‘Home sweet home’? Kingston tenants’ experiences can be sour, survey finds

Image via Pixabay.

It is said that home is where the heart is, but according to a new survey of tenants in Kingston, the experience of renting a home is not always good for the soul.

Just Recovery Kingston is a local volunteer group formed during the COVID-19 pandemic; its purpose, according to its website, is to “‘build back better’ at the local level” and to “fight for liberation, equity, and dignity for all.” After hearing multiple disturbing stories about tenants’ renting experiences in Kingston, Just Recovery Kingston’s Affordable Housing Policy Working Group developed the Tenant Experiences Survey to understand the nature of the problems and inform tenant advocacy in Kingston by pinpointing key areas for improvement.

Kingstonist spoke to two members of the Working Group to find out more. Tara Kainer is a retired senior who has been a renter in the City of Kingston for over 35 years. Sayyida Jaffer is the Justice and Poverty Reduction Lead at The Providence Centre for Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation; she owns her own home.

Jaffer explained that the Just Recovery Kingston Housing Working Group began in the second half of 2022 with the idea that something positive needed to be done related to housing in Kingston.

“We were a mixture of tenants and homeowners in the group. We’d been in conversations about some of the challenges people have experienced with Property Standards, and we realized we don’t have a great data set for what tenants are experiencing in Kingston,” Jaffer said.

So they developed a survey, which they ran in the summer of 2023.

“We wanted to better understand what tenants are experiencing so that we had data to support any potential recommendations we might make. We also wanted the data to tell us what tenants needed, because we didn’t know in an aggregate sense,” Jaffer explained, noting that the idea was to use the gathered information to better inform tenant advocacy in Kingston by pinpointing key areas of concern and highlighting gaps, in order to improve rental housing and affordability. 

As an aside, Jaffer noted that Queen’s undergraduate students and college students were excluded from the survey “because they have different and unique housing needs[; we] wanted to focus on long-term residents.”

The survey received a statistically significant 462 valid responses.

“The high response rate provides us with rare and important data that can help us understand the lives of Kingston’s tenants and the challenges they face,” the report notes. 

The report states that, according to a Statistics Canada Census, an estimated 27,345 tenants live in the Kingston metropolitan area, and notes that “this number is likely larger, but it helps gauge the reliability of our sample.” (A reliable sample for this population would be 379.)

“I think [the result] really indicates tenants in the community want to talk about their experiences, and they want someone to know what’s going on with them,” pointed out Kainer, “so that in itself is a really positive statistic.” 

Much of the report confirms that Kingston is following national and provincial rental market trends, but some of it indicates that Kingston renters face unique challenges, as well.

Image from Tenant Experiences Survey.

Renters and rental units

The data collected revealed that most tenants live in private market dwellings and rent equally from individual and corporate landlords. Most tenants live in two-bedroom units and live with one other person. Most tenants are not concerned with overcrowding, with the highest concern being for households with three or more people in one- to three-bedroom units. 

The survey revealed high rental housing turnover rates, as most tenants have moved in the past five years.

Both Kainer and Jaffer have theories about rental turnover that the data seems to bear out. For one, the data captured a range of tenant experiences and struggles that often go unreported or under-reported.

The survey found that 26 per cent of Kingston tenants (over one in four) has been evicted or threatened with eviction.

“That is higher than the national average, which I believe is 12.8 per cent,” Jaffer said, going on to explain that the odds of eviction or threat of eviction are 1.4 times higher if the tenants have contacted Property Standards or filed a Landlord Tenant Board application. Tenants who have faced eviction are also 1.8 times more likely to wait more than three months for repairs.

Asked if most landlords are simply good people who are just under-educated when it comes to being good landlords, Kainer was quick to disagree.

“It’s more the opposite,” Kainer said. “I had one landlord who didn’t know anything about being a landlord, to the point where, when I moved in, there was no smoke detector. It was totally illegal.”

She explained that many of this landlord’s actions suggested that he didn’t understand his legal responsibilities as a landlord.

“So I put a CLEO [Community Legal Education Ontario] pamphlet that sets out the responsibilities and obligations of landlords and tenants in the envelope with my rent” Kainer continued. “He called me and swore and yelled and screamed at me for 20 minutes over the phone for ‘threatening’ him. I was simply trying to provide some information that he obviously didn’t know. So [tenancy] is really precarious.”

The survey data suggests Kainer’s experience is not unique, Jaffer said.

“I think that those stories are really important. So in terms of the survey, tenants reported experiencing many bad examples of landlord conduct. Eleven per cent said landlords entered their unit without notice. Twelve per cent [said they] experienced harassment and threats. And a combined 19 per cent had experienced at least one form of inappropriate conduct, which is almost one in five,” she detailed.

“Only 12 per cent of people had contacted Property Standards for help with a repair, but only 18 per cent of those 12 per cent reported that the issue was fully resolved.”

Jaffer noted that the main reasons people didn’t bother to contact Property Standards were that they didn’t know about it, they feared consequences, or they believed it wouldn’t help.

“We’re very concerned about the fear of consequences, because Property Standards [is] a reactive service, right?” said Jaffer.

In other words, Property Standards calls the landlord and tells them what to do to be compliant, and often that puts renters in the landlord’s ‘bad books,’ she explained.

Kainer pointed out that many renters feel trapped in their situation: “We made the point in the survey that it is difficult to raise any kind of issue with your landlord because the minute you do, they assume you’re criticizing them [and] you’re out to get them. Once you’re on the wrong side of your landlord, it’s a very hellish experience.” 

“I was actually a housing worker in Kingston for five years and recommended [that] a couple of the tenants I was working with… go to Property Standards, which they did,” she continued. “An order was issued to their landlord. [The] landlord did nothing. [The tenant] went back to Property Standards, [who] issued another order to the landlord. And again the landlord does nothing. So after a year or two of that, both of these tenant families simply moved, right? Because it goes nowhere, and you are in an impossible position.”

For five years, Kainer worked as a housing worker in Kingston and, during that time, she recommended going to Property Standards to a couple of tenants, she said. When those tenants did so, both encountered the same thing: an order was issued to their landlord, the landlord did nothing, the tenant went back to Property Standards, who issued another order to the landlord, and, once again, the landlord did nothing, she said.

“So, after a year or two of that, both of these tenant families simply moved, right? Because it goes nowhere and you’re in an impossible position,” Kainer expressed.

“Unfortunately, landlords use this strategy to get people out. They don’t correct the horrible situation you have to be living in. You’re going to want to move at some point, and that’s what they want. They want you to move because the minute that you move, they can raise the rent.”

Image from Tenant Experiences Survey.

The data agrees: new renters pay a shocking average 54 per cent higher rent than established tenants in Kingston. For most tenants covered by the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA), there is a limit to how much their rent can increase each year. The Ontario government sets the guideline each year. In 2024, it is 2.5 per cent.

Also, Kainer and Jaffer explained the phenomenon of “reno-victions,” a loophole that allows landlords to evict tenants, renovate, and then raise the rent exponentially.

“The Ontario Residential Tenancies Act allows what they call ‘no-fault eviction,’” Kainer pointed out. “So one way to get a tenant out with very little trouble is to say, ‘I want to renovate this place. So sorry, you have to leave.’ And the other one is, ‘Oh, I need my unit back because I need to live in it or my child needs it’ — and again, they can do that with very little bother.”

Jaffer added, “The trends we’re seeing are not unique to Kingston. There are specific realities here that we need to better understand, but this is a legislated problem. It didn’t come from nowhere. The policies and practices of all levels of government have led to this. It’s a choice that things are this way.”

Image from Tenant Experiences Survey.

The group intends to share the findings with local organizations involved in housing or tenant support and advocacy, as well as with the government.

“We do see this data supporting policy directions. Unfortunately, Council didn’t pursue the pilot of residential licensing; we thought that was a promising idea. And there has been evidence to say that it’s been helpful in other places,” Jaffer shared. City Council quashed that idea at its meeting on February 6, 2024, preferring instead to go with a “Residential Rental Registry system for properties with 1-4 residential rental units where landlords be required to complete a property standards and safety self-certification checklist, and an emergency information package.”

The Working Group is not going to let that stop them, insisted Jaffer.

“We will be sharing [the findings] with members of Council and also City staff, particularly from Property Standards enforcement and the housing department… It’s relevant, and we hope that it can be an educational tool to help people who make decisions better understand the challenges that tenants are experiencing,” she said.

To read the report in full, visit the Just Recovery Kingston website.

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