Protesters at a recent event in Toronto.
Protesters at a recent event in Toronto. All photos by author. 

20 Hours of Watching Canadians Get Evicted Over Zoom Court Shows a System Under Strain

A backlog in evictions has meant that tenants now have only minutes—in a virtual court—to make the case that they should keep their homes.

It was over in seven minutes. 

A landlord and tenant—locked in a battle over a quarter of a year’s worth of unpaid rent at a Toronto apartment—attempted to come to a resolution inside of a virtual courtroom. 

Judge Harry Cho found that both are in agreement about how much money is owed (roughly $3,000), but spent little time hearing the details of the matter, which the tenant said complicated repayment. 

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The tenant, a young man in his 30s, said that the landlord’s property management company had prevented him from reclaiming possessions he had locked away in another property until rent had been paid at the apartment. Cho dismissed this as irrelevant to the matter at hand, but recommends that the tenant pursues it as a separate application with the help of a local legal clinic.

“Frankly, I don't mean to sound insensitive, but your personal property is not before me today,” Cho said.

“That ship has sailed.” 

Scenarios like these are not uncommon in Ontario during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to lockdown restrictions brought forth by both provincial and municipal governments, thousands of individuals and families across the province have lost their primary sources of income. And while the federal government has offered emergency financial assistance through programs like CERB and the recently-introduced CRB, not everyone qualifies, nor do the programs offer enough to cover the high cost of living in cities like Toronto.

The result of 2020’s economic upheaval has been an unprecedented surge in the number of eviction applications filed in Ontario after a moratorium on evictions was lifted in August, and an aggressive campaign by landlords and property management companies to recoup lost rental revenues. Between March and September alone, there were more than 6,000 applications for evictions filed, and many of those cases have only just begun being heard recently.

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To make matters worse, the digitized nature in which these eviction hearings (being played out over Microsoft’s meeting software) are playing out has made the process of defending oneself against an eviction even more difficult. In over 20 hours of virtual hearings at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) that VICE World News observed over a week, there were at least 25 cases where tenants and/or landlords failed to present evidence in court because they did not know how to display digital files via screen-sharing. In almost all hearings, a lack of technological literacy made at least one aspect of court proceedings difficult for all parties involved.

Elderly folks, often calling in by landline or with the help of their younger family members, come across as confused and unprepared. Judges, frustrated by the snail’s pace of proceedings as they try to process dozens of eviction cases within a four-hour time block, are regularly combative—railing against anyone that takes up too much time talking or fails to follow court proceedings.

There are also those who aren’t fluent in English—deprived of translation that typically is available at in-person hearings—losing cases because they can’t form a substantive argument. Landlords and property managers, whose demeanor ranges from understanding to vindictive, are usually the best positioned to win cases, but can face interruptions from activists who join hearings to chastise them for attempting to evict tenants during a pandemic.

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Protesters marching in Toronto.

In one particularly tense hearing observed by VICE World News—which involved an elderly woman and her teenage grandchild defending themselves against eviction—multiple individuals joined the courtroom impersonating a legal representative of a property management company.

When the landlord’s representative tried to speak, the impersonators would shout over her. The judge, after attempting to intervene, was first muted, and then kicked from the call by an unknown participant. The judge later rejoined and then adjourned the hearing for another day.

Housing rights advocates say the haste of proceedings combined with the inability for many to navigate digital bureaucracy effectively make virtual hearings a violation of the right for tenants to defend themselves against eviction; they are pushing both the provincial government and property management companies to put a halt on evictions, as well as to provide rent relief to struggling tenants who have suffered loss of income during the pandemic.

“It is a David and Goliath situation,” said Sam Nithiananthan, an organizer with housing rights group People’s Defence Toronto. 

“People are being evicted en masse before they can even get their bearings, by a system that favours landlords over tenants, who are being denied the right to defend themselves properly.”

For months, critics have called on Premier Doug Ford's government to take the eviction crisis more seriously. In July, when the government passed Bill 184—legislation that gave landlords the ability to circumvent the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) and offer rent-owing tenants their own repayment plans—activists warned that a new phase of the housing crisis was looming. They claimed that the most vulnerable, particularly newly-arrived immigrants and those with disabilities, would be the first on the chopping block.

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On August 1, the province’s moratorium on evictions expired, and the LTB restarted with thousands of eviction claims on the schedule—many of which were filed well before Ontario went into lockdown. In the time since, the backlog has only gotten larger, and the time spent on hearings shorter, with many activists using the phrase “60 second evictions” to highlight the rapid turnover of cases.

Although the actual time spent hearing each case is longer than the slogan suggests, the glossing over of the ins and outs of each situation was a prominent feature in eviction proceedings viewed by VICE World News.

“We’ve been talking about this issue for months and there has been no response,” said Suze Morrison, an NDP MPP and opposition critic for tenant rights.

“The provincial government should be doing everything it can to keep folks housed during a pandemic. That should be the first priority.”

Morrison says the dysfunction of the Landlord and Tenant Board is reflective of a trend within the Ford government that has been put under a spotlight during the pandemic. Neglected agencies, suffering from budget cuts, have proven to be points of compromise as Ontarians increasingly rely on and turn to the government for assistance with matters of housing and livelihood.

When asked for comment for this story a spokesperson for Premier Ford said: “The government is continuing to explore ways to further support Ontarians during this difficult time.” 

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Last January, the Ontario ombudsman announced that it had opened an investigation into the LTB’s lack of adjudicators, which had slowed the hearing process for eviction cases to a crawl even before the pandemic. Now that those hearings have restarted, the Ford government has gone on a hiring blitz of judges, packing the LTB’s schedule with virtual hearings to expedite the resolution of eviction applications. 

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Protesters in downtown Toronto.

Another proposed solution to defuse tensions between landlords and tenants is for the government to intervene with rent relief. In March, just a day after Ford declared a state of emergency over COVID-19, the Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario (FRPO) formally asked the government to create a rental assistance program in which the government and landlords would pick up half of the cost of rent, with renters picking up the other half.

The solution was never adopted nor even discussed by the Ford government, despite assurances from the premier that no one would be “kicked out of their home or rental apartments based on not being able to pay rent.”

“It’s just not going to happen,” Ford said.

Earlier this month, Ford was given the opportunity to pump the brakes on evictions once again when a motion to reimpose an eviction moratorium—introduced by Morrison—unanimously passed the legislature. Because of the holiday break, the motion could not advance any further, and would require an emergency order from Ford to be put into action. In the meantime, evictions continue. 

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Back in Cho’s courtroom, another case—involving a middle-aged woman who had missed almost ten months worth of rent (totalling roughly $20,000)—visibly stirred the judge when he asked about the tenant’s circumstances. 

The tenant, who explained that she lives with and takes care of her autistic 24-year-old son, said that she was currently waiting to find out if a cyst inside of her head needed to be operated on, and added that she would be able to pay the full owing amount come February, when a series of benefit checks (that had been allegedly held back for much of the year) would be made available to her. 

Ultimately, the landlord and tenant agreed that the tenant would pay back the full amount in the first ten days of February, with the stipulation that the landlord would be granted an automatic eviction if the tenant fails to live up to those terms. Cho found this to be an acceptable outcome, although admitted that he was bothered by having to make a decision on a case where the tenant was in such a dire situation.

“I really do wish you and your son the best,” Cho said. 

“Please take care of yourselves.”

Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.