire code.”

Another issue at play is the Landlord and Tenant Board, which resolves disputes. Brampton City Council has passed a motion and written a letter to the Ontario government calling on them to strengthen existing legislation for landlord rights and to reduce the backlog at the board. Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Paul Calandra, said there are a lot of “challenges” at the board and the government is working to address delays. “We need to catch up, this is absolutely certain,” he told reporters at Queen’s Park last week.

While the protests drew attention to the pilot, the pushback has not deterred council from pursuing the plan, said Dennis Keenan, one of three Brampton city councillors spearheading the pilot, which is set to last two years in five wards.

“People have been hiding things for so long and they don’t want us to have the ability to look,” he said. “A lot of landlords asking questions support the program.”

However, city council acknowledged that it heard feedback about the need to streamline the licensing process, especially for existing registered units.

The pause is expected to last six to eight weeks, with the pilot expected to be up and running again in March. Mr. Keenan said the city’s IT department is looking at ways to change the intake process, so those who have already applied for legal basements with proper documents, such as property tax bills, don’t have to produce additional information.

Mr. Keenan called the situation in Brampton “absolutely out of control,” with landlords renting kitchens and living rooms for $450 a month. He said the city has seen thousands of complaints about overflowing garbage, mattresses pilled up on front lawns and front decks falling apart, with 10 cars parked on the front lawn.

“We really need to crack down on landlords that are using Brampton as an ATM,” Mr. Keenan said.

Councillor Rowena Santos, whose wards are also part of the program, said the city wants to take a more pro-active approach to dealing with rental properties.

“We are telling them, you need to get a licence, need to abide by the rules, if you do not, your fines will escalate and you might lose your licence,” she said.

For Ms. Gauthier’s part, she’s hopeful the program will help to address her neighbourhood’s concerns. But she says the city needs to invest in more bylaw officers to make it successful.

“It’s the only tool at this point in time that we have to stop what’s going on,” she said.

“This is important. This is my home, and to have the community ripped apart is really upsetting.”


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