Tired of ‘bad’ landlords putting tenants at risk, Mississauga wants power to inspect buildings
Mississauga is growing fast.
Its rapid growth is transforming how the city looks, with towers sprouting from parking lots and cars spilling off driveways on formerly quiet cul-de-sacs.
Rents in the city are monstrous, with rates staying constant year-on-year, at $1,929 for a one-bedroom, the third highest in Canada, for September, while house prices have ballooned even during the pandemic; the average sale price for detached houses in Mississauga was $1,307,832 in August, the highest figure ever recorded.
Many of the city’s new residents are immigrants and most don’t have that kind of money.
Students too at Mississauga’s U of T campus or Sheridan College cannot afford the increasingly out-of-reach cost of housing.
The dynamics have given rise to a form of guerrilla housing, not uncommon in cities with large segments of residents being squeezed out by booming real estate markets.
A front room in Mississauga divided at the middle of the bay-window
It’s a problem councillors are partly responsible for. At the Regional Council table, they have for years ignored the glaring lack of affordable housing throughout much of Peel, failing to adequately fund the very plan they approved, the Home for All strategy, that was supposed to create 75,000 affordable housing units from 2018 to 2028. It is now effectively dead, because councillors refused to fund it when budget season arrived, choosing to instead devote large amounts of property tax revenues to other priorities, such as policing.
Catering to an emerging niche and creating a growing illicit market, landlords have started slicing suburban single-family dwellings into multi-unit apartment buildings. The move is creating much-needed housing supply in areas dominated by inefficient land use, but is a contravention of City rules and, councillors say, is endangering tenants.
Last week, Mississauga City Council wrote to the Province asking for more tools to deal with the practice and the ability to proactively inspect properties to catch bad-actors putting tenants at risk. A motion describing “a prevalence in illegal construction” that potentially puts “occupants at risk due to poor construction or contravention of the fire code” asked Housing Minister Steve Clark to open the Ontario Building Code Act, which is currently designed to protect the privacy of tenants.
Moved by Ward 2 Councillor Karen Ras, it asks for the Code to be amended so City staff can enter homes “where the inspector has reasonable grounds to believe that construction is taking place” without a building permit.
Under current rules, if a landlord refuses entry, the City has to apply to the courts to obtain a search warrant to enter a building.
“It’s a very cumbersome process ... it’s an unbelievable waste of resources,” Ras told The Pointer, explaining there was equal frustration among her residents and staff. In many cases, the rule-breaking is obvious, she says, but red tape means the City’s hands are essentially tied.
She described homes where walls were being built through the middle of bay windows, multiple washers, dryers and ovens were crammed into one building and doors that were cut into exterior walls at random. The councillor provided photographs of some contraventions.
An illegal front entrance for a separate unit built into a Mississauga house
Ras and Ward 8 Councillor Matt Mahoney, who seconded the motion, see the issue as a minority of bad investors exploiting Mississauga’s desperate housing market. “There are people who buy these properties, maybe they’re financially overextended, and decide to take a single family home and put three or four units in it. This isn’t about the odd basement apartment being done without a permit, which is a different issue,” Ras said.
She added that ignoring zoning and original design of buildings would throw up issues with City services, electrical problems and potential fire concerns.
Mississauga Councillor Karen Ras wants better protections for tenants
Mahoney, whose ward includes U of T’s Mississauga campus, fears for the safety of students in converted houses. “We are essentially handcuffed,” he said of the current system.
Converting single family homes into apartments may present difficulties for inspections by the City and throw up safety concerns, but at a broader level it also plays into Mississauga’s housing crisis. Changing large family homes into multiple smaller dwellings offers the opportunity to bring more density and desperately needed supply in a relatively simple way. But when done illegally, a whole host of problems arise, from safety risks to the lack of revenue being collected to pay for all the infrastructure and services being used by tenants housed illegally.
As The Pointer has previously reported, the landscape of housing in Mississauga is changing. Executive homes, built across sprawling lots and designed as a refuge from Toronto in the ‘70s and ‘80s, are beginning to fade. A red-hot market, changing tastes among newer buyers and the dawn of a more climate conscious generation have reduced the demand for enormous family homes.
Applications to cut lots up in the city and build two or more houses where one once stood have increased in recent years. In 2015, 65 applications were filed with the City of Mississauga to sever a lot into smaller parcels. In 2016 that number rose to 87 applications, with 91 received in 2017. Consolidated numbers for 2018 and 2019 are not yet available.
Struggling to offer more affordable housing to residents, Mississauga has worked on a “Missing Middle” strategy. It aims to build housing somewhere between single family homes and towering condo towers. The classic example is the creation of more townhouses, but legally converting single family homes into multi-unit buildings chimes with this strategy too.
It hasn’t been easy, with NIMBYism rampant, and councillors like Dipika Damerla more interested in appeasing older voters than ensuring proper housing stock is created. She recently refused to support an application that would have led to badly needed missing middle units being constructed, because many of the more senior residents in the area didn’t want them nearby.
The Pointer asked Ras and Mahoney if they felt the City had a role to play in streamlining the process to create more infill housing by making it easier for homeowners to legally and safely convert their properties into tenement buildings. Both said they thought Mississauga’s process worked well, referencing its simplified second unit registration system.
While the two are linked, converting a family home into three or four apartments is not the same process as adding a second unit, something that can be done without a zoning change.
“I think we have a very simple process for people to register when they want to put a basement apartment in and a lot of people don’t [use it],” Mahoney said. “Somebody comes in and they just want to do it without legally registering it with the City, which is what they should do and we’ve tried to simplify that process.”
Changes to encourage responsible renovations to add housing stock without putting residents at danger could be an important step within the City’s own toolkit if Queen’s Park refuses to help.
“This is a matter of being able to deal efficiently and quickly with those bad actors who are trying to maximize their investments at the expense of residents,” Ras added.
Her motion resonates with a similar crusade by Brampton Ward 3 and 4 Councillor Jeff Bowman, who has attempted to control a proliferation of illegal second units in his city. In 2019, he wrote to Doug Ford asking for increased rights to enter unregistered second units to inspect them and ensure tenant safety wasn’t at risk.
To Bowman’s frustration, Minister Clark said the City already had all the tools it needed: namely, the ability to apply for a search warrant.
“If we’ve got 20,000 units and we need to go and clog the courts with 20,000 applications for search warrants... What an absolutely dumb thing to put forward to a councillor,” Bowman told The Pointer.
Brampton Councillor Jeff Bowman was disappointed with the Province's response last year when he requested help to protect tenants
He was delighted to hear about Ras’s motion, convinced the more cities pressure the Province, the more likely they are to see a change. The Mississauga councillor shares the view, optimistic her motion will be met with more engagement and consideration than the dismissed request by Brampton 15 months ago.
“This isn’t a Mississauga issue, this spans the GTA,” she said. “The more municipalities that call for action in the same vein … [the more it] will gather momentum and the Province can take a look at that.”
A spokesperson for the Government of Ontario told The Pointer that Clark “considers all proposals to update and revise” the legislation, but placed a strong emphasis on the privacy issues raised in response to Mississauga’s request. “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes that everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure. Any powers of entry must be consistent with this right,” the spokesperson said.
Although Queen’s Park offered a lukewarm response to the request, momentum around councils is growing to improve their ability to inspect homes. In Brampton Bowman has led the charge on second units, but without broad support he wasn’t given much consideration.
Mississauga, facing its own affordable housing crisis, is the latest municipality calling on Clark to protect tenants in a desperate situation that elected leaders continue to neglect.
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