Para los que estan recien llegados o pensando en venir a Toronto proximamente, lean este articulo sobre algunos problemillas en algunos edificios donde se rentan apartamentos. Para que no renten alli y/o para que esten pendientes de donde se meten. Espero les sirva de ayuda.
It’s a horrible way to live’
Renters’ repeated pleas for repairs are usually ignored
Worst of city’s buildings continue to deteriorate
ROBERT CRIBB AND MICHELLE SHEPHARD
Winding their way along the Don Valley Parkway every day, thousands of motorists see a picturesque cluster of high-rises majestically overlooking the city.
What they don’t see is what’s inside some of those buildings: crumbling ceilings, mould-covered walls, broken locks, and infestations of mice and cockroaches — some of the worst rental conditions in Toronto.
In Josif Kurukulasuriya’s fourth-floor apartment at 75 Thorncliffe Park Dr., west of Don Mills Rd., the soft-spoken factory worker stares again at the hole in his bathroom ceiling.
It’s collapsed for the third time in five years.
“They come and put (in) the plaster, but it keeps leaking from above,” says the father of four shaking his head in resignation, a fistful of work order requests in his hand. “After awhile, it all comes down again.”
Deteriorating conditions in apartment buildings are a problem in any big city. But in Toronto, where half the population of 2.4 million rents, aging buildings, rising rents, an eight-year freeze on the construction of subsidized housing and the city’s inability to tackle the problem have left renters feeling increasingly powerless.
Previously unreleased city inspection data, obtained by the Star, shows three Thorncliffe high-rises are among 39 apartment buildings whose declining conditions have, on at least 10 occasions each in the past 2 1/2 years, prompted the city to demand landlords take immediate action.
But an analysis of the data shows it took five months on average, and in some cases as long as two years, for landlords across the city to make the repairs and have the orders and notices cleared by inspectors.
The Star investigation uncovers a system that is slow to respond to tenant complaints, fails to bring some of the worst buildings up to standard despite years of decline, and allows landlords with recurring problems in their buildings to escape serious penalty.
Rental housing has not emerged as a key concern in the current mayoral campaign, with the five candidates largely avoiding the issue.
“Renters are a powerful voting block that isn’t as powerful as it should be,” says Dan McIntyre, a spokesperson with the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations. “There’s never been a sense of belonging in the same way. People feel they don’t have a reason to vote for anybody.”
The most troubled buildings, the Star’s investigation shows, are clustered in several neighbourhoods across the city, raising alarm bells from housing policy experts about creeping ghettoization.
They warn that a concentration of poor renters trapped in deteriorating buildings follows the historic pattern of American slums.
“Do we want Toronto to be like Detroit or Chicago where there’s parts of the city where we know we should not go?” asks David Hulchanski, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies.
“We are a more unequal society now than we were. And it’s showing up geographically … That’s the recipe for American-style abandonment.”
Along with the analysis of the city’s inspection data, the Star interviewed dozens of tenants, as well as landlords, tenant advocates and housing officials and found low-income families, new immigrants, seniors and single mothers paying increasingly higher rents for timeworn tenements, some now 40 years old and showing their age.
While family incomes for growing numbers of renters hover near the poverty line, rents are rising at double the rate of inflation.
And while Toronto’s vacancy rate has soared in the past two years, creating what is being called a renters’ market, most of the apartments are in the mid to upper ranges of rent. A housing boom and low interest rates are enticing wealthier tenants into homeownership, creating a higher vacancy rate at the upper end of the rental market.
Meanwhile, the percentage of households that can’t afford even average rents — just under $1,000 for all units last year — has grown from 26 per cent in 1990 to 36 per cent in 2001, according to the City of Toronto. One in five families spend more than half their income on rent.
The Kurukulasuriyas are part of those statistics. Every month, the family falls deeper into debt trying to cover the rent of $1,119, more than 60 per cent of what Josif brings home.
“Things have never been so bad,” says Bart Poesiat, a tenant advocate with Parkdale Community Legal Services..
“Basically, it’s high rents for slum conditions. The enforcement mechanism is weaker than it used to be, both in the provincial legislation and with the city because the mega city is in a continuous state of crisis and they don’t have the political will or the resources to enforce their own housing regulations.”
Pam Coburn, the person in charge of the city’s apartment inspectors, agrees “the system has devolved.”
Before amalgamation, inspectors in the municipalities of North York, Scarborough and East York conducted mandatory spot checks on all rental buildings. Now, inspectors are burdened with other duties and visit buildings only after a complaint is made.
That means buildings with major problems could go unnoticed for years if tenants are afraid to speak out.
Chronic problems at four Thorncliffe buildings — 65, 71, 75 and 79 Thorncliffe Park Dr. — prompted the city in 2000 to launch a special team to force the landlord to clean them up. Requests from the Star to accompany the Problem Property Team on recent inspections were turned down.
Comprised of the city’s building and works departments, police, fire, public health, housing, legal, community and neighbourhood services, the team now has jurisdiction over about 15 apartment buildings across the city with ongoing problems.
Over the past 2 1/2 years ending in June, the city issued 47 orders and notices against three of those buildings — 71, 75 and 79 Thorncliffe Park Dr. with a total of almost 1,000 units — all run by Toronto landlord Amir Kassam.
Each order and notice often consists of several breaches of city standards, such as broken elevators, infestations and maintenance problems. A building targeted with even a handful of orders or notices over a couple of years could have hundreds of problems, records show.
For example, an order issued a year ago against 79 Thorncliffe Park Dr. listed 148 required repairs, everything from “deteriorating rugs” to cracked walls to broken elevators. The same month, 71 Thorncliffe Park Dr. was issued one order listing 143 problems and down the street at 75 Thorncliffe inspectors itemized 120 problems with the building in just one order.
Currently there are 46 deficiencies included in the three orders that continue to be listed as “not done,” by city inspectors.
Kassam, who says his company, Farin Management, has pumped $7 million into the three buildings since purchasing them in 1996, admits there are problems, but says he has been unfairly targeted by the city. “I’m very upset that we were, frankly, picked upon in this manner … I think we’re victimized,” he said in an interview.
Across town in the city’s west end, Bihari Lal and his family have lived for the past 13 years in another building monitored by the city’s Problem Property Team. Their one-bedroom apartment at 105 West Lodge Ave. in Parkdale looks like this:
Bare bulbs hang on electrical cords from the ceilings, casting dim shadows on the walls. The door to his seventh-floor balcony is broken, a safety concern for his two small children.
A water-damaged bedroom wall is crudely plastered. His kitchen cupboards are falling apart. The bathroom ceiling is cracked and there’s a hole in the wall the size of a baseball where the towel rack fell months earlier. The tub faucet leaks.
A cockroach scurries up the bathroom wall. Lal lunges, just in time to stop his 3-year-old son from catching it.
“They grab the cockroaches and put them in their mouths,” he says. “I don’t know what to do.”
For this, the sinewy 45-year-old cook pays $852 a month in rent. And it’s set to increase in December.
“I complain and I complain and I complain,” says the exasperated father, waving the forms he’s filled out and submitted to management requesting repairs. “But they never come to fix anything. It’s been like this forever.”
Lal isn’t the only one complaining.
City records show the buildings at 103-105 West Lodge Ave., with more than 700 units, have received 77 orders and notices from inspectors in the past 2 1/2 years.
Those problems aren’t immediately obvious to a visitor.
The grounds and front lobbies of the twin 19-storey high-rises appear well maintained. But once inside, the hallways are dimly lit and the rugs stained and worn. The dreary wallpaper is marked with graffiti.
Inside individual units, tenants point to lifting floor tiles, water-damaged walls, mice and cockroach hideouts and mouldy bathrooms they say management has failed to repair, sometimes after months of complaining.
Jeffrey Wynn, whose family owns the buildings, says that for buildings with more than 700 units, he doesn’t consider that a large number of city work orders and that all orders have been dealt with by his four maintenance staff.
`I pay all this money each month for rent and can’t even get the most basic things done .’
“We’ve done a hell of a job,” he says, talking about the West Lodge buildings. “We’ve brought (them) right up.”
But the city disagrees.
“There are a lot of buildings that have very, very few if any orders notwithstanding they are very large buildings. I think 77 orders and notices on a building like this is unreasonable …It is not acceptable no matter how big the building is. That’s not a reasonable excuse,” says Coburn.
The Problem Property Team continues to oversee the West Lodge towers, and as of the end of October there were still 28 outstanding orders or notices, city officials say.
When the city does devote resources and countless hours to cracking down on landlords who refuse to make repairs, the punishment is lenient.
One Toronto landlord who owns five buildings cited with 108 orders and notices, has been charged no fewer than 18 times by the city since 1997 in cases where he failed to comply with the city orders. The result has been court-imposed fines, each ranging between $300 and $5,000.
In all, Vincenzo Barrasso and his companies were fined at least $26,000 by the city’s municipal standards department, records show.
Barrasso’s buildings in west Toronto also incurred at least $136,500 in fines from the fire department for violations that included a lack of fire extinguishers, inoperable fire alarms and faulty sprinkler systems. He was also sentenced to 30 days in jail since his buildings had a history of fire code violations.
Barrasso appealed his case in provincial court this summer, showing that improvements had been made to his buildings. He agreed to pay more than $80,000 to settle present and all past unpaid fines for fire code and city convictions. The jail sentence was quashed.
“The fines aren’t reflective of what people have endured,” says Coburn. “You see the conditions these people are living in and a judge decides for the 300 people who live there a $1,000 fine is appropriate…. For the life of me, I don’t understand what the problem is. Are judges not prepared to hold landlords responsible?”
Barrasso said in a telephone interview he blames most of the problems on a poor management team — that he has since fired — and disrespectful tenants.
In the past 2 1/2 years, city inspectors investigated more than 13,000 complaints from tenants across the city and, where serious problems were discovered, issued more than 4,900 orders and notices demanding landlords do repairs.
Deterioration is evident in buildings across the city, but most tenants are afraid to speak on the record for fear of eviction. Among the problems documented by reporters:
A single mother in a Kipling Ave. high-rise was forced to bathe her 1-month-old daughter in a tub with mould-covered tiles crumbling from the wall. She repeatedly complained to management while pregnant. “They just completely ignored me and would never fix anything no matter how I begged,” says the 25-year-old mother of two.
After returning home from hip surgery, an elderly woman living in a building on Biggin Court, near Victoria Park and Eglinton Aves., had to crawl up and down stairs to her third-floor apartment because the elevator was broken down for two weeks. “They have no compassion, they treat us like cattle,” says the Toronto grandmother. Tenants say the elevator continues to break down for days at a time.
A man in a bachelor apartment on Wasdale Cres., near Bathurst St. and Wilson Ave., spent last winter with a broken heater that left him shivering in his ground-floor unit.
A young woman living in a Lansdowne Ave. bachelor, near Dupont Ave., had her apartment broken into five times in the course of a year. “People are getting broken into all the time because there’s no security and the doors never lock,” she says.
After four years of fruitless complaints to management, an elderly woman in a meticulously kept apartment on Capri Rd., off The East Mall in Etobicoke stuck duct tape along the bottom of her kitchen cupboards to keep mice and cockroaches from getting in. The daily rodent droppings and the sounds of mice inside her walls continued.
Urine and human feces were discovered lining the hallways and stairwells of several Toronto high-rises where tenants complained security is lax and maintenance non-existent.
Before issuing orders, city inspectors generally ask landlords informally to make needed repairs to bring it up to municipal standards. Only when landlords fail to respond, or when the problems are serious enough to warrant immediate action, do inspectors issue orders or notices demanding the work be completed.
This process assumes tenants will take their complaints to the city.
“Tenants are scared because they fear the landlord will hit back and they’ll end up on the street evicted,” says Poesiat, the Parkdale tenant advocate.
“And that fear is not unreasonable. If they’re behind in their rent or they’re paying late from time to time, it’s very easy for a landlord to evict a tenant….”
Those who do speak up say their complaints seem to fall on deaf ears.
“It’s hell,” says Mustafa Assaqqaf, an exporter of engineering instruments who, with his family, pays more than $1,100 a month for a two-bedroom on Thorncliffe Park Dr, owned by Kassam. He came here from Malaysia in 2001 and is awaiting his licence to practise as a professional engineer.
In August, 2002, Assaqqaf, who has an autistic son, asked for several repairs to his 21st-floor unit — including water leaking from the bathroom into his bedroom and a broken balcony door, an imminent danger for his son.
During the day, cockroaches can be seen skittering across his kitchen counter and yellow water drips from the kitchen tap. At night, he says, the mice come out and dart across the living room floor where two of his three children sleep.
Despite repeated reminders to management, it took 10 months before maintenance workers finally arrived to make some repairs. Assaqqaf calls the work, done in June, “shoddy.”
“Whatever repairmen they send here, a month later everything deteriorates again,” he says.
Inspectors’ notes obtained by the Star offer a glimpse at the frustration many tenants feel waiting months for repairs. One case dates back to February, 2001, when an inspector looking into complaints at an East York apartment building on Dawes Rd. wrote:
“Tenant’s front door to (apartment) will not lock, wood frame that lock fits into has fallen off. Landlord will not repair. Has two small children and is afraid to sleep.”
The inspector wrote of another unit in the same building: “Bathroom ceiling fell in 5 months ago. Landlord has done nothing. Hall floor lifting.”
In other units, the inspector noted “roaches and mice,” “mould on all windows” and “fridge not working.”
City records indicate these problems were addressed and completed last March — more than two years later.
Coburn, the city’s director of licensing and standards, blames amalgamation for the growing backlog.
While the number of city inspectors has remained steady at about 150, their duties also now include zoning issues, and licensing taxi cabs, businesses and adult entertainment establishments. At the same time tenant complaints have increased and buildings aged.
Lawyer Kenn Hale, who has spent most of his career fighting for tenant rights, says the city should have poured resources into inspections five years ago when the provincial government introduced the Tenant Protection Act. The new act created an Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, which took most landlord-tenant disputes out of the courts and before government-appointed adjudicators.
“The effectiveness of tenant applications, where tenants use legal proceedings to get repairs done, was diminished by the Tenant Protection Act, so the city’s role became much more important,” says Hale, director of South Etobicoke Community Legal Services. “But the city wasn’t able to give any more resources toward it.”
Now, he says, there aren’t enough inspectors to follow up on whether landlords have even complied with orders, never mind resources to respond to all the tenants’ complaints.
Tenants like Monica Taylor.
The single mother of a newborn and a toddler has problems with vermin and plumbing. On more than one cold day last year, her three-bedroom apartment at 2667 Kipling Ave., owned by Barrasso, was left without heat.
Now on maternity leave, Taylor normally works as a receptionist at a local Rexdale office building. After taxes and other deductions, she’s left with $1,200 each month.
Her rent — considered cheap in the city today — is $995 a month. That’s 83 per cent of her income and leaves her with only $205 each month to feed and clothe her young family. Without the occasional help from her boyfriend, she says the family would starve.
“I pay all this money each month for rent and can’t even get the most basic things done in our apartment,” says Taylor, who asked that her real name not be used for fear of reprisals from her landlord.
“It’s a horrible way to live.”