Landlord's COVID-19 disclosure request raises privacy questions

An Ottawa woman is questioning her landlord's demand that tenants with COVID-19 disclose their health status.

'It's none of their business,' says lawyer for tenants' advocate

A lone pedestrian crosses O'Connor Street in Ottawa during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

An Ottawa woman is questioning her landlord's request that tenants with COVID-19 disclose their health status.

CBC has agreed not to name the woman because she fears being evicted for speaking out. Her landlord, Morguard, posted signs near the elevator doors of her Lowertown apartment complex asking tenants who have coronavirus to notify management immediately "to protect the safety and health of all residents."

While the real estate company states it will "respect resident confidentiality" and "act based on the direction of the public health authorities," the woman is questioning Morguard's right to request the information.

"It just made me start to wonder about the privacy implications," she told CBC.

The woman said she's also concerned about newcomers who aren't familiar with the language and who may be unsure of their privacy rights.

"Would you be asking [tenants] if they're HIV positive? Would you be asking them to report if they had the flu? No, I don't think so," she said.

The woman said she doesn't believe Morguard is acting in bad faith, but thinks the request crosses a line.

"I think they're trying to take all the measures that they can to keep their residents safe, but I do think at the same time you have to balance that against privacy concerns."

Landlords allowed to ask

Landlords are allowed to ask tenants about their COVID-19 diagnoses under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), said Brenda McPhail of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA). However, they must get consent to collect, use or disclose those details.

"There's nothing illegal about them asking, and tenants have a choice about whether or not they provide that information," McPhail said. 

"If [tenants] choose to [disclose] ... they have a right to know what the landlord is going to do with it and what the consequences will be."

McPhail said some tenants may be willing to share the information if they believe their landlord will protect their privacy and ensure they can isolate safely while getting the services they need.

A sign posted by Morguard in a downtown Ottawa apartment complex asks tenants to inform the landlord if they have COVID-19. (Supplied)

"I think that it would be a question of whether or not, from a tenant's perspective, they believe the information is going to be used in ways that are supportive of their health … or whether they feel that they're going to be inappropriately penalized," McPhail said.

The tenant who spoke to CBC said that possibility worries her.

"I could imagine a situation where a landlord might use that kind of private information against tenants," she said.

'It's none of their business'

Karen Andrews, staff lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO), said there are certain questions landlords should never ask tenants, under any circumstances, including questions about their health.

"It's none of their business," Andrews said. "Demanding information beyond the scope of what the Residential Tenancies Act says, I think, is uncalled for."

Andrews said landlords should manage their properties as if every tenant has COVID-19, and take appropriate precautions.

"They should be Lysoling the elevators. They should be cleaning the handrails. They should be paying attention to maintenance and cleanliness. They should maintain social distancing."

'COVID-19 hysteria'

Andrews said medical information is highly personal and tenants should be very reluctant when it comes to sharing it, even during this exceptional time.

"I do understand the competing interests of privacy, public health, tenant rights, safety of the tenants [and] community … but I think we shouldn't be swept up in COVID-19 hysteria."

A Lowertown resident is disturbed by a note posted by her property manager for all tenants to disclose whether they have had coronavirus. 7:33

In an emailed statement to CBC, Morguard said residents were asked to notify management about confirmed cases of COVID-19 because they have a "legal 'duty of care' to all residents to keep them informed."

According to Morguard, "some apartment managers have also asked tenants who are experiencing symptoms of illness, have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been around someone who has, or who have travelled outside of the province to disclose that to their superintendents."

The company also wrote that "when a case is identified the property goes through an additional heavy cleaning and sanitizing protocol."

The company didn't say whether any tenants of the Lowertown building in question have disclosed their health status, or whether similar notices have been posted in other buildings it operates.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now