Fleeing faster: New Ontario provision allows domestic and sexual abuse victims to break rentals early
'We live in a culture that tells women who are abused to just leave. People don’t think about the logistics'
Julie Lalonde decided she needed to escape from an abusive partner, but one thought kept holding her back: What would she do about their shared apartment lease?
Lalonde and her partner at the time had just moved into an apartment together, but eight months into it, she realized she had to get out.
She says that after finally getting the courage to leave, things got ugly.
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"It was really scary. He threatened to take me to small claims court, he threatened to ruin my credit.... It was just such a nightmare," Lalonde recalled to CBC News.
"I left my abusive ex with the responsibility to take over the rest of our lease. He was not a fan of that, and used it as leverage to continue stalking me, and harassing me and forcing me to keep in contact with him," she said.
That was 12 years ago.
'It literally moved me to tears'
A new provision of Ontario's Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan makes it easier for tenants who fear for their safety and their children's safety to break housing leases.
A change to Ontario's Residential Tenancies Act that took effect Sept. 8 now allows tenants fleeing domestic or sexual violence to terminate a lease in 28 days, down from 60, "allowing them to be able to leave an unsafe living environment quickly," according to the action plan. While the termination date for most leases cannot be sooner than the last day of the contract, the new provision allows these tenants to give notice any time during their tenancy.
'It's nice to have the right to flee, but without somewhere to flee to, I don't think this solves the problem.' - Kenneth Hale, legal director of advocacy at Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario
That change would have made a world of difference to Lalonde.
"It literally moved me to tears to think about what that would have meant to me all those years ago," said Ottawa-based Lalonde, now an advocate with draw-the-line.ca, a provincially funded campaign that aims to raise awareness about sexual violence.
To use the special notice provision of the act, tenants have to provide their landlords with a notice to end tenancy because of fear of abuse, and one of these two: a copy of a court order, such as a restraining order or peace bond, or a signed statement attesting to the abuse.
Changes don't go far enough, some say
"In order to keep survivors safe after they've filed the notice, landlords would be required to keep the notice, accompanying documentation and any details about it confidential," Ministry of Housing spokesman Conrad Spezowka told CBC News.
If a landlord suspects that a tenant has provided false information, he or she can file a complaint with the Ministry of Housing's Rental Housing Enforcement Unit, he explained.
But Toronto-based lawyer Kenneth Hale says the changes, while well intended, don't go far enough.
Hale isn't sure reducing the notice period from 60 days to 28 makes it easy enough to flee from a dangerous situation.
"I guess if you timed your fleeing properly, you could apply your last month's rent deposit."
He also says the provision only solves part of the problem, something he says he and others raised repeatedly throughout the consultation process before the act was amended.
Free to flee, but where to?
"It's nice to have the right to flee, but without somewhere to flee to, I don't think this solves the problem. There's a general lack of affordable housing, a lack of funding for emergency services for women facing domestic violence — these are real barriers," Hale said.
Toronto Ward 33 Coun. Shelley Carroll echoes the concern for increased shelter funding.
"Lots needs to happen once they're out the door," Carroll said. "If you're out and now you're a single parent, you've suddenly got to make sure that you have work because you're the only person who's going to be paying rent.
"That works begins the minute you step into a shelter ... Lots of funding is needed on that," Carroll said. Still, she says, shortening the notice period to 28 days is one less barrier keeping victims from fleeing violent situations.
On its website announcing the amendment, the Ministry of Housing says the provision "will help reduce the financial cost that may result from ending a lease early and help ensure survivors can leave an unsafe living environment quickly."
To break her lease, Lalonde says she had to have several meetings with not only her then landlord, but also her alleged abuser. She says the new provision doesn't just provide financial safety — victims of violence can also avoid the added trauma of having to face abusive partners, and any further abuse.
Danger at the point of departure
"It has been well documented in Ontario that women are at increased risk of violence when contemplating leaving their abuser or actually leaving," said Marlene Ham, provincial co-ordinator with the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH), who welcomes the legislation.
OAITH has tracked from media reports 689 women who've been murdered as a result of intimate partner violence from 1995-2015. Many of these women were either in a relationship or trying to leave before they were murdered, Ham says.
Similarly, the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee found that in cases of domestic violence related death reviewed between 2003-2014, 72 per cent of these situations were experiencing an actual or pending separation.
Still, Hale says, the measure, while well-intended, doesn't get to the roots of the problem — a lack of affordable housing and increased funding for emergency shelters for women.
Lalonde says the new provision is a major step in the right direction.
"We live in a culture that tells women who are abused to just leave. People don't think about the logistical nightmare that it can be."