Despite having beautiful Victorian exteriors, several rental houses on McGill Street — often coveted by Ryerson students — have serious problems, from mold to pest infestation. And if living conditions weren't bad enough, landlords often take advantage of students' ignorance of residential laws.
Last August, Erica Mason moved into the house at 20 McGill St. While she shares the building with four other people, the second-year creative industries student's biggest issues have been with the unit's other inhabitants. A colony of termites has lived in the ceiling above her basement, bedroom and bathroom since she's been there — with the feces-made nests hanging out of holes in her ceiling like stalactites.
"I used to clean the nests once a day and watch the termites completely rebuild them five to 10 minutes later," says Mason. "It's horrifying, knowing that live termites can fall out at any time onto my floor, into the shower or onto my bed."
As one of the few streets that has rental houses on campus, houses on McGill Street are coveted by Ryerson students. While the age of the homes — some of the oldest in central Toronto, built between 1870-1910 — gives them a nice Victorian exterior, it also means many come with a laundry list of issues.
And according to Mason and other students renting in the area, having complaints addressed is almost as unpleasant as the issues themselves.
When bugs started pouring from her ceiling again in December, Mason's basement was fumigated for the third time. After spraying pesticides into a large hole in the ceiling, the exterminator did not have the proper equipment to seal the hole and recommended she close it herself using tape. She had no choice but to agree.
"That's really unsanitary, inappropriate and unlivable to have a hole with bugs and poison in a bedroom … or any room for that matter," says Mason.
After three days of arguing and threatening to call City of Toronto bylaw enforcement, Mason's landlord finally sent the exterminator back to close the hole.
City of Toronto bylaws (Property Standards, Article IV, Standards 629-9) state that landlords are responsible to ensure that properties they are renting out are "at all times [to] be kept free of rodents, vermin, insects and other pests and from conditions which may encourage infestation by pests."
Municipal Licensing and Standards is in charge of making sure landlords abide by these bylaws in Toronto, but forcing a landlord to treat an infestation can be a lengthy process.
Once the city has issued an order for a landlord to exterminate, he or she is given 21 days to appeal that order, says Mark Sraga, director of investigations for Municipal Licensing and Standards Toronto. If the landlord does not appeal an order, he or she still has a minimum of three weeks to comply but is typically given a longer timeframe.
"If [the landlords] haven't appealed, the order is in effect," says Sraga. "So if they don't do it, we have a contravention of the order which we can then act upon. Either we can charge them and take them to court, or we can as a city come in and do the work and put the cost on [their] property taxes."
While the city is duking it out with the landlord, tenants can apply to the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board to terminate their lease early. Once the application has been read it takes an average of four more weeks to schedule a hearing to plead their case in front of the board.
That's a minimum of seven weeks of paying rent for an infested home, which ranges from $700-$900 per person in the McGill Street student houses.
Infestations aren't the only thing plaguing houses on McGill Street.
Brendan Kewin, a second-year business management student at Ryerson, lives in the top apartment of the 75 McGill St. duplex.
Once, after police were called to the premises during a party, the landlord attempted to evict Kewin and his roommates on the spot, telling them "pack your bags." After being informed he didn't have the right to evict without notice, the landlord eventually backed off his threat.
But confrontations have persisted.
The landlord has shown up multiple times unannounced, asking to come inside to "check up on the place." City of Toronto bylaws stipulate that a landlord must give tenants at least a day's notice before entering their unit, with the exception of emergencies.
"He would knock on the door and ask to come in, or we'd just hear him walking up the stairs [inside the apartment,]" says Kewin. "We'd tell him to leave because you have to give 24 hours notice."
While the city bylaw office sets and enforces the maintenance standards for rental properties, it's the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board that acts as a court for the rights of tenants and landlords. Tenants have the right to file an application with the board on the grounds of a landlord, or someone representing them, entering illegally without 24 hours notice.
Kewin says he and his roommates receive unfair treatment due to the landlord's poor relationship with a former student tenant.
"He doesn't trust us," says Kewin. "He doesn't respect us as much as older people and doesn't think we have responsibility."
Donna Mrvaljevic, spokesperson for the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, says that although there is no specific clause that mandates landlords cannot discriminate against students based on their age, there is an all-encompassing statement that says they cannot interfere with the reasonable enjoyment of a rental unit.
"A tenant can apply against a landlord if a landlord has harassed, obstructed, coerced or threatened, [or] withheld vital services," says Mrvaljevic.
Mason's neighbours, University of Toronto students Daavi Wong Wolfson, a second-year commerce student, and Paige Peidle, a second-year criminology student, live in the upper apartment in her building. They say that after signing their lease, they emailed the landlord asking for receipts for the rent cheques. Their landlord replied, incorrectly quoting from the Residential Tenancies Act stating she had no legal obligation to give receipts and was not going to provide them — despite it actually stating "a landlord shall provide free of charge to a tenant or former tenant, on request, a receipt for the payment of any rent, rent deposit, arrears of rent or any other amount paid to the landlord (Section 109-1)."
Two months later, Peidle and Wong Wolfson's landlord hired workers to fix a molding roof. In order to access the roof, the workers walked across the connecting roof of their neighbours, which isn't owned by the same landlord.
"The neighbour came over and told us the guys doing our roof were looking at her through the skylight," says Wong Wolfson. "They were watching her in the shower and when she was changing."
The neighbour asked for the contact information of Wong Wolfson's landlord, but the landlord never followed up. Sraga says that if workers were accessing an adjacent property, city bylaws have no authority to make the landlord notify the neighbouring tenants because it would be a civil matter between landlords.
And while students do have steps to combat poor living conditions, the general lack of knowledge and the fact that students may change residences several times while at school mean they are less likely to utilize available options.
None of the tenants living in 75 McGill or the upper or lower halves of 20 McGill plan on renewing their leases.
And despite repeated concerns, Wong Wolfson doubts anything will change for the tenants who replace them.
"That's the thing with landlords around here — there are always people looking for these kinds of houses so they don't give a crap about the conditions," she says. "What are we gonna do about it? We have to go to school and live and [the landlord] knows it. We don't have the time or money to look for a new house. She manipulates the position we're in."
Below, in the basement of 20 McGill, Mason still sleeps with a sheet tacked to the ceiling to cover the small termite nest holes in her bedroom.
"When I was in high school, I heard a story from one of my teachers about a house she lived in in Toronto that was infested with cockroaches. You hear those horror stories but you never think it's going to be you," says Mason. "This year has been me living in the horror story."