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Toronto’s building safety program lacks ‘teeth’ to punish bad landlords, Thorncliffe advocates say

Cockroaches, mice and piles of garbage — those are among the conditions residents of several high-rise apartment buildings in Thorncliffe Park say they’re facing.

And the residents say the Toronto’s program to protect renters isn’t doing enough to hold their landlords accountable. 

“You don’t feel like you’re living in Canada,” said one renter who lives at 71 Thorncliffe Park Drive, one of several buildings where some tenants are holding a rent strike to protest above-guideline rent increases.

“The city has to step in.”

The RentSafeTO program, first launched by the city in 2017 to ensure rental buildings meet health and safety standards, is undergoing a host of changes aimed at improving enforcement over the next year. But renters and advocates say until the city hands out heavier fines, they are uncertain the program will substantially improve buildings.

bags of garbage
Garbage piled up in the chute at 71 Thorncliffe Park Drive in March, 2024. (Submitted by renter at 71 Thorncliffe Park Drive)

It’s a problem the team at Don Valley Community Legal Services hears of often.

Many tenants on Thorncliffe Park Drive are facing above-guideline rent increases, which if approved can allow landlords to raise rents beyond legal limits for repairs or renovations. But the landlords are not maintaining buildings while applying for these, says Laura Anonen, the community development worker at the legal clinic. 

She said the RentSafeTO team is well-intentioned, but needs a bigger budget and more bylaw officers. 

“The program needs more teeth to enforce orders,” Anonen said. “In the end, the tenants suffer because nothing’s getting done.”

CBC Toronto spoke to several Thorncliffe tenants who said they don’t feel building owners are intimidated by RentSafeTO. CBC Toronto is protecting the tenants’ identities as they’re concerned about retaliation from the owners of the buildings where they live.

Tenants described garbage stacked around buildings and said pests like mice and cockroaches are common in hallways. There is also limited security amid the properties and trespassers often sneak in and smoke in common areas, they said. 

CBC Toronto viewed photos of cigarette butts littered all over stairwells and in parking garages, garbage piled in parking garages and chutes as well as mice in hallways. 

RentSafeTO increasing frequency of building checks

The city’s RentSafeTO program was created seven years ago after city council passed a rental standards bylaw aimed at protecting tenants.

The program sees bylaw officers evaluate buildings, giving them a score out of 100 based on various criteria including building cleanliness, infrastructure and other factors. 

Starting in 2023, the city’s evaluation process changed to “prioritize issues that have a greater impact on the health and safety of tenants.” All buildings will now be evaluated every two years, instead of frequency being dependent on score.

Non-compliance with RentSafeTO orders can hurt a building’s score.

a man in a suit
Carleton Grant, Toronto’s executive director of municipal licensing and standards, says RentSafeTO is improving its building evaluation process including through more frequent inspections. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

Penalties for violations can be up to $100,000 or $10,000 a day, depending on the charge, the city said in a statement.

But Carleton Grant, executive director of municipal licensing and standards, says the city hasn’t resorted to doling out that level of fine.

“Our intent is to work well with landlords and property managers so they correct the deficiencies that we know,” he said.

The largest fines imposed last years were two fines of $15,000 each for failure to comply with orders issued by the RentSafeTO team, Grant said. 

Building owner says it’s responsive to service requests 

CBC Toronto reached out to Starlight investments, who replied but did not address tenant complaints.

Over the past seven years, the city has also received 531 complaints about six buildings on Thorncliffe Park Drive owned by a single real estate company, Morguard Corporation. 

Among those buildings, the city has issued 62 notices of violation, which are orders to fix outstanding issues, and three fines have been issued as result.

Referencing the figures, Grant said that many violations is “not outrageous” given the number and size of the buildings.

Susan Morasse, the regional general manager for Morguard Corporation, said the company addresses tenant concerns when they are raised, adding all its buildings have a live-in cleaning staff and an external cleaning company that comes in. 

When it comes to issues like cigarette butts in stairwells, those are swept once a week, she said. Morasse sent a further statement after publication saying they clean daily. 

Morasse said her team works well with RentSafeTO and “they’re making sure we complete our tasks at the time that is mandated.”

She said the company has spent $100 million in the community over the last seven years.

Of the Morguard buildings that were recently inspected by RentSafeTO in November — 35, 43 and 85 Thorncliffe Park Drive — the collective score of the buildings was 77 out of 100. Two of the buildings, 35 and 43, received the lowest score for building cleanliness, which the city characterizes as “numerous deficiencies.” 

Bhavin Bilimoria, the director of legal services at Don Valley Legal Clinic, says the problem with RentSafeTO is “there’s no fear on the part of the landlords.”

“There’s no incentive to comply” with RentSafeTO’s orders, he said. 

It’s part of the reason why tenants at several buildings are on rent strike, to protest above-guideline rent increases, due to a lack of options, said Bilimoria. 

“Pull those collective resources, speak as one voice to the landlord, loudly,” he said. 

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