n an unprecedented move, the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) has fast tracked a hearing for Above Guideline rent Increase (AGI) applications at the landlord’s request, leading tenants to believe it's meant to dissuade their ongoing rent strike against the landlord’s proposed AGIs.
Since May of this year, more than 100 tenants from 71, 75, and 79 Thorncliffe Park Dr. in East York have withheld their rent from their corporate landlords, Starlight Investments and PSP Investments, after requesting – to no avail – that their landlord withdraw AGI applications.
By June, those who'd joined the strike began receiving eviction notices.
According to a CP24 report, the landlord sought a 4.2 per cent rent increase in 2022, well above Ontario’s rent increase guideline of 2.5 per cent. In 2023 the landlord proposed rent increases varying from 4.94 per cent to 5.5 per cent.
"This was unexpected," says Cliff* of the LTB's decision to fast track their hearing. Cliff is one of the tenant-organizers at Thorncliffe Park Dr. He asked not to use his legal name to avoid personalized repercussions from the landlord.
“We feel that our landlords and the LTB are trying to break this rent strike and break our movement," Cliff continued. "Starlight doesn't want to treat us as a whole, as members of the Thorncliffe community, but instead they want to treat each of us simultaneously and individually."
Kyle Warwick is a lawyer with Downsview Community Legal Services who has been representing tenants at the LTB since 2018, though he is not directly involved with this specific case. He says he's "surprised" that the LTB would allow a landlord to skip the line, because "the threshold to expedite a LTB hearing is usually very high.”
He says he worries this decision will have a "chilling effect on tenant organizing, an activity that is protected by several provisions of the Residential Tenancies Act…particularly as the endorsement is based (on) only unproven and inflammatory allegations from the landlord’s representative."
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According to Cliff, the decision to fast track the hearing, endorsed by LTB Vice-Chair Egya Sangmuah as far back as June 23, was first communicated to the tenants on Monday, August 14 via a letter from the landlord. That is when tenants at Thorncliffe Park Dr. first found out they had a month, until September 15, to file written submissions for the written hearing.
Sangmuah's one-page endorsement says the LTB’s decision is not due to the delay in hearing the applications. Instead, he accepts the landlords' submission that the delay is "highly prejudicial because the Landlord's staff and their families have been subjected to intimidation and harassment" – accusations the tenants have not been given a chance to refute, and which Cliff says are categorically "untrue."
"We never did stuff like that," he says. "A lot of stuff mentioned here just basically makes Starlight (appear like) the victim and the tenants (appear like) the aggressors."
Sangmuah’s written letter also claims that the request is "supported by evidence filed," though he doesn't specify what the evidence is. He concludes that the "contentious nature of the applications is a matter of public record and all parties would benefit from shortening time to a hearing."
Cliff says both the tight deadline and the fact that it is a written hearing present challenges to the tenants. Many of them are elderly, suffer from disabilities, and have language barriers that make it difficult to make their submissions without help. It also means there will be no opportunity to give oral testimony, or for legal representatives to argue on behalf of the tenants or present evidence.
"For us, it's really a lot. It means a lot of effort to respond within less than four weeks now," Cliff says, since they will have to write their arguments and file them by the September 15 deadline. "It doesn't make any sense."
In an email statement, Veronica Spada, media spokesperson for Tribunals Ontario, says the LTB "emailed the Notice of Hearing to parties involved in the matter" on July 27. She says while the LTB "cannot comment on any specific cases that are before it," Rule 16 allows any of the parties involved to "make a written request to shorten time to a hearing." The same rule also allows any party to make a "written request to extend a deadline to submit their response."
"These requests are normally considered by an LTB adjudicator without submissions from other parties to the application," she says.
She did not address The Hoser's questions about whether the LTB is willing to review Sangmuah's endorsement, and whether landlords who face organized pressure from tenants in response to rent increases or other matters can expect to get their applications heard first going forward.
Cliff says he has not “received any email from the LTB regarding the AGI on July 27,” and is “not aware of any tenant who received” it. “If the LTB claims so, then I would love to see a proof of emails sent on the 27 of July 2023,” he says.
The decision comes after a four-page written request was made by the landlords' lawyer, Joe Hoffer, which the tenants of Thorncliffe Park Dr. say – in a statement – "grossly misrepresents the organizing in Thorncliffe Park and is riddled with false claims."
The landlords' request enumerates a laundry-list of tactics taken by the tenants and organizers beginning in March 2022. Some of the allegations made include "vocal public events," "protests, including false and defamatory comments about the landlord," and a campaign that flooded the landlord's office with 178 emails "urging the landlord to withdraw its AGIs and threatening additional harassment if the landlord failed to do so."
The request also claims the tenants were an "angry mob" that demonstrated in front of the landlords’ homes and headquarters, causing anxiety and fear to their family.
Cliff says the "general response from the three buildings is that that's really absurd," because it's the tenants' lives that have been disrupted by the ongoing construction in their buildings (which the landlord wants the AGIs to pay for). Cliff says construction began around late 2019, first on the balconies, then the hall areas. They also began painting the entire building from outside and changing the colours of unit doors. He says Starlight is currently working on the parking area.
"The work has been disruptive since the beginning," Cliff says. "Construction noise on a daily basis has been continuous since 2020. Enormous dust buildup in our units, constant water shutdowns (on a weekly basis)."
He says when they began expressing frustration, "Starlight responded by saying that they couldn’t consult tenants due to COVID, but yet the work…continued normally through the whole period."
It was only after repeated requests to meet with the landlord were refused that the tenants took more direct actions, like the rent strike. And while they may be extra-legal, strikes are not illegal, as the request suggests.
Cliff says the allegations are "baseless" and that all they were trying to do was "show unethical practices (like) adding more costs to us as tenants." He says the fact that the landlord is trying to paint themselves as victims and the tenants as an “angry mob” is an insulting attempt to disparage them in front of the LTB.
Danny Roth, a spokesperson for Starlight Investments, says that since the "matter has now been referred to the Landlord Tenant Board (LTB), we will not be providing further comment at this time, as we do not wish to prejudice the proceedings."
A Dangerous Precedent
The request also suggests that recruiters from RenovictionsTO, a grassroots group advocating for tenant rights, somehow coerced tenants into escalating actions to the point of going on strike.
Cliff says it was the tenants who first approached the group and the organizers after receiving the first AGI application in 2022. He says the tenants were seeking advice on how to approach the AGI and their rights as tenants, and that there was "absolutely no kind of pressure from outside."
"Everything from the beginning, all the movement until the rent strike, all has been a collective decision," he says.
Cole Webber is a community legal worker with Parkdale Community Legal Services and an organizer with RenovictionsTO. He’s named in the landlord’s request as one of the “offenders” who would allegedly “solicit," "organize" and "counsel" tenants to "harass, hinder, obstruct and interfere with Landlords."
Webber says the allegations are a "laughable" attempt by the landlord to "throw everything at the wall and hope the LTB sympathizes with them."
But "it doesn't seem overly coherent," he says.
“On the one hand, they are suggesting the tenants are just being led around like sheep, but on the other hand they're saying the tenants are potentially unpredictable."
Webber says that while it's not uncommon for landlords to try to discredit tenants who organize, this is the first time in his 20-plus years advocating for tenant rights that he's seen the LTB so blatantly side with them. He says if the LTB doesn't reverse the decision, it's very likely "we'll see more landlords attempting to do the same thing."
"This is a completely novel scenario. I think that it is a blatant case of the LTB running roughshod over tenants in the interest of maximizing the profit of landlords, and I think that needs to be aired out in the light of day."
Not backing down
In an email statement, members of the York-South Weston Tenant Union (YSW), who are advocating for tenants in other buildings, agreed "this decision is a clear demonstration that the LTB is actively working to dismantle tenant organizing."
"The LTB has made it clearer than ever whose side they are on, the landlord's side. What the LTB and the corporate landlords don't understand is that tenants on rent strike are fighting for their homes, and will not give up the fight in the face of this," the statement reads.
Cliff says if there's any silver-lining to this troubling development, it's that in some way it shows that the landlord is feeling the heat from what has now been a two-year protracted battle with the tenants.
"And this is the only way for them to respond – by feeling like victims…and (claiming) the people who join the rent strike — the neighbours, the tenants — are the aggressors," he says, adding that despite this setback, neither he nor the tenants plan to back down.
"On the contrary," he says, "it propels me and gives me more support knowing that Starlight is a little bit worried."