My family and I have been ordered to pay back rent after a complicated, unethical and questionably legal rental and eviction process we experienced between January and August of 2020. Whether our circumstances are remarkable or righteous or simply unlucky, I don’t know – I have told our story in detail below, and I hope that my position is as clear as it once felt.
In October 2019, my husband and I moved with our 1-year-old daughter into a rented cottage in Ontario. We were assured that the single-story wood building had been fully winterized: sealed against animals, supplied with baseboard heating, and completely prepared for the characteristic Canadian weather. By December, the floor was so cold that we always wore slippers or shoes, and all of our water pipes had frozen solid. Investigation by a plumber revealed that there was zero insulation under the floorboards or around the water pipes. The property owners opted to wrap a heating coil around the water main, allowing liquid water to be retrieved only from taps on the side of the building. We filled pots of water to flush toilets, boiled water to clean dishes, and visited friends to take showers.
In January, the drains in the house began backing up with dirty water and sewage. The owners of the property enlisted a company to pump the septic tank, before discovering that neither had any idea where in the yard it was. After a week of exploratory digging, it was discovered to be extremely old, rusted shut, punctured through with tree roots and leaking into the groundwater. The environmental hazard alone made the area unlivable – not to mention the dangerous holes in the yard that made it unsafe for our daughter to play outside.
It was clear that the property could not continue to be rented in this condition, and on January 17, 2020, our landlords emailed us to advise that they would not be proceeding with any of the necessary fixes to bring the space up to livable code. As such, they informed us that they intended to “refund (our) prior payments, return (our) post-dated cheques, and the lease be terminated”, and suggested we “immediately take steps to find a new place”. In the middle of winter, this proved to be nearly impossible, but as luck would have it, we found a possible new home in February. Securing the space required immediate payment of first and last months’ rent; in order to provide this, we needed access to the prior payments that our landlords had promised to refund. Instead, they refused, on the grounds that they had meant this promise to apply only if we had moved out immediately (in, again, the middle of winter). We missed the window to put down a deposit, and lost our chance to move out.
Then, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and changed the entire rental landscape. Very few people were moving, and what rare places did hit the market were subject to vicious bidding wars that we did not have the funds to compete in. A friend offered us the chance to take over her lease in April, but a COVID-related death in the family reversed her plans to move. Despite frantic searching and increasingly intolerable living conditions – the septic tank remained exposed and the yard demolished – it wasn’t until the end of August, 2020, that we were able to move into a new home.
Back in February, I had consulted with the Landlord/Tenant Board (LTB) regarding our situation. I knew that the situation was fraught with legal technicalities and I wanted to be prepared for the possibility of filing a complaint, though at that time I still hoped that the situation could be resolved amicably. The LTB seemed supportive of the reality that we could not be expected to move at a moment’s notice and that the landlords had made a promise in their email that should be honoured. Instead, the landlords also reneged on their stated plan to return our post-dated cheques, and cashed the February and March payments that we had provided upon first moving in, thus claiming rent money for a space that they also acknowledged was hazardous and unlivable.
From April until August, we stopped payment of our rental cheques. This is for several reasons:
We were living in an uninhabitable house with an exposed septic tank in the backyard, and pipes that continued to freeze until the arrival of warmer weather.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, my husband and I both had no income beyond the government CERB payments: as a school counselor, my work was shutting down, and my husband’s construction company was unable to secure supplies or complete contracts.
We needed to save for first and last rental payments once we managed to find alternative accommodations, as our landlords had certainly been clear that they expected us to leave as soon as possible.
We believed that our landlords, based on their original stated intention to return our uncashed rent cheques, were not expecting further rent from us while we tried our utmost to find somewhere else to live.
In November 2020 we received a notice from the LTB of a hearing regarding unpaid rent following our eviction from our old home. I consulted a lawyer who, like our previous contact with the LTB, advised that our case seemed sound, they expected I had everything I needed to make my case, and would not need a lawyer to represent us at the hearing. The hearing took place over two days in November 2020 and February 2021, and the LTB representative seemed very sympathetic to our case. Nevertheless, and perhaps despite her sympathies, she eventually ruled against us; we are now required to pay over $7,000 in back rent within 6 months. There is no appeals procedure.
We are grateful for any help that anyone can offer; though we have hated every second of this ordeal, this verdict at least represents an end to it, albeit one that is grossly unfair. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I would be happy to answer any further questions through a direct message.