“There’s no end to this pandemic and I sat there at the [Landlord and Tenant Board] Tribunal watching them order tenants to pay thousands of dollars,” shares Innisfil resident Elizabeth Hopkins, who was ordered to pay back rent in excess of $7,000 to her landlord at a recent hearing.
In October 2019, Hopkins rented a quaint cottage in Innisfil for $1,500 a month with her husband, one-year-old daughter and puppy. Before moving in, they were assured by their new landlords that the single-story, wooden building had been “fully winterized” with newly installed baseboard heating and updated sealing for protection against animals and inclement weather.
When December arrived, Hopkins noticed the floors became "cold as ice" and all the water pipes had frozen solid. Upon hiring a plumber to investigate, it was discovered there was no insulation under the floorboards or around the water pipes.
The property owners (who reside in Toronto but also own a cottage directly across the street from the Hopkins) offered to wrap a heating coil around the water main, allowing liquid water to be retrieved from one tap inside the dwelling.
“The floor was so cold that we always wore slippers, or shoes,” described Hopkins. “We filled pots of water to flush the toilets, boiled water to clean dishes, and visited friends to take showers…we tried to use as minimal water as possible.”
By January, Hopkins said the drains in the house began backing up with dirty water and sewage, creating a whole new mess of issues for the family.
The landlords then enlisted a company to pump the septic tank but were unsure of where the tank existed on the large property. After a week of ‘exploratory digging’, the septic tank was found to be “extremely old, rusted shut, punctured through with tree roots and leaking into the groundwater.”
“The environmental hazard alone made the area unlivable – not to mention the dangerous holes in the yard that made it unsafe for our daughter to play outside,” said Hopkins.
In January 2020, the landlords emailed their tenants to advise them they would not be proceeding with any of the necessary fixes to bring the house up to liveable standards and as such, would be terminating the lease. They suggested the Hopkins “immediately take steps to find a new place” and offered them (in writing) a full refund of rent payments and returning all their post-dated cheques.
“We were super appreciative of that offer, especially considering the circumstances,” said Hopkins. “[The landlords] even said they were happy we didn’t go to a hotel because they would have had to pay for those accommodations.”
But Hopkins said the landlords then took an immediate turn, like a “weird switch” she describes.
“We found a possible new home in February [but] securing the space required immediate payment of first and last month's rent [and] in order to provide this, we needed access to the prior payments that our landlords had promised to refund.”
Hopkins claims the landlords refused to return any payments based on the grounds the offer only applied if the Hopkins had moved “immediately”. Unfortunately, the family was unable to secure the alternate accommodations in time, forcing them to remain in the unsafe home while the province moved into a pandemic lockdown.
“We missed the window to put down a deposit and lost our chance to move out,” she laments. “Then, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and changed the entire rental landscape. Very few people were moving, and what rare places did hit the market were subject to vicious bidding wars that we did not have the funds to compete in.”
Prior to the pandemic, Hopkins worked as a school counsellor and her husband operated a construction company. However, due to the pandemic, the couple was unable to work and had to collect the CERB payments.
Despite frantically searching, the couple was unable to secure a new home until August 2020. During that time, the septic tank remained exposed and the yard demolished. The Hopkins made the best of the situation and attempted to board up the leaking septic tank but (according to Hopkins), the landlords would visit the property and remove the boards and continued to make things difficult for the family.
The landlords cashed the rent cheques for both February and March, and by April the Hopkins chose to stop payment of all future rental cheques, claiming they were “living in an uninhabitable house with an exposed septic tank in the backyard, and pipes that continued to freeze.” The Hopkins also needed to try and save up first and last month's rent to be able to vacate the premises.
“We believed our landlords, based on their original stated intention to return our uncashed rent cheques, were not expecting further rent from us while we tried our utmost to find somewhere else to live,” she said.
In February, Hopkins consulted with the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) to be prepared to file a complaint, but at the time she still had hopes the situation could be resolved amicably.
In November 2020, three months after the Hopkins had already moved into their new home, they received a notice from the LTB to attend a hearing based on allegations of unpaid rent. Naturally, Hopkins consulted with a lawyer and was told their case seemed “sound” and would not require a lawyer to represent them at the hearing.
Hopkins was expecting her second baby, with a due date just four days after the hearing date, and requested it be changed, but was denied and told if she couldn’t attend the hearing that she would be required to have her husband or someone else represent her instead. She was also informed by the LTB adjudicator that her landlords would have to “approve” the new trial date and that her reason “wasn’t a good enough reason to postpone.”
The hearing took place over two days (once in November and again in February 2021) and despite the judge seeming sympathetic to the unique details of their case, the LTB ruled against the Hopkins family and ordered them to pay back over $7,000 in rent. On top of this, they were expected to pay back the arrears within six months with no appeal process.
The landlords were ordered to pay the tenants the cost of the plywood they purchased and used to keep the exposed septic tank boarded up for safety.
“During the hearing, [the landlords] said awful things,” said Hopkins, adding the landlords stated they ‘didn’t want them to do this to another landlord.’ “Nothing we said mattered – we lived in the house and must pay the rent. I would have been fine with a ‘blank slate’ [and] walk away… I was just floored!”
Adjudicator Jitewa Edu who oversaw the case was unavailable for comment.
The landlords, Thomas and Anna Baldwin, provided this statement:
“We offered to refund them the early months' rent if they would move immediately. They decided to call that a ‘promise’ but they never moved. There was never any evidence of real action on their part to find alternate accommodations,” said Thomas. “There was a very fair hearing, and the adjudicator said they must pay the rent for the entire period they lived there. The offer we made to refund them the rent they paid up until January was conditional on them taking immediate action to leave the premises. The adjudicator found that was the case and she awarded us the non-paid rent for the time they were actually living on the property.”
He added, “We think the LTB, which is not known for being fair to landlords, they are there to look out of tenants’ interest, was very fair… after the adjudicator heard both sides of the story, she stated they were ‘not entitled to live for free.’”
To date, the Baldwins have not received any payments from the Hopkins. Thomas reports the septic tank remains exposed on the property due to approvals required from the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority.
“The septic tank issue was a complete surprise to everybody, and the water issue was one we’ve never had come up before. A pipe froze, twice, and we fixed it with a plumber. We did give the January rent back. We were trying to be fair and generous throughout, and they painted us as monsters,” said Thomas. “The adjudicator's decision is final. The decision was made. It wasn’t one we were entirely happy with – we wanted to be reimbursed the costs of the hydro (over $1,000).”
To date, the Hopkins family continues to struggle to pay back the ordered amount and has started a GoFundMe page to help with their plight.
“We’re expecting to be paid Sept. 30,” said Thomas. “Our attitude towardsthis is about the same attitude we had toward the apparent GoFundMe, we just let it go and have no comment on it. There’s no object behind it from our perspective. If they don’t pay, we’re out the money and we’ll have to get another lawyer to enforce the claim. That’s another bridge that will be crossed if they don’t honour the decision from the LTB.”