What you need to know about your rights if you are a roommate or boarder

Protections for those not covered by the Residential Tenancies Act

Renting is tough in Toronto. With vacancy rates at 1.1%, and Rentals.ca reporting in May that the average monthly rent is $2,242 for a one-bedroom and $2,731 for a two-bedroom, securing an affordable rental in the city can feel like winning the lottery.

More and more low- and middle-income earners are being forced out of Toronto and the GTA, facing longer commutes and displacement from the communities they have long called home.

Others choose to live with roommates. Though there are many benefits to this cost-effective option, not all roommate arrangements are created equal.

Rentals.ca has broken down what you need to know about your rights when living with roommates in Ontario before you sign on the dotted line.

(Please be advised that our staff are not legal experts, and we encourage you to consult with one if you find yourself in a tenancy dispute.)

In this article, we’ll cover:


What is The Residential Tenancies Act (RTA)?

The Residential Tenancies Act, effective Jan. 31, 2007, is the legislation that sets the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants who rent residential properties. The act mandates provincial standards for all aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship, including vital services such as heat and electricity, when and why landlords can enter the rental unit, how to end a tenancy, and grounds for eviction.

Previously, landlords could draft their own leases, which were not always in accordance with the act, leading to confusion for some tenants about their rights.

After April 1, 2018, most Ontario landlords are required to use the Residential Tenancy Agreement, or Standard Form of Lease, a standardized lease which outlines landlord and tenant rights under the RTA.

One benefit of standardization was the prevention of unenforceable clauses in nonstandard leases, such as damage deposits and bans on pets, both of which are unenforceable under the act.

Tenants whose leases are covered by the RTA have full protection under the act, and thus are able to file a hearing before the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) should they have an unresolved grievance with their landlord.

Although some roommate arrangements might be covered by the RTA, others are not,  which creates a legal grey area. Those impacted the most are primarily low-income tenants.


Who is protected by the RTA?

The majority of tenants in Ontario are protected by the RTA. It covers renters of apartments, houses, boarding houses, retirement and care homes, and mobile homes. Some — but not all — rented rooms are covered by the RTA.


Who is not protected by the RTA?

This is where it gets tricky.

If you are looking to rent a room in a place where you share a kitchen or bathroom with the landlord or the landlord’s immediate family member, this arrangement is considered to be a “rooming house” under Ontario residential tenancy law, and you are considered a “boarder” — not a tenant. As a boarder, your lease or rental agreement is not protected by the RTA.

Many of the rules of the RTA do not apply to folks living in nonprofit or community housing, or in university or college residences, although rules about maintenance and safety standards still apply.

It is important to note that if you share a kitchen or bathroom with roommates, and neither the landlord nor their immediate family live in the residence, your living situation is not considered a rooming house, and so long as you are on the lease, you are protected by the RTA. However, the RTA governs only landlord and tenant relationships. Disputes between housemates must be resolved elsewhere. More on that later.

If you do not share a kitchen or bathroom with the landlord and you are not on the lease, you may not be protected by the RTA. Consult with a legal expert about your issues.


What are the drawbacks of sharing a kitchen or a bathroom with landlords (or their immediate family)?

In a rooming house arrangement, laws requiring notice for eviction do not apply. If your landlord-roommate doesn’t take a shine to your cooking smells or finds your significant other a little odd, you can be kicked to the curb by a police officer at a moment’s notice.

In most instances, under an RTA-covered lease, if your landlord wishes to evict you, he or she would be required to send a written request to stop the action that is considered grounds for eviction under the RTA.

There are seven grounds for eviction under the RTA. Common offences include violating the “quiet enjoyment” of your neighbours or smoking in the unit under a non-smoking lease. (Letting your dishes “soak” or leaving your dirty socks about are not grounds for eviction under RTA-covered leases, although the experts at Rentals.ca suggest you pick them up anyway. Gross!) For a complete list of grounds for eviction under RTA-covered leases, refer to Community Legal Education Ontario’s easy-to-read guide.

Note that in extreme circumstances, the landlord can apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board to evict you without notice. For example, your landlord doesn’t have to ask you politely to please stop making meth in the bathtub.


How are rooming house evictions different from RTA evictions?

If the written warning failed to correct the unwanted behaviour within an RTA-mandated time frame for the offence, the landlord would then file a notice for a hearing at the Landlord and Tenant Board, where an adjudicator would hear both sides and have the final say. Should the adjudicator side with the landlord, the landlord would then have to obtain a termination order through your local Enforcement Office, which would assign an Ontario Sheriff to conduct the eviction.

Under the RTA, landlords are not allowed to enforce evictions, change locks, or otherwise prevent tenants from accessing their units, even while an LTB hearing is underway. Only the Sheriff is granted this authority. If landlords attempt to prevent access, they are in violation of the act. Contact the Rental Housing Enforcement Unit at 1-888-772-9277 immediately. (Although the names sound similar, this is different from your local Enforcement Office.)

In short, legal RTA evictions are  — unless you are Breaking Bad or operating a murder house — a lengthy process involving third parties to approve of and conduct the eviction. If you’re not exactly kumbayaing with your rooming housemates, you may find yourself without a permanent address after one false move — even if the cops who show up agree that your slow cooking smells delicious and that your loved ones are delightful.


Wait! What’s this about the Rental Housing Enforcement Unit?

The Rental Housing Enforcement Unit is an agency that holds landlords and tenants accountable for following the act. LTB hearings can be lengthy and delayed. If you require urgent action, the enforcement unit can assist before your hearing.

Should Rental Housing Enforcement Unit determine a complaint is an offence under the act, it will take appropriate action against the offender. (Remember though: Evictions conducted by anyone but the Sheriff are always in violation of the act.)

Likewise, if your landlord has requested entry to your unit in accordance with the act, and you have prevented them from accessing the unit, your landlord may involve the enforcement unit to regain access and/or take action against you. Like the LTB, its services are not accessible to boarders and their landlords.

The Rental Housing Enforcement Unit can issue steep fines, help both parties understand their rights and responsibilities, and can answer questions about preparing for the Landlord and Tenant Board. Note that it does not provide legal advice or services.


I am a boarder, and I have concerns about maintenance issues. Where can I turn?

This depends on your housing arrangement. If you board with the homeowners, and they don’t wish to address the issue, you may be out of luck. If you are concerned about maintenance and safety as a boarder, your best option could be to move.

If you are worried enough to vacate before the move-out date in your rental agreement (if one is specified), we encourage you to document the issues in photos and videos and get dates and times of occurrences in writing.

If your rental agreement specifies required notice, you may be obligated to pay your landlord-roommate rent for that duration while also paying rent at your new place. Consult with a legal expert if unsafe living conditions are driving you to move — depending on your situation, help may be available.


Do I have any legal recourse as a boarder in a rooming house?

Fortunately, yes! Although the Rental Housing Enforcement Unit and the Landlord and Tenant Board cannot help, if you believe you have experienced discrimination or harassment, a wrongful eviction, and/or if your landlord-roommate withholds your rent money or deposit or destroys or refuses to return your property, there are options available to you.

All Ontarians are protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code. In Ontario housing, protected grounds include age, ancestry, citizenship, colour, creed/religion, disability, ethnic origin, family status, gender identity/expression, marital status, place of origin, race, receipt of public assistance, sex, and sexual orientation.

If your landlord-roommate has harassed you or discriminated against you on any of these grounds (identifying as a lover of heavy bass dubstep doesn’t count), you may be eligible to apply for a hearing before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.


Where do I turn, if my landlord withholds my money or interferes with my property?

Small Claims Court is another road to justice for boarders. If you have been evicted and your landlord refuses to return your prorated rent and/or last month’s deposit if applicable, you can file a claim to recoup your losses here.

The landlord of a rooming house is legally liable for their tenants’ property. Landlords must ensure the safe return of all of their boarder’s belongings. They also must cooperate with boarders to ensure the retrieval of the property within a reasonable timeframe at a location convenient to the boarder. If your landlord-roommate does not return your property to you in the state you left it or makes it unreasonably difficult for you to access it, Small Claims Court is the way to go.

You could seek legal representation before Small Claims Court, or represent yourself. Small Claims Court is also where to turn when resolving legal disputes between roommates. Nobody is allowed to rip you off or trash your stuff.


What if I am evicted from a boarding house without any notice?

Boarders in Ontario rooming houses are entitled to “reasonable notice to quit.” In other words, even though they are not considered tenants under the act, and thus landlord-roommates are technically free to evict their renters for any reason, they must provide the boarder with a reasonable amount of time to pack their belongings and make alternate living arrangements.

This “reasonable” timeframe is yet another legal grey area for boarders, so we suggest seeking legal assistance if you have any doubts about your eviction.

Reasonable notice to quit does not apply in extreme circumstances, so be on your best behaviour and don’t punch anyone you live with, even if you really want to. You are unlikely to find a judge who will throw you a bone if you have been throwing things yourself.

In a 2013, “reasonable notice to quit” in a precedent-setting small claims court case called Boudreau vs. Landry, a boarder won damages after being evicted with insufficient notice because of a personality conflict. The boarder also received compensation for missing and damaged property.

 

In conclusion

There are many benefits to rooming house arrangements. In pricey markets like Toronto, living in a rooming house can drastically reduce your rent and commute, as well as time spent on chores and housework. There are also social and mental health benefits to living with roommates. They even come with really cool pets sometimes.

That said, rooming house arrangements operate in a grey area of the law that leaves boarders more vulnerable than those in other living situations, including alternate roommate arrangements.

Once again, we suggest any layperson wishing to file a Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario or Small Claims Court hearing seek advice from a legal professional specializing in Ontario tenancy law.

Lauren McGoldrick

Lauren McGoldrick is a Toronto-based writer who studied English at Ryerson University. She likes to write comedy and about the Canadian housing market, which is not so humorous. In her free time, she enjoys getting into nature to hike, surf and scuba dive.