Seniors need legal help fighting rent increases, says Green MLA
'It’s literally hundreds of pages and it is written in legalese,' says Lynne Lund
Prince Edward Island is one of the only jurisdictions in Canada that has rent controls — but that doesn't mean landlords can't raise rents above the maximum allowable annual increase.
Green MLA Lynne Lund says she's hearing from many constituents that their landlords are applying to the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission (IRAC) for permission to increase rents well beyond that cap, which the commission has set at one per cent for 2022.
"I have to tell you, it's very distressing," she said in an interview. "This is in no way a fair process for people."
In her district of Summerside-Wilmot, Lund has heard recently from the tenants of 87 senior-friendly units who received notices saying their landlord was applying for a rental increase above the allowable yearly maximum. That amounts to more than 100 tenants — and some of them are facing a rental increase of around 23 per cent, Lund said.
On Thursday in the legislature, Lund said she had learned that some residents are facing increases of 40-50 per cent or higher.
The renters will be given documents listing reasons the landlord feels their rent needs to increase so much five days prior to the hearing before IRAC, Lund said.
"It's literally hundreds of pages and it is written in legalese," she said. "Seniors in my district have the onus on them to refute the various things their landlord says [about why] the rent needs to go up. Anything that they themselves do not refute, the assumption is that they agree with it."
Lund believes there is a lack of access to justice at play here. Going through long and complicated documents such as this would be difficult for most people, but those who have reached out to her are seniors on fixed incomes who can't afford to hire lawyers to fight the increases by attending the IRAC hearings.
"This is a huge problem and it's one I have been raising in the legislature since the last sitting," she said. "This is a major gap for people who cannot afford legal support to help them, and I have been asking government to fund legal aid to allow tenancy disputes to be within the scope of things that legal aid could help somebody with."
However, Justice Minister Bloyce Thompson said his legal aid officials have to concentrate on other issues.
"Their focus and expertise is on the criminal and family law," he said. "They help the most vulnerable Islanders right now, low-income Islanders. We want to stay focused on that."
Thompson said IRAC deals with rent disputes "in a quasi-judicial manner that is set up so that you don't need a lawyer."
However, he agrees more support is needed for tenants taking on a corporate landlord — whether that is through IRAC or through the Department of Housing and Social Development.
Hearings set for March 14
Some hearings over rent increases for the three strips of row houses in Summerside owned by Greenway Realty are set for March 14, according to IRAC's website.
"Rental hearings are private matters, but rental appeals are public," IRAC officials said in an email.
The email did not address the specific situation Lund was raising, but did give some statistics.
"In 2021, the Rental Office issued 81 orders related to rent increases greater than the allowable amount; 67 orders approved increases involving 153 units; 14 orders denied increases involving 38 units."
CBC News called Greenway Realty and did not get a response.
The act is structured really strangely around rental increases.— Connor Kelly
But a copy of one of the notices given to residents claims operating costs and property tax and insurance increases as reasons to raise rent. The notice from Greenway also states capital expenditures at its Summerside properties as a reason for the increases, including $53,000 in paving, replacement of geothermal heat pumps at $17,000 and landscaping at $17,000.
"The market rent for this unit is $1,470. We need to put a solution in place to resolve the shortage in revenues," the notice reads.
However, Greenway has offered that tenant a discount for the first year of $204, meaning for the first year the rent would go from $1,166 to $1,266, and gradually approach market value over the next four years.
'Really complicated' process
Connor Kelly from the P.E.I. Fight for Affordable Housing agrees with the Official Opposition. He said renters can fight on their own, but allowing them access to lawyers would make the process much easier.
"The process for fighting any kind of rental issue is really complicated," Kelly said. "The act is structured really strangely around rental increases, [saying] the landlord should expect 'a reasonable return on capital investment' — but reasonable is not defined, so reasonable for who?"
CBC News has attempted to contact tenants about the increase, without success.
Renters on the Island are scared to speak out to the media, Kelly said; they are worried their landlords might see them as complainers and that would make the situation worse.