Landlord doubles rent for Syrian refugees using exemption that allows for unlimited increases

The Toronto Star

Robert Williams The Star Wed., Nov. 16, 2022

KITCHENER — An exemption in the Rent Control Act for newer rental units means a Syrian refugee family’s monthly cost for a Kitchener town home will more than double in February.

Jumping from a current rent of $1,900 per month to $4,000 per month, the family is exhausting every possible option to stay in the only home they’ve known since immigrating to Canada.

With four children spanning in age from seven to 19 living under one roof, Nisreen Tachtibeh and Ziad Almasri came to Canada after years of running from conflict in their native Syria. This time, they said they’re not leaving without a fight.

When the family first moved into the three-bedroom apartment in Kitchener in 2019, the rent was $1,800 per month. The landlords have since raised the rent to $1,900 per month, which is what the family is currently paying.

In the summer, their landlords, Mohammed Islam and Begum Mahabuba, surprised the family and said they intended to sell the house. It was listed for four days in June, selling for $923,000 on a sale closing on Nov. 30.

The family soon received an N12 notice from Islam and Mahabuba, saying they had to move out of the house by Sept. 1.

In the document, it said the purchaser, purchaser’s parents and purchaser’s child intended to move into the town home.

A subsequent report filed to the Landlord and Tenant Board from the prospective buyers, Tarun Kakkar and Niti Sanan of Toronto, confirmed they intended to move into the home after the sale closes on Nov. 30. The report was filed to the board at the end of August.

Due to delays, a decision from the board has yet to be issued. With nowhere else to go, the family say they will not leave the home until a decision is granted.

But an exemption in the Residential Tenancies Act might force their hand.

Last month, Tachtibeh got a notice from their landlord’s paralegal saying that the rent for the town home will be increasing to $4,000 per month starting in February.

The Landlord and Tenant Board capped rent increases to 1.2 per cent in 2022 and 2.5 per cent in 2023. However, a change to the Residential Tenancies Act in 2019 exempts all residential units first occupied after Nov. 15, 2018, from the rules that limit rent increases.

“Landlords of these units must still serve a notice of rent increase 90 days in advance with a Landlord and Tenant Board approved form and they can only increase the rent once every 12 months, but there is no limit on the amount of the rent increase,” the act reads.

The family, whose income is only about $4,000 per month, will not be able to afford the increase. Tachtibeh said she believes the landlords are using the exemption to bully them into leaving.

Islam and Mahabuba did not answer questions sent by The Record on why they chose to increase the rent by such a large amount, or whether they thought the family would be able to afford the increase. Instead, they confirmed that a written notice had been issued, and said they were within their rights under the act to increase the rent by as much as they wanted.

Tachtibeh is working with Waterloo Region Community Legal Services to see if there is any way they can stay in the home.

“This is the first time I have ever had to deal with this law,” said Cynthia Iheanacho, a staff lawyer with legal services. “And it’s actually now one of the things that we are asking lawmakers to change, because it gives all the power to the landlord. It sounds unfair, but that’s the law.”

Tachtibeh and her family have been on the market for a new townhome since the summer, but have yet to find anything close to their budget that can accommodate their family.

As a sign of good faith, the landlords have offered up to $10,000 for the family to move out, but that money won’t go far if they can’t find a new place to move into.

“I can’t advise my clients to agree to move out, and on the day they move out, they have nowhere to go,” said Iheanacho. “It simply means you’re going to be in a motel, or you’re going to be on the streets when you can’t afford a motel.”

Iheanacho said the increase is technically a legal way to force the family out through an unaffordable rent increase. It’s uncommon for tenants to try and challenge rent increases, she said, because most rent increases are capped under the law. Iheanacho is now looking into whether the exemption can be challenged.

For the family, it’s not the first time they have been told they need to leave their home.

After fleeing Syria’s civil war, they lived in Turkey for six years, dealing with constant discrimination. When they first arrived in Canada in 2019, they stayed at Reception House Waterloo Region, a local organization that helps to settle government-assisted refugees.

After only a few months in Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the family has been trying to integrate while largely stuck at home over the last three years.

“When we found out we were allowed to come to Canada, we felt like we were lucky, and our kids will have a future,” said Tachtibeh. “We found a home and we are happy. We need help. I am looking for anyone that can help us.”