Brandon Kennedy felt pretty lucky when he scored an affordable apartment in Toronto's rapidly gentrifying Parkdale neighbourhood. It was 2014, and the 22-year-old university student was paying $500 for a bedroom in an 800-square-foot two-bedroom unit that he shared with a roommate. Rent on the unit was $1,100, just a little less than the average for a two-bedroom in Toronto at the time.
Two years later, in May 2016, his landlord told him he had to move out because a new owner was planning renovations on the seven-unit residential building. He was being renovicted.
“I was scared and a bit confused. I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “We always paid our rent on time and were never a problem—nothing to justify kicking us out of our home.”
A renoviction is an eviction that is carried out to renovate or repair a rental unit. In Toronto, there are limits on how much a landlord can increase rent every year for existing tenants. But if they’re doing major renos, they can force current tenants out and charge a much higher price after the makeover.
Cole Webber, a legal worker at Parkdale Community Legal Services, said there’s a huge financial incentive for landlords to get rid of tenants. Because of current rules, once a unit is vacant, a landlord “can raise rent without limit.” He’s seen a “huge spike in no-fault evictions.”
According to a recent report by the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO), a legal-aid clinic for low-income renters, renovictions are surging across the province. Since 2016 the Landlord Tenant Board, the provincial tribunal that hears rental disputes, has seen a 294 percent increase in applications from landlords who want to evict tenants so that they can renovate. Although outcomes aren’t publicly available, Webber said that, anecdotally, they don’t often rule in favour of tenants or the process drags on so long that renters give up.
But getting a renoviction notice doesn’t necessarily mean eviction. Rules vary depending on where you live, but disputes between tenants and landlords are settled at the provincial or territorial level. In Ontario, the landlord has to apply to the Landlord Tenant Board, and after a hearing only the board can order an eviction. The landlord must prove that proper written notice was given on an official tribunal form and that renos are “so extensive that they require a building permit and vacant possession of the rental unit.” This process can take months.
As Kennedy searched rental sites and Facebook groups, he quickly realized that he wouldn’t be able to afford much beyond “a closet with no windows.” At that point, his rent was $575. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), in 2015 the average rent for a one-bedroom was $1,137, the biggest jump in nearly five years.
Most of the other tenants in the building were leaving. But one of his neighbours told him he and another tenant weren’t moving out. He convinced Kennedy to come to a meeting with PCLS.
“The landlord is trying to pick you off one by one but if you come together as a group and make clear demands together as a group, it’s much harder for the landlord to carry out what they want to do,” said Webber.
PCLS advised them to stay put and to continue paying rent, as well as not to sign anything or accept money to leave.
According to Webber, a move-out date in an eviction letter isn’t enough. “A lot of the time, the landlord is relying on the tenant voluntarily moving out well before there’s any kind of legal obligation on the tenant to move out,” he said.
In Kennedy’s case, the landlord decided to sell the building before the hearing.
But the win was short-lived. The building was sold in July 2017 and within weeks, they were served with another renoviction notice from the new landlord, Paval Kanagathurai.
By then, Kennedy had a better idea of what to expect and he took action. He, MacInnis, and Kelly Goldfeder—the other two residents who had stayed—wrote a letter to the property owner, saying that they had every intention of fighting the renoviction. They had support from Parkdale Organize, a neighbourhood advocacy group that has successfully defeated evictions with rent strikes.
Kennedy, his neighbours, and members of Parkdale Organize held a protest in the area, knowing that a lot of others in their vicinity were going through the same thing. Ninety percent of Parkdale’s nearly 22,000 residents are renters and more than a third live below the poverty line.
In October 2017, Parkdale Organize also sent a letter to the landlord, who planned to open a Domino’s Pizza on the ground floor of the building, and cc’ed the CEO of Domino’s Pizza Canada.
All of this pressure convinced Kanagathurai to figure something out between their legal teams, outside of a courtroom.
After two years of battling renovictions, Kennedy’s fate was decided in a room at the PCLS, over legal papers. By spring of 2018, legal representatives reached an agreement allowing Kennedy and his two other neighbours to stay. But there were some conditions.
Kennedy had to move out of his two bedroom unit, to a 260-square-foot bachelor apartment within the building for which he pays $700 a month. His old place, which Kanagathurai turned into two new units, had “normal-sized bedrooms,” a living room, and full kitchen. A studio apartment in Parkdale currently ranges from $1,595 to $1,800 a month.
In a phone interview with VICE, Kanagathurai said that the case involving Kennedy was “settled” and “the tenant’s happy and I’m happy.”
Kanagathurai is currently involved in legal action brought on by other tenants in the area facing eviction, including Goldfeder, who still lives in the building.
Although Kennedy is glad his ordeal is over, the fight wasn’t easy. “It was two years of constant anxiety, bouts of depression,” Kennedy said.
It involved living in limbo—never quite sure if he was staying, or just delaying the inevitable. “I couldn’t even go out and enjoy it. I felt like I had to save money in case I had to move. I was just kind of stuck in this weird spot in life,” he said.
As “hellish” as everything was, he said the experience has made him more determined and he would do it again. “I feel like a much different person, who is ready to take up the fight anytime. I know the fight can be fought and won.”
It took Vancouver resident Lorna Allen nearly a year to successfully fight a renoviction in 2018. She disputed it through the provincial Rental Tenancy Branch (RTB), which ruled in her favour because she proved that she didn’t have to vacate her unit in order for the planned renovations to happen. But she was served another renoviction notice weeks later, which was eventually rescinded by the landlord. In a phone interview, she told VICE that she still “hasn’t fully recovered emotionally” from her saga.
According to Webber, not everyone is going to win a fight with a landlord, but when they do, there’s a ripple effect. “Every tenant who refuses eviction is contributing to keeping rents down, on average, for everyone else. So you’re actually contributing to the social good by doing it,” said Webber.
Follow Anne Gaviola on Twitter.