People living in abusive situations can now more quickly and easily break their leases in Ontario thanks to new legislative amendments that came into effect last week.
Amendments to the province's Residential Tenancies Act took root on September 8, shortening the notice period a tenant must give their landlord to vacate from 60 to 28 days if that tenant or a child is experiencing sexual or domestic violence.
The amendments come a month after similar rules took effect in Alberta. Legislation like this already exist in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, and Nova Scotia—but Ontario's move is still being hailed as progressive.
"This legislation is so needed because violence is a major cause of women having to leave a home, in order to enter a shelter or other supportive housing," Anuradha Dugal of the Canadian Women's Foundation told VICE News in an email.
In 2014, according to Statistics Canada, 67 women were killed by their partners. And on the snapshot date of April 16, 2014, there were 3,491 women and 2,724 children in Canada sleeping in shelters while escaping abuse. According to the same Statistics Canada report, emotional abuse was cited by 66 percent of women seeking shelter in Canada while physical abuse was cited by 50 percent.
"Women in abusive relationships often have to leave quickly for the sake of their own safety," Dugal continued. "They have many other concerns [including], how will I keep my children safe, how will I keep my job, where will we go to be safe, what can I afford if I am trying to pay the rent myself? And we know that the fear of financial insecurity is one of the reasons women stay in abusive relationships. This legislation goes a ways to making women safer by removing one of the barriers they face."
Dugal pointed out that breaking a lease can be very expensive and puts the financial burden on the woman if the lease is in her name.
According to 2009 numbers from the Department of Justice, Canadians collectively spend an estimated $7.4 billion a year on the aftermath of spousal violence, including immediate and emergency costs and loss of income. While that includes costs to the justice system, most of the economic impact is on the victim, the DOJ report states.
Under the new rules in Ontario, tenants must give notice to their landlords that they are leaving due to abuse—and the landlord must keep this information confidential, although the landlord is permitted to advertise the unit for rent during the notice period, provided they don't identify the unit. Along with notice, the tenant must also either show their landlord a court order, or make a signed statement that alleges abuse has occurred and that as a result, they fear they are "at risk of harm or injury, if he or she or the child continues to reside in the rental unit."
Importantly, the amendments don't stipulate that the alleged abuser has to be living with the tenant in order for that tenant to qualify for the 28-day leaving period.
Tenants and children are considered to be at risk in Ontario if a peace bond or restraining order has been made under section 810 of the Criminal Code, the Family Law Act or the Children's Law Reform Act—or if the tenant alleges the alleged abuser committed any act that caused bodily harm, damage to property or made the tenant or the child fear for their safety. This can include anything from sexual violence to events that cause the tenant or child to fear for their safety, "including following, contacting, communicating with, observing or recording the tenant or the child."
Meanwhile under Alberta's rules, tenants fleeing abuse can use a court order, like a peace bond or restraining order, or a note from a professional including a doctor, to obtain a certificate from the Human Services Ministry, which they can then hand to their landlord.
While the updated rules are welcome news, advocates have pointed out that women leaving abusive spaces need more shelter space and support when they do leave. Dugal said there is still a desperate need for safe, affordable housing for anyone fleeing domestic violence.
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