This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2021

Power to the tenants

Toronto hotline provides advice to renters

Helen Lee

Art by Valerie Thai

Residential landlords and tenants have a very specific type of business relationship: rent (money) is paid every month in exchange for goods (the rental unit) and services (repairs and maintenance). But what happens when a tenant isn’t getting their money’s worth? They can consult the Tenant Hotline, a free service of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA), a tenant advocacy organization in Toronto.

Available by phone and email, the team of Hotline counsellors answers a wide range of questions on topics including repairs and maintenance, as well as illegal lease terms and evictions. The Hotline is unique in Canada for being one of the few phone-based services exclusively for tenants. Counsellors have extensive knowledge of how the law applies to residential tenancies, and can provide referrals to other helpful resources.

FMTA Executive Director Geordie Dent emphasizes that the Hotline provides legal information, not legal advice. This distinction is important because the FMTA doesn’t employ lawyers or paralegals, and the Law Society of Ontario is strict about who can give legal advice. The limits of the FMTA’s assistance can sometimes lead to difficult conversations between counsellors and tenants.

“We tell people what they can do, but not what they should do,” he says.

“That’s hard for a lot of people. They’re looking for someone to point them in the right direction, but we can’t do that.”

The Hotline assists approximately 11,000 tenants in Ontario every year, and counsellors hear daily horror stories: pest issues that become infestations, no heat during the winter, attempts to evict people with cancer, and all the ways a landlord can violate a tenant’s privacy are only some of the topics covered.
No other business relationship affects livelihoods as much as the landlord-tenant relationship, but it’s the landlord that holds the balance of power as both the owner of the rental unit and collector of rent. Knowing one’s rights shifts some of the power back to tenants, and it can mean the difference between continuing to have a home and going through a costly or time-consuming move, or even being forced into homelessness.
Empowering tenants is one of the reasons why Dent continues to do the work. “Learning when you can assert your rights is important,” he says. “Being able to push back is important.”

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