Matt Howe (3L)
It’s been described as a unique advocacy project sitting at the crossroads of traditional representation and community organizing.
Students in the Housing Law division of Downtown Legal Services (DLS) have been reaching out to a number of tenants in the Parkside Student Residence, a private apartment complex marketed towards students from U of T, Ryerson, OCAD, and George Brown College.
The specific allegations are confidential. However, Parkside – described on its website as “Toronto’s newest, state-of-the-art accommodations” – has been criticized publicly for shoddy workmanship and false advertising.
As reported in Metro last September, some students who leased apartments in the “top-quality” complex were disappointed to find their units were haphazardly constructed with low-quality materials. Photos online show uneven, paint-stained baseboards, exposed electrical cables, and sloppily-built interior walls.
Move-in was delayed for hundreds of students after the City deemed it “unfit for occupancy” in late August. The developer, Knightstone Capital Management, was forced to put students up in hotels for several weeks until the building met City standards. These hotels were as far away as Mississauga and Scarborough, requiring Knightstone to shuttle students to and from their respective schools.
DLS started receiving calls from individual Parkside students in late September, and soon realized that a sizeable group of students may share similar legal issues. Lisa Cirillo, Executive Director of DLS, told Faculty Council in November that many were international students who had been directed to Parkside by U of T’s Housing Services office. Many of these students may have been justifiably confused as to whether they were entering contracts to live in a sanctioned University residence, or lease agreements with a private landlord.
“Occasionally, clinical practice identifies enough potential clients with common issues to require something similar to a class action effort,” said Benjamin Ries, DLS’s supervising housing lawyer. Credit students and 1L volunteers went to Parkside to distribute flyers advertising an information meeting for students.
Parkside’s intense security did not make that easy. Parkside requires all non-residents to provide ID and have their photo taken upon entry, and they must be escorted by a resident at all times while inside the building. Still, with the help of residents, DLS volunteers managed to spread the word to a number of prospective clients.
Surveys distributed at a later meeting of prospective clients were then used to consolidate information and group students with similar issues together. The Residential Tenancies Act does not allow for class proceedings per se. Instead, an application must be brought on behalf of all the tenants who are experiencing the same problem. Typically, remedies will not be awarded to individual tenants unless they’re included in the application.
In addition to the administrative challenges presented by recruiting and organizing multiple complainants, ethical difficulties arise in taking instructions from multiple clients in the same dispute. DLS’s preferred strategy in these types of situations is to draft retainer agreements containing instructions to pursue a set of common goals, while recommending each prospective client obtain independent legal advice before signing the joint retainer. “We can’t rule out that different individual experiences might suggest slightly different claims or strategies”, Ries said, “but DLS can’t prefer any [one client’s] interests over others.”
Ries is critical of the unhelpful structure of the Residential Tenancies Act, 2006 (RTA) in this regard. “Why can’t one or two tenants go to the Landlord and Tenant Board and establish the nature of the breaches that have been experienced by everyone in the building? This is supposed to be a strength of the legal clinic model – spotting systemic issues and solving problems for groups in the community, but we’re not always assisted by the law in doing that.” He thinks the problem could be solved by amending the Statutory Powers and Proceedings Act to allow for a class action-like proceeding, or simply by the Landlord and Tenant Board taking a more expansive view of its remedial powers.
Ries notes problems with insufficient enforcement as well. While the RTA (a provincial act) does include “Offences” provisions, investigations and prosecutions are relatively rare. “[The Province] must either think that landlords are an incredibly well behaved industry which doesn’t need this kind of intervention, or [more likely] it’s just not a priority.” Instead of requiring community legal clinics to round up individual complainants, Ries argues that the Province could solve these systemic problems more easily
Ries declined to comment on whether DLS remains engaged in any work regarding Parkside. Despite the challenges associated with this type of work, Ries commended the learning and advocacy opportunities presented for students, and has noted a trend toward multi-tenant files with a community outreach component. “This has really been a chance to reimagine the traditional retainer from the ground up”, Ries said, “students have been instrumental in terms of collecting and organizing all the information and evidence that can come from large groups of clients.”