What students should know about the housing bylaw

London is pretty well known for its two huge educational institutions: the University of Western Ontario and Fanshawe College. We're a town with a huge student population (at least, from late August to early May), and there is a ton of student housing throughout the city.

A bylaw, effective as of March 1, 2010, clearly lays out regulations pertaining to properties that have four or fewer units in them, and it's something students need to be aware of.

“Back in the mid 2000s (around 2007/08) the City was looking at options with regards to concerns related to housing upkeep in rental accommodations,” explained Glenn Matthews, Housing Mediation Officer for Fanshawe College. Representatives from the City of London travelled as far away as the United States to look at other models of regulation for housing, eventually coming up with the idea for the Rental Housing Licence. “Along with that, the province changed the legislation (around 2005) to allow municipalities to license rentals,” he said. Oshawa, home to Durham College, was the first city to license rentals, and London was not far behind.

The difference between the two cities was that Oshawa chose to enforce a licensing bylaw in student- populated areas only. “When London looked at licensing, they looked at their records for where the complaints were coming from,” said Matthews. “They found that the vast majority of complaints for rental properties came from smaller rentals like houses, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes,” not just in student-populated areas, but around the city.

The City of London passed the bylaw in September 2009. It stated, “Any rental housing with four or fewer units (not bedrooms, but apartments) must get a licence ... It's not very strenuous on the landlord. It's a $25 yearly fee. They have to self-report the condition of the premises to the City. And they have to have had a fire inspection from the City fire prevention people within the last two years,” said Matthews. “It's fairly simple.”

But the bylaw didn't pass without a fight.

The London Property Management Association is a nonprofit organization that represents the interests of property owners in the city. The Association has over 400 landlords as members. The LPMA saw the bylaw as unfair — as a two-pronged attack by City Hall, according to Joe Hoffer, the LPMA's lawyer.

“One of (the prongs) was basically for City Hall to respond to community complaints about students and student housing. That was one major driving force behind it and we had a lot evidence to demonstrate that that was what was really pushing it,” he said. “The second (prong) was because licensing was essentially going to be a revenue generator for the City. When you extract money from landlords, it's popular, but what people don't usually see is that ultimately it's the tenants who pay for that — the costs get passed on to tenants. It's no comfort to a landlord to know they can pass the costs on to the tenants — there's all kinds of costs that they pass on to tenants. Nobody wins in that situation except the person who ultimately gets the money — in this case, it was going to be the City.”

In short, the LPMA saw the bylaw as another way of going after landlords and tenants to generate revenue for the City, Hoffer said. “You've got anti-student and this whole revenue thing — just another tax grab — and so they went at it full blast. That was what really drove (the case).” Hoffer said he and the LMPA filed documents for the case that demonstrated the City's attempts to discourage student housing. “They stereotype students as drunks, bad neighbours, noisy neighbours, garbage strewn, and the reality is, when you look at the vast majority of students, they're just like everybody else. They study hard; they're sincere in their efforts to get a degree. They're like any ordinary citizen, but there were examples that were selected — they were legitimate examples — but to suggest that all students should be tarred with that same brush I think was completely inappropriate, but again, Council felt it was in their interest to address those issues on behalf of their constituents and they did.”

Due to the opposition that the LPMA put up, changes were made to the original bylaw, said Hoffer. “For example, at one time, the City wanted to charge a ($20) per-unit fee. For every rental unit you had, you would have to pay a licensing fee. We challenged that before it went to court, and ultimately they withdrew that because it was a form of tax and they knew that there was no way they could defend that in court. They changed it and made it a per-property fee and a minimal amount — for $25 — but they were determined to pass a licensing bylaw. From LPMA's perspective, (the bylaw that passed) was substantially watered down from what they originally proposed. They also ensured that it applied city-wide, not just limited to areas around Fanshawe and Western, which again would have been offensive from a discrimination perspective.”

Despite what the LPMA claimed about the bylaw's anti-student bias, the City — as well as Student Union members from both the Fanshawe Student Union and the University Students' Council — saw this as a way the City could ensure safe housing for all tenants.

“The main thing is, we don't want any tenants living in unsafe housing, because, in certain areas of the city, near commercial districts, near the college, near the university, near downtown, there's a higher demand for rental units,” said Orest Katolyk, Manager of Bylaw Enforcement for the City of London. “Some landlords have built bedrooms in their units that do not meet standards. We want to ensure that all the units in London are safe for all tenants — students, seniors and everybody in between.”

“FSU and the College both supported the implementation of the licensing because they felt it would work to eliminate some of the fire traps that are rentals, and would hopefully improve the rental accommodations that were available,” added Matthews.

But according to Hoffer, the licence just re-states laws and codes that are already in place. “There's nothing new there. Nothing that they couldn't have done without the licensing bylaw.” Not only that, but most landlords aren't experts on building and fire codes, he added. “I think the inclination of most landlords is to say, ‘Yeah, everything's great.'”

“This was just basically another layer of regulation, but one that potentially allowed them to earn revenue. I think we've pretty much killed that — $25 a property is not a huge office expense.”

Now that the dust of the court case has settled, Katolyk said the City will be more vigorous in enforcing the bylaw. “We will be taking a stronger, more aggressive approach to enforcing this bylaw ... We've already begun the process of identifying properties that are not licensed and have indicated the requirement of licensing.” He estimated that 7,500 properties in London need to get the licence. As of early March this year, around 3,000 already had the licence or had applied for the licence.

For more information about the bylaw and the licence, check out tinyurl.com/rentallicence2012.
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