On Saturday, a landlord in Hamilton, Ont., shot and killed his two tenants who had approached him asking for repairs to be made to their unit. He took aim at them and fired his gun as they were fleeing from the home. A few hours later, police shot and killed the landlord following a standoff at the house, which the landlord and the tenants had both lived in. Since then, tenants across the country, myself included, have been sharing our anger at the landlord and the system he benefited from, and our sadness for the victims of this structural and personal violence. Many of us have also had another thought: Could something like this have happened to me?
A few years ago, I was living alone in a rented unit. About a year and a half into my tenancy, my landlord proposed a rent increase that was seven times more than the legal limit. After I refused to agree to this illegal proposition, the landlord suddenly announced that he and his wife supposedly wanted to move into the unit themselves, so he told me I’d have to leave. I immediately felt like the landlord was lying. I assumed he wanted to collect more rent from the property than he was charging me and was pretending to need the unit for personal use so that he could get rid of me and raise the rent to whatever amount he liked for the next person. After some digging, I learned that I didn’t need to leave, that I could assert my right to challenge his (eventual) eviction application before Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB), and that I had a good chance of actually winning (technically, at least, since the board heavily favours landlords).
I felt like I should stay and fight against what clearly seemed to be an illegal, hamfisted attempt to get me — a tenant who paid rent in full each month and kept the unit in immaculate condition — out of what I considered to be a home, solely for more profit. But I was also curious what others in my life would say, so I started asking around. Many of them, also renters, echoed another thought I had, though I’d initially deemed it to be a bit too paranoid: even if the law was on my side, who knew what the landlord would do? I didn’t know what sort of person I was dealing with. He had a key to my place and could come in at any time, even though that would be prohibited. What if he harassed me? Would the stress be worth it? What if something worse happened? Some people advised me to just avoid all of the what-ifs, leave and find somewhere else to live, even if I had to pay more.
I wonder if the two tenants who were killed this weekend had similar concerns when they approached their landlord to ask for what they were entitled to: a safe place to live. Did they know their landlord owned guns? Had they had issues with him before? Were they ever threatened? Did he want more money out of them?
Maybe we’ll get answers to these questions eventually. What we do know already, though, is that some landlords out there are very eager to make excuses for the killer. It’s clear that some landlords, upset that they feel the system they can call upon to enact legal violence on tenants through sheriffs isn’t working fast enough, fantasize about ‘taking matters into their own hands,’ as many of them have since declared in online public forums.
One person, who describes themselves as a “lawyer candidate, property manager, Realtor and advocate for Ontario landlords,” reacted to the news on Twitter by saying: “Landlords taking matters into their own hands is not something I encourage. But this is what happens when we don’t have a functioning tribunal.” A private Facebook group for landlords, meanwhile, contained many messages supporting the landlord, including the following:
- “Poor landlord! Don’t press us to the corner”
- “Free the landlord and blame LTB for this. Terrible tenant does unbelievable things.”
- “LTB and Ontario created this problems. Do not blame on LL. If TT pay rent and give some respect to LL thing with be good.”
For some landlords, nothing — not even another person’s life — is more important than ensuring they squeeze out as much profit as they can from the investments that others call their home.
As such, perhaps the outburst from landlords in response to the news shouldn’t come as a surprise. The media has generally done a poor job of reporting on what happened, starting with the headlines. The Globe and Mail, for example, ran an article about the killing with the headline: “Dispute between landlord and tenants in Hamilton ends in double homicide, police say.” Many outlets that picked up a version of the story from Canadian Press titled their articles: “Hamilton police say engaged couple shot dead while fleeing landlord-tenant dispute.” CBC News, meanwhile, titled a video: “Two shot dead in Hamilton, Ont., after landlord-tenant dispute.”
You’ll notice that none of these articles’ headlines state that it was the landlord that killed the tenants. They also all merely cite that there was a “dispute” of some sort, without specifying (in some cases, even within the article) what the dispute was about. This, along with factually incorrect reporting from some outlets that the dispute was about missed rent, led landlords to assume non-payment was the issue here. As I noted earlier, they were wrong, and it came as a result of the tenants bringing up safety concerns.
This fact seemed to matter to the police, who described the tenants as “truly innocent victims” and “not people that this should happen to,” begging the question of if they believe tenants who had missed paying rent would deserve this fate. Regardless, I wonder if this fact even matters to the sorts of landlords I’ve mentioned. After all, missing rent payments is just one form of not allowing them to extract the maximum profit they can from their property. There are so many other forms of profit-reduction that are unacceptable to them.
For example, a tenant requesting repairs to be made for their safety? Extra and unnecessary costs in the eyes of some landlords. A paying tenant having the right to continue living in a unit? An impediment to earning more with a new tenant at “market” rates. Rents not covering the entirety of mortgage payments, fees and taxes while the condo is rapidly appreciating in value? A good reason to cry to a sympathetic ear in the media. For some landlords, any assertion of rights, any unwillingness to be entirely subordinate, is a crime worthy of violent punishment, whether at their hands or from sheriffs appointed by the province.
In my case, I eventually decided to stay in the unit and challenge the eviction application. It was the “right” choice in the sense that an LTB adjudicator ruled in my favour, and my landlords eventually re-rented and then sold the unit after I left, contrary to their claim before the LTB of wanting to retire there. My suspicions were completely validated. Still, as I think about this event now and read the news, one comment from an alleged landlord responding to the story sticks out to me: “Sometimes it’s best to just leave when the owner clearly wants to terminate the relationship. Never know how someone reacts.” Even though my suspicions about my former landlord were likely overly paranoid, they weren’t completely unfounded. If I ever find myself in that position again, maybe I’ll think twice.
I’m sure many landlords reading this will practically be shouting at this point about how they, too, have to deal with many unknowns given that they’re practically turning over their property to strangers and having to trust them. It’s not the same, though. In fact, like basically the entirety of the relationship between landlords and tenants, landlords have a serious advantage.
Take my old landlord. His next tenant almost certainly never found out what happened to me, as landlords aren’t obligated to provide prospective tenants with anything that attests to their character or history renting out property. They are, in most cases, complete strangers to us, and landlords (including one of the people I quoted earlier in this article), have worked to shut down tenant-initiated attempts to help ensure transparency. This means a landlord can fail to meet their responsibilities and even get taken before the LTB, while likely avoiding any consequences going forward.
Meanwhile, if you’re trying to rent a unit, you’ll need to provide proof of income, references, an employment letter, a credit report and rental history, at the very minimum. Renters are treated as if they’re suspected of a crime, while landlords get to act like judges for a prize. The underlying assumption is that if you can afford to own a unit to rent, you must be a trustworthy and morally upstanding person. So much of the system rests on something that’s obviously not true.
But it goes well beyond morals. Systemic change is the only thing that can help ensure justice for tenants across Canada.