Kitchener-Waterloo·In Depth

Renoviction displaces low-income earners, disabled and racialized people from K-W homes: report

A new report looking at displacement - people who have been forced out of their homes for various reasons in Kitchener and Waterloo - has identified the most vulnerable tenants. One Kitchener man says he feels like he's in the midst of being reno-victed, and he wants others to know they can fight back.

'And then it hit me ... He just wants me out,' tenant Leonard Shushan says

Protest signs at a reno-viction protest in Toronto in 2019. A new report looking at people who have been pressured to leave or forced from their homes looks at the problem of displacement in Kitchener and Waterloo. (CBC)

Leonard Shushan knew his landlord wanted to do some renovations that might affect his basement apartment.

The landlord wanted to add a second apartment in the basement of the historic home where Shushan lives.

Shushan, 62, is unemployed and has ongoing health concerns. He has lived in the Kitchener apartment for more than 14 years. He says he told the landlord in the spring of 2020 that he was OK with the work that would be done and said he'd even be willing to leave his apartment for a short time to allow the work to be done.

But the landlord insisted Shushan needed to move his possessions out so the renovations could move forward. 

Last August, Shushan needed some repairs done in his own apartment. The landlord didn't do them.

In the fall, Shushan says the landlord turned off his heat so work could be done on the new unit. The landlord gave Shushan two space heaters to get through the winter, but Shushan says his apartment was never warm enough.

The landlord continued to ask Shushan when he would leave.

Leonard Shushan of Kitchener says he feels like he's in the midst of being reno-victed. He says he's speaking out so other people who rent their homes know they can fight back if they feel they're being treated unfairly. (Photo provided by Leonard Shushan)

"There was never any discussion about temporary accommodations. It was just basically, 'leave,'" Shushan said in an interview with CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

No other tenants were asked to vacate the building, Shushan said. The landlord, who owns other buildings, didn't offer an alternative place to stay during the construction.

"And then it hit me," Shushan said. "He just wants me out, period."

Patterns, not isolated incidents

Shushan's story is not an uncommon one to people such as Aleksansdra Petrovic, executive director of the Social Development Centre Waterloo Region. She says the role of the centre includes working with "people who struggle within various systems or who experience a lack of support in the community."

The centre worked alongside researchers at the University of Waterloo looking at displacement in Kitchener and Waterloo — people who have been forced from their homes for a number of reasons. A report based on that research was released this week.

There was never any discussion about temporary accommodations. It was just basically: 'leave.'- Leonard Shushan, tenant

Thirty tenants who had displacement experiences were interviewed.

Nineteen were white, 11 had other cultural identities and 14 of the people lived with a disability. 

"It is evident that experiences of displacement can be complex and vary from person to person," the report says.

But it also says, rather than being "isolated anecdotes," the stories show clear trends.

The people told interviewers about experiences with discrimination, lack of affordable housing options and insufficient enforcement of rules and regulations meant to protect them.

"Additional themes included rising rents, exploitative landlord practices and illegal evictions such as 'renovictions,'" the report says.

These responses, the report says, "need to be interpreted as patterns, not isolated incidents."

The report noted that evictions conducted in order to accommodate renovations often take place without any formal data collection or media scrutiny, except in extreme cases such as when a building is condemned.

"As with demolitions, there are no accurate statistics to keep track of when, where and how these renovictions take place. Therefore, it can be easy to dismiss these accounts and processes and, as a result, they rarely feature centrally in the debates about development and change," the report said.

"However, we have demonstrated that these are not isolated incidents. By assembling knowledge and experiences of both renoviction and demoviction, our findings demonstrate that these are widespread, persistent processes that erode the existing supply of affordable housing and lead to eviction, displacement and dispossession."

'You feel powerless'

Faryal Diwan was an interviewer who spoke with people about cases reflected in the study. 

She said many of the people she spoke with felt pressured and harassed by landlords or building managers. 

"You feel powerless," she said of listening to their stories.

Diwan said it can seem to people like they are set up to fail because the system runs in such a way that it favours landlords and investment firms.

"I hope that changes ... it's driving people out, it's displacing people," she said, noting that when a city becomes unaffordable, people leave. That often takes them away from a support system and family.

Petrovic says the people who were interviewed wanted their story to be heard because "it's the only way to leave a mark for so many of them because their human rights are neglected."

"Oral history is something that resonates very deeply to people who have gone through hardship, hoping that those who come after them would have a different context and possibly help that they need," she said.

Politicians' role

Petrovic says she hopes local politicians will take the report to heart.

"We have capacity in the community to collect real-time trends and that that is valid information and data to be considered in policymaking," she said.

She noted the centre, with the help of the United Way and Collaboration Community Legal Services in Kitchener, now has plans to start an eviction prevention program to help people at risk of being forced from their housing.

Diwan said she can see why people might feel like they're left on their own to handle disputes with landlords and she would like to see advocacy by local politicians.

"I really want to see the region and the city fight for tenants. It's really unfair that they've kind of left them hanging," she said.

"And if we can't go to the city or the region and people that we voted for, what's the point? What's the point of you being at that level and not being able to support the residents here?"

Know rights

Kristen Thompson, a staff lawyer at Waterloo Region Community Legal Services says during the pandemic, they've seen a drop of the number of people seeking advice on tenant issues, "but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're not out there."

She says there are court cases still making their way through the system from March 2020, because the pandemic has caused slowdowns in having cases heard and resolved.

She said even when a tenant is given an N13 form, an order to end their tenancy so renovations can take place, people don't have to leave by the date given by the landlord. They have a right to a landlord tenant board hearing.

When the hearing is held, the landlord has to prove that they require the rental unit to be vacant in order to do repairs or renovations so extensive that they require a building permit, and that the rental units must be vacant to do the work, Thompson said.

If a person is evicted, they also have the right to compensation and they have the right of first refusal, meaning the landlord must offer the renovated unit back to the tenant.

Diwan said she's had her own negative experience with landlords.

"It's really important for tenants to know their rights," she said.

She heard from people who said the landlord never called them back to let them know the unit was available again. In other cases where the renovation was so extreme — such as converting a bachelor apartment into to a two-bedroom unit  — it became unaffordable for the original tenant.

City aware of concerns

Shushan says the stress of having his landlord give him an N13 and the pressure to move out became too much.

"When it really hit me that this is different, this is not about repairs, it's about basically getting me out, I started to have chest pain and two weeks later I had a full blown heart attack," Shushan said.

He believes he has a strong case for the Landlord and Tenant Board that shows his landlord didn't follow the rules in asking him to leave for renovations. 

The landlord declined to comment on the case to CBC. There is currently no date set for the hearing into the N13, although Shushan and the landlord will be in a hearing on June 3 because Shushan stopped paying rent after his heat was turned off.

Shushan says he's tried to get city officials involved, but he doesn't feel like they listened to him.

A spokesperson for the City of Kitchener said bylaw enforcement "does not play a role in landlord-tenant disputes other than ensuring the landlord provides the tenant with a minimum 21C heat source as outlined in the bylaw."

When asked if the city got involved when Shushan says his heat was turned off, the spokesperson added, "Kitchener bylaw is aware of the situation and is following the process and allowing the legal process to play out through the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal."

Speaking out

Shushan says he's speaking out about his situation now because he wants other people to know they can fight back.

"On paper, yes, the system is there to help the tenant but in reality, really not," he said, adding many people don't have the time or resources to fight back if they feel they've been treated poorly. Shushan says he's been supported by family through the process, which has helped.

"It's taken a toll. In some respects, it's like it's made me stronger," he said. "I'm hoping that some good, besides having the N13 thrown out, can come of this, but we'll see what happens."

Report recommendations

The report outlines five recommendations to address tenant displacement:

  1. Incorporate the perspectives, voices and lived experiences of poverty into planning and policy decision-making.
  2. Enforce property standards and regulations designed to protect tenants.
  3. Increase efforts to preserve existing affordable housing through municipal enforcement, bylaw and fire prevention and rent controls, and ensure tenants' rights are protected if a property is renovated.
  4. Use publicly-owned land to build new, non-market affordable housing in conjunction with local non-profit groups.
  5. Ensure municipalities provide adequate safe, secure and welcoming public spaces, particularly in downtown areas.