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The legislature has spoken. Will Doug Ford now ban COVID-19 evictions?

By Alastair Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Housing advocates seeking a renewed ban on evictions got a surprise boost Tuesday when Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government allowed the adoption of a non-binding Opposition motion asking that a moratorium on evictions be reinstated.

But no sooner had the motion passed than the legislature adjourned two days ahead of schedule for a two-month break, cutting off opportunity for debate on the motion. Unless Ford issues an emergency order, evictions will continue.

The premier’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the motion or whether a new emergency order would be issued. Ford had promised earlier on in the public health crisis that no one would have to choose between food and rent or face eviction because of COVID-19.

But his government lifted the provincial state of emergency in July, triggering terms in a March court order for the eviction moratorium to end, while retaining the ability to issue emergency orders related to the pandemic.

Hearings resumed in August and picked up pace by September, with around 7,000 people facing the tribunal between now and January in what advocates are calling an eviction blitz.

In response, NDP MPP Suze Morrison put forward the private member’s motion calling for an immediate ban on residential evictions that would hold until the province enters a “post-pandemic recovery period.”

When it looked like the motion would be put over until next year, Morrison asked the Conservative caucus whether they thought it appropriate to leave people stranded, but the move by the government’s leader in the House, Paul Calandra, to pass the motion by unanimous consent meant those views would not be recorded.

Morrison is now calling on Ford to issue an emergency order to shut down the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) again amid a second wave of COVID-19 cases far surpassing the numbers recorded during the first wave of infections.

“The legislature spoke unanimously today and gave a clear direction to the premier that we need an eviction moratorium in Ontario, and now the next step falls squarely on the shoulders of the premier,” she said in a phone interview after the non-binding motion was passed.

Suze Morrison, the provincial NDP’s critic for tenant rights, speaks during a virtual news conference on Dec. 9, 2020.

“It’s never been more important; we need him to act immediately on this,” Morrison said.

“We can’t wait, as we’re going into the holidays in the midst of the second wave of the pandemic and there are more than 7,000 hearings scheduled between now and when the legislature resumes,” she said. “He needs to sign the eviction order immediately.”

Lawyers, medical workers and others at the intersection of housing justice and public health warn the tribunal’s work must be either halted entirely or directed to do everything it can to keep people housed.

“We absolutely cannot think that people are going to be moved to their cars, to encampments,” said Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and co-founder of the Shelter and Housing Justice Network. “The shelters are full.”

In the absence of a full halt to the often chaotic remote proceedings, dozens of legal aid clinics and other publicly funded lawyers’ groups endorsed an Oct. 13 letter from Community Legal Services of Ottawa recommending that the heads of the LTB and wider Tribunal Ontario direct adjudicators to consider whether relief from eviction would be in the public interest to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The clinics asked the board to consider alternatives to eviction and whether evicting tenants would push them into homeless shelters or other congregate settings where they would be at higher risk of COVID-19.

The clinics also want the tribunal to consider whether tighter pandemic-related lockdown restrictions would limit a tenant’s ability to make rent in the future, given the changes to tenancy law the government pushed in Bill 184 between March and July. Those changes make a tenant liable for automatic eviction for breaching an agreed arrears repayment plan.

But when the government issued an updated policy directive on Dec. 1, it made no reference to the board needing to consider whether relief from eviction would help fight COVID-19.

Housing Minister Steve Clark, in comments addressed to the annual meeting of the Building Industry and Land Development Association on Wednesday, said the NDP’s push to introduce vacancy rent controls would “destroy the rental market in Ontario” by making it less attractive for landlords.

In response to questions about whether the government would consider another ban on evictions during the second wave, a housing ministry spokesperson said it had done so during the first wave, had introduced a 2021 rent freeze for 1.7 million tenants in October and is spending $510 million “through the Social Services Relief Fund which is being put towards rent banks and providing emergency loans for those most in need.”

Conrad Spezowka, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said Bill 184 protects tenants by increasing fines for rule-breaking landlords and making landlords prove they have sought to negotiate repayment for rent missed after the provincial public health emergency was declared before turning to the board to seek a tenant’s eviction.

The statement did not say it would halt eviction hearings, nor whether it would direct the LTB to consider the COVID-19-related implications of decisions made there.

The NDP’s Morrison said it was not the time to be focused on cutting into a backlog of cases, especially when priority did not appear to be granted to tenants with long-standing maintenance or other complaints.

“Respectfully, a backlog of cases should not be your priority in a pandemic,” she said. “This government’s priority should be keeping every single person in this province housed until we are through this crisis.”

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