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Landlords triumphed in eviction hearings during pandemic: study

Leader Post logo Leader Post 2021-08-04 Arthur White-Crummey
a close up of a sign: REGINA, SASK : May 21, 2020 -- A sign advertising apartments for rent in Regina, Saskatchewan on May 21, 2020. BRANDON HARDER/ Regina Leader-Post © Provided by Leader Post REGINA, SASK : May 21, 2020 -- A sign advertising apartments for rent in Regina, Saskatchewan on May 21, 2020. BRANDON HARDER/ Regina Leader-Post

Landlords won nine of every 10 eviction hearings during the first nine months of the pandemic, according to a study that found officers rarely seemed to pay much attention to tenant hardships or COVID-19.

The study, published this week by University of Saskatchewan law professor Sarah Buhler , looked at 1,850 eviction hearing decisions issued by the Office of Residential Tenancies (ORT) during 2020. She found that the partial evictions moratorium put in place from March to August dramatically reduced evictions , though landlords brought more cases seeking emergency orders.

Those were the only kind of cases allowed to proceed during the moratorium, and landlords almost always won. After the moratorium ended, Buhler found that the number of monthly eviction orders shot right back up to pre-pandemic levels , just as COVID-19 cases began to ramp up during the fall surge.

By then, landlords were again looking to evict tenants for unpaid arrears in the overwhelming majority of cases, usually for just a month or two of unpaid rent.

Again, they were almost always successful.

Just before the pandemic, landlords got an eviction order 97 per cent of the time. That dropped once COVID-19 came on the scene — but only to 90 per cent.

In defending the end of the moratorium, then-Justice Minister Don Morgan insisted that the ORT would develop protocols to help those who had legitimately fallen into arrears because of COVID-19 . But Buhler found that hearing officers rarely mentioned the pandemic in their written reasons.

“In most decisions, there is no indication anywhere in the body of the reasons that a pandemic was occurring, or that considerations or circumstances relating to the pandemic were relevant to the decision,” she wrote. “This reality calls into question later claims by government officials that the ORT was prioritizing pandemic related considerations in its hearings.”

Ministry of Justice spokesman Noel Busse pointed out that Buhler’s study only focussed on the formal hearing process. There is also an informal process that involves early dispute resolution. If that’s considered, just 55 per cent of the 2,324 applications for unpaid rent received over 2020-21 resulted in eviction decisions.

“Hearing officers at the Office of Residential Tenancies did take the pandemic into account, both through informal dispute resolution work and the formal hearing process,” Busse added.

Cameron Choquette, CEO of the Saskatchewan Landlord Association, called Buhler’s study an “interesting glimpse into what evictions look like in Saskatchewan and where some gaps might be in terms of making sure there’s access to justice for both parties.”

But he noted that landlords are usually successful because arrears cases tend to be black and white — either a tenant has paid rent on time or they haven’t. In his view, landlords can’t bear sole responsibility for providing free housing.

“People continued to be unable to pay rent, and landlords were forced largely to proceed with those evictions because we had already faced millions of dollars in rent arrears during the eviction moratorium, and we couldn’t feasibly afford to keep non-paying tenants in our properties,” he said.

“We want to provide housing, but we can’t do so without revenue.”

Even when tenants were present to defend their case, Buhler found little sign their voices were heard. Only in a “small handful” of cases did hearing officers refuse to evict due to “equitable considerations relating to the pandemic.”

She gave examples where hardships appeared to make little difference. In one case, a single mother, just out of a bad relationship, had paid all outstanding arrears before the hearing. She begged the landlord to ‘have a heart and let her stay,’ according to the decision. But the landlord refused and the hearing officer granted an order for immediate eviction.

Buhler did note an uptick in delayed eviction orders and what she called “honour system orders” meant to give a chance for improved behaviour, though that happened almost exclusively when landlords consented. If landlords wanted an order allowing them to evict a tenant immediately, they generally got one.

Choquette said landlords have shown flexibility during the pandemic. “It was much more cooperative than it was in the past,” he said, as landlords worked out payment plans and sometimes waiting months to seek an order.

Buhler’s study found that 42 per cent of applications were filed within one month of arrears, 28 per cent between one and two months and 30 per cent after two months.

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