There's growing concern among municipal politicians and tenants advocates about a relatively new practice by landlords called "suite metering" — and the issue's set to be discussed at city hall Friday.
Suite metering allows landlords to stop supplying electricity to their tenants, and instead hire a broker who installs a meter in each unit. The tenant then pays rent to the landlord, and a separate monthly electricity payment to the broker.
Coun. Janet Davis says the system is rife with potential for abuse, and on Friday she'll ask the tenants issues committee to back her motion demanding that the province do more to help regulate the practice.
But landlords say suite meters are fair because tenants are forced to pay for their own energy use.
Davis wants councillors to demand that the province find out how many landlords are suite-metering their units, and to clarify what a tenant's rights are when a landlord wants to make the switch from bulk metering to suite meters.
"I'm hearing from tenants who are in buildings who have received sub-metering promises about what the cost would be and they have far exceeded what they thought the cost would be," Davis told CBC Toronto Thursday.
She said tenants with suite meters are saddled with "exorbitant administration fees and rates that seem to be completely out of whack."
A city report prepared for Friday's meeting estimates 75 to 85 per cent of Ontario tenants live in buildings that include electricity in the rent.
The practice of suite metering has been legal since about 2009, when the province passed the Energy Consumer Protection Act.
Low-income families have fewer choices
The idea began as a green initiative. The idea was to allow tenants the ability to decide when, and how much, power they used, under the assumption that most will choose to reduce their consumption.
But according to the report, newcomers and lower-income families don't always have the luxury of choice.
"Low income households often have the least capacity to shift energy use," it reads. "The negative financial impacts of suite metering may disproportionately impact low-income and vulnerable households, including those who must access peak-priced utilities for health reasons (e.g. those needing hydro for medical equipment).
'Right now landlords are flouting the rules.' - Mary Todorow, Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario
"This may worsen their financial situation and put them at greater risk of homelessness," the report says.
Under the new rules, landlords could only switch to suite meters with the permission of sitting tenants, and under strict conditions. Landlords must also ensure that new tenants understand what they're signing up for.
But Davis and Mary Todorow, of the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, say they have been fielding complaints about how landlords are implementing suite metering.
'Flouting the rules'
"Right now landlords are flouting the rules," Todorow said. "I want to see recognition of the impact of suite metering on housing affordability, and I want to see the city work with the province to see how they can best address the affordable housing crisis."
Another problem the city report notes is that suite metering removes a basic protection against eviction. By law, landlords in bulk-metered buildings cannot cut off a tenant's electricity. But that's not the case when a tenant is receiving electricity directly from an outside supplier.
But a spokesperson for Ontario Landlords Watch, which represents some of the province's landlords, told CBC Toronto Thursday suite metering is fair because it holds tenants responsible for their own use, and abuse of utilities.
"If you look at the way utilities are increasing throughout Ontario, we really want tenants to be paying for that instead of us," Kayla Andrade said. "We have some bad landlords out there, but we also have some bad tenants."