Renoviction is the ‘landlord playbook’ in Toronto

In one building, tenants are organizing to fight their corporate landlord and stop the evictions
Sophia de Guzman
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“We have a right to be here!” shouts Debbie Mohan, a tenant in her 60s who has lived for eight years in her Toronto building, a building acquired early last year by Pulis Investments Ltd., a large corporate landlord whose entire business is built on so-called renovictions.

Tenants in Mohan’s building, 1570 Lawrence Avenue West, have been organizing to fight back against a round of N13 eviction notices that Pulis issued to first-floor tenants in March. Last month they demonstrated at Pulis’ corporate office in Vaughan. When they arrived, they were met with private security, who appeared to be waiting for them outside.

Two security guards attempted to block Mohan and about 10 other tenants from reaching the office on the fifth floor. The tenants were joined by advocacy groups RenovictionsTO and Parkdale Community Legal Services. As one security guard blocked tenants, Philip Zigman, an organizer with RenovictionsTO, nearly fell to the ground and a security guard's body camera went flying, bouncing off the concrete and breaking into several pieces.

Security guards surrounded the tenants and blocked both elevators staircases leading to Pulis’ office, but eventually, the group makes it through. None of Pulis’s executive team agreed to speak with any of the tenants.

@ricochetmedia Tenants and organizers were confronted by security while attempting to enter the office of their landlord, Pulis Investments Ltd. last Monday. Tenants hoped to speck to Pulis about the renoviction notices they received, but were then removed by police. #greenscreenvideo #renoviction #topoli ♬ original sound - Ricochet Media

The Pulis executive team did not respond to Ricochet’s interview requests.

Tenants told Ricochet that they have a right to speak face-to-face with the landlord evicting them from their homes. Several said Pulis has not taken their calls, nor responded to the emails they’ve been sending since receiving their N13 notices.

N13 is the code used by the Landlord Tenant Board to notify tenants that the landlord wants to demolish the unit, do repairs, or convert it to another use. In practice, it is more commonly referred to as “renoviction,” said Cole Webber, legal clinic worker with Parkdale Community Legal Services.

The tenants, who occupy 12 units, were told to move out by the end of August, due to “extensive capital expenditure projects” taking place in the building.

“We continue to see examples of corporate landlords taking advantage of weak eviction protection laws, and illegally evicting hard-working tenants who pay their rent on time, just so they can increase the rent and maximize how much profit they make.”

Webber said weaponizing renovictions is increasingly the “landlord’s playbook” across the province. He explains that the greatest weapon that landlords of any size have at their disposal is vacancy decontrol — the financial incentive for landlords to frequently evict tenants, especially long-term tenants who are often paying below market rent. Once a tenant leaves, landlords can charge a new tenant as much as possible for their units. And because the housing market has chronically low supply, rents are soaring.

This hurts low-income renters the most, he said, especially new immigrants, young people, and working class families, who increasingly struggle to find affordable housing.

Jessica Bell, NDP housing critic and MPP for University-Rosedale, said this is a fundamental reason for why Ontario’s rental market is so unaffordable. She has previously introduced a private members bill calling for an end to vacancy decontrol.

“We continue to see examples of corporate landlords taking advantage of weak eviction protection laws, and illegally evicting hard-working tenants who pay their rent on time, just so they can increase the rent and maximize how much profit they make,” she said.

Tenants in 1570 Lawrence Avenue West have been organizing to fight back against N13 eviction notices.
Sophia de Guzman

Vacancy decontrol forms the legal framework that causes renovictions to be such a profitable strategy, she said. The use of N13 notices, combined with superficial renovations, gets around provincial rent controls — landlords know they have the tools at their disposal to increase their profits exponentially.

Dania Majid, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants, calls vacancy decontrol an incentive for landlords to force tenants out and discourage any attempt to create fair repayment plans with tenants facing financial hardship.

“The landlord actually stands to profit much more by losing the arrears from the former tenants to get much higher rents from a new tenant,” she said.

However, tracking exactly how frequently tenants are being renovicted in Toronto is challenging.

The LTB received more than 1,000 N13 applications in 2022, close to double the amount in 2019. The number of N12 applications — the notice to remove a tenant because the landlord plans to use the unit for personal use, which was the reason for more than 5,000 filings in 2022, the Globe and Mail reports.

“First, we have to be in solidarity with [the first-floor tenants], and secondly, this organizing isn’t only for them, but for ourselves.”

Removing tenants using N12 and N13 notices have been on the rise in Ontario, Zigman said. This has led to advocates finding their own ways of tracking renovictions. RenovictionsTO published a Renoviction Tracker with 448 entries dating back to 2015, which includes the address of the building and the landlord.

“For lots of different reasons, there was not a lot of data around renovictions, and certainly not public data. Also, we knew that there were some buildings in the city, or some areas in the city, where tenants were organizing to fight back against eviction,” said Zigman.

Zigman and Webber said renovictions have become a foundational business strategy for corporate landlords like Pulis. The pair recently published a report, Renovictions: Displacement and Resistance in Toronto, to provide guidance for tenants facing a similar situation and support communities organizing to stop evictions. They argue that “renoviction is a landlord strategy to permanently displace tenants using a playbook of legal and extra legal tactics.”

“Most of the people have been living here for 30 years, some have been living here for 40 years. So, we start talking, asking ‘where will we go?’ The guy who lives above me is 70-plus.”

After receiving the notices, the tenants got in touch with RenovictionsTO and Parkdale Community Legal Services, and with their support, they demonstrated outside of their building, outside Kyle Pulis’ house, as well as inside the company’s Brampton office. They also visited the office of Wellspring Chinguacousy, a cancer support non-profit where Kyle Pulis is on the board.

Mohan hopes the LTB is sympathetic to their situation. “[Now that we formed the group,] I'm being hopeful that whoever the judge is, whoever is on the Landlord Tenant Board, whoever the adjudicator is, they might see the situation from our perspective, from a human perspective,” she said.

Although only first-floor tenants were given notices, tenants from all over the building have gotten involved in the organizing effort. One of Mohan’s neighbors said that collective support is crucial to success.

“First, we have to be in solidarity with [the first-floor tenants], and secondly, this organizing isn’t only for them, but for ourselves,” he said. “It has been over a year since [Pulis] bought the building and some people have been losing interest in organizing, but we need to continue to keep open our possibilities,” said Mohan’s neighbor in the floor above, who preferred not to be named out of fear of retaliation from his landlord.

After receiving the renoviction notices, the tenants demonstrated outside of their building as well as the offices of the corporate landlord..
Sophia de Guzman

The Pulis Strategy

When Mohan and her family first moved to the building about eight years ago, the neighbourhood was mostly working class families, as well as new immigrants and refugees. Her monthly rent for their two-bedroom unit was $995.

Now, a one-bedroom in her building is renting for $2,199 a month.

At first she thought the best thing about the building was the location. She said it was not only close to her job, but also to transit, so commutes were short and simple. Then, two years ago, when Mohan was forced to stop working due to her cancer diagnosis, the building’s proximity to the hospital where she received treatment became essential.

“I can't [move out], honestly,” she said. “Physically, I'm not able to do something like that — to just move.”

Mohan is not the only Pulis tenant in a similar predicament, and this isn’t necessarily a coincidence, Zigman said.

Pulis advertises the “The PULIS Strategy,” a plan for growth that includes acquiring “undervalued and underserved” buildings, renovating units, and bringing in new tenants at much higher rent — a strategy that also has the effect of gentrifying the neighborhood.

Pulis, which has rebranded itself as Lankin Investments, has accumulated $163 million in assets under management and more than 16 properties in Southern Ontario, according to a company marketing slide deck.

Zigman said Pulis is significantly larger than other similar firms whose business strategy is based on a renoviction model. “What is somewhat unique about Pulis when it comes to evictions is not only their size, and how much they rapidly grown, but the fact that because they're seeking investors, it requires them to make this information public,” he said.

The north Toronto building is in a neighbourhood that was at one time mostly working class families and new newcomers. That is changing as the area is increasingly gentrified with rising rents.
Sophia de Guzman

A key metric that Pulis advertises to potential investors is indicating the potential increase in rent after the unit has been renovicted. For a series of properties in Hamilton, Pulis boasts post-renovation rent increases of more than 70 per cent.

“They're explicit about their desire to renovate units,” Zigman said. “In their offering memorandum to investors, they highlight how many units they've turned in all of their buildings. The fact that they highlight that shows they view that as a very important metric.”

One of Mohan’s neighbours on the ground floor, also a recipient of an N13 notice, says that many tenants in the building are not in a position to move because they’re on fixed incomes, such as a pension or ODSP.

“They're explicit about their desire to renovate units. In their offering memorandum to investors, they highlight how many units they've turned in all of their buildings.”

The average monthly rent for a Toronto apartment hit a record high of $3,122 in March, up 13 per cent from just a year ago, the Globe and Mail reports.

“Most of the people have been living here for 30 years, some have been living here for 40 years. So, we start talking, asking ‘where will we go?’ The guy who lives above me is 70-plus. They’re a retired couple on a limited pension income. How can you go out in this current situation and find something in the Toronto area or the GTA area?” said Mohan’s neighbour, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from the landlord.

In a memorandum for investors from May 2022, Pulis states that it “intends to vacate all apartment units” and “reposition the property by performing significant renovations and improvements in order to lease the property to a new demographic of tenants.”

Similarly, in a marketing slide deck from December 2016, Pulis describes its “ideal tenant profile” as young professionals, 20 to 32 years old, “appreciative of modern and attractive living spaces and protective of credit.”

The company also identifies “target markets,” stating that “the Pulis team specialized in the acquisition of underserved and undervalued” buildings. The phrase “underserved and undervalued” appears all over the company’s marketing documents with regard to the properties it is most interested in acquiring. The documents state that 1570 Lawrence Avenue West is the first building in Toronto that Pulis acquired, and that the company got its start in Brampton and has stayed in relatively low income markets until now.

The system isn’t broken, it was designed that way

Tenants told Ricochet there’s been a number of significant issues in the building since Pulis has taken ownership of the building, not only in their own units but also in common spaces. Reports of water from the taps running brown, overflowing trash bins obstructing parking spaces, and attempts to take advantage of tenants by charging additional fees for services they already pay for, such as air conditioning.

Tenants have attempted to contact a property manager to voice their complaints, but since Pulis took over, the superintendent’s office has also been empty.

Ricochet has seen photos of new pipes being built in tenants' units and left uncovered, seemingly to support in-suite laundry. Some of these pipes have been tucked away into the apartment’s storage spaces, but there have also been reports of these floor-to-ceiling pipes cutting straight through living and dining spaces.

Webber said corporate landlords like Pulis will often use these tactics to try and push tenants out.

“All [tenants] can do is respond to an eviction application and try to defend against it. But it's entirely legal what [Pulis] is doing,” he said.

Ads and brochures for rental buildings in Toronto highlighting opportunity for profit by raising rents. Low rents in a building are attractive because they mean the property’s value is lower due to these rents. However, long-term tenants paying lower rents are typically not looking to move, so turnover is something landlords have to work to achieve.
Renovictions: Displacement and Resistance in Toronto

Mohan and the other tenants have all received letters from Drake Property Management assuring them that they’re not actually being renovicted. It states that, “according to the Residential Tenancies Act, residents have the right to move back into their rental units after upgrades are completed.”

Although this is true, tenants are entitled to the right of first refusal, or the opportunity to return to their unit “at virtually the same rent” before it is returned to the market, Webber said this right is often not respected. He said they have not heard of a single tenant that has returned to their unit after being evicted for extensive renovations.

Furthermore, when a landlord violates the right of first refusal, the onus is entirely on the tenant to get legal representation and bring the issue to the LTB — further distancing landlords from accountability and tenants from a fair legal process.

What can renters do?

Last month, the Ontario government announced changes to strengthen protections for tenants against evictions due to renovations, or for the landlord's own use. Bill 97, Helping Homebuyers, Protecting Tenants Act, proposes to double the maximum fines for individual and corporate landlords not following the law. Currently, the fines are $100,000 for individual landlords, and $500,000 for corporate landlords, such as Pulis Investments.

The proposed legislation also includes a $6.5 million increase to the LTB to hire more adjudicators and staff in hopes of addressing the significant backlog of cases.

Still, housing advocates say these changes are not going to help tenants.

“I don't think a single tenant group was consulted on it, which is clear. The main thing that they're trying to do is give money to the Landlord and Tenant Board to speed up evictions — 90 per cent of applications to the board are landlord applications.”

“At the Landlord and Tenant Board, landlord hearings are typically scheduled within six to nine months. Tenant hearings? A whopping two years,” community advocate Diana Chan McNally tweeted. “When talking about ‘addressing the backlog’ at the LTB, there needs to be a clear equity lens as to who isn't receiving justice.”

Geordie Dent, Executive Director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Association, told Ricochet it doesn’t appear that the province even bothered to speak to any tenant groups or advocates in crafting the legislation.

“I don't think a single tenant group was consulted on it, which is clear,” he said. “The main thing that they're trying to do is give money to the Landlord and Tenant Board to speed up evictions — 90 per cent of applications to the board are landlord applications.

“So when they say they’re putting in more money to adjudicators, what they're saying is ‘we're going to try to throw grandma and grandpa into the streets even faster.’”

Dent said the main problem with new legislation is it fails to combat renovictions. When it comes to landlords, the government fails to enforce existing laws.

“This is just another set of rules that landlords are going to break,” he said.

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