Councillor eyes new vital services bylaw for tenants

An Ottawa city councillor wants to make it simpler for tenants to get help from the city when their landlords stop providing basic necessities such as heat and power.

Coun. Keith Egli calling for comprehensive bylaw to help tenants after landlord shuts off gas, power

Coun. Keith Egli says tenants need a single, comprehensive bylaw to help them when their landlords fail to provide such basic necessities as heat and electricity. (CBC)

An Ottawa city councillor wants to make it simpler for tenants to get help from the city when their landlords stop providing basic necessities such as heat and power.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli plans to ask his council colleagues to take the first steps toward a single, comprehensive vital services bylaw, which he said will make it easier for tenants to seek help from city hall.

The bylaw would allow the city to intervene in a landlord-tenant dispute to reinstate basic necessities for renters.

The idea was sparked by a group of tenants in Egli's ward who were without hot water for weeks in June because their landlord, Golden Dragon Ho Properties, didn't pay the gas bill.

"That's certainly an inconvenience," Egli said. "But what if this happened in the middle of the winter or the middle of a heat wave?"
Ottawa tenant Melissa Poirier-Shields had to bath her nine-month-old son Lucas with water heated on her stove when her landlord stopped paying the natural gas bill. (CBC)

Frustrated tenants

The tenants, who were forced to boil water for bathing and washing dishes, said they were frustrated after having to make repeated calls to their landlord, the city and the province's Landlord and Tenant Board.

The city currently has two separate bylaws to deal with such incidents: one that makes sure tenants have heat, and another that ensures they have drinkable running water, hot water and fuel such as natural gas.

I think we have the tools, but I think they're a bit scattered throughout the city in different ways and different places.- Coun. Keith Egli

Instead, tenants need a single, comprehensive bylaw, Egli said.

"I think we have the tools, but I think they're a bit scattered throughout the city in different ways and different places," he said. "If we had a vital services bylaw we might be able to bring all those together under one roof."

One advocacy group for people living on low incomes is already applauding the idea.

Gisèle Bouvier of ACORN said the current bylaws don't allow the city to intervene quickly enough, or hold recalcitrant landlords accountable.

"It takes much too long, there are too many ways for landlords to circumvent the issue and you end up with tenants who, out of frustration, leave at the end of their lease," Bouvier said.

Bylaw manager not on board

Half of Ontario's 10 largest cities — Toronto, Brampton, Hamilton, London and Windsor — already have such a bylaw.

The former City of Ottawa had a vital services bylaw, but it fell into disuse after amalgamation.

Roger Chapman, manager of bylaw and regulatory services for the city, said he doesn't think a comprehensive bylaw will necessarily improve the situation for tenants.

"In our opinion, a new vital services bylaw wouldn't really give us any additional services than we already have," Chapman said.

Chapman said changing the way the city currently collects the cost of reconnecting services — by adding the charge to the landlord's property tax bill — could present new challenges.

"Administratively we're not prepared to do that, and there's a lot of risk in doing that as well," he said.

Egli is expected to bring the idea forward at Thursday's community and protective services committee.

It's unlikely any change to the current bylaws would go into effect until after next fall's municipal election, according to the committee's chair, Coun. Diane Deans.