Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Remember the Rupert Hotel Fire

(This blog piece has been slightly revised from the original which appeared at www.hamiltonjustice.ca on the anniversary of the Rupert Hotel Fire.)

The 26th anniversary of the Rupert Hotel fire that killed one woman and nine men in Toronto just passed (December 23rd.)

The Rupert was located at 182 Parliament Street close to Queen Street East. Once an upscale hotel, the Rupert, while licensed, was overcrowded and badly maintained. (A story by Chris Bateman from Spacing Toronto provides the gruesome details http://spacing.ca/toronto/2014/12/24/25-years-horror-rupert-hotel-fire/)

A plaque erected at the site notes that the fire "sparked action by municipal and provincial governments and community organizations to improve conditions in rooming houses."

It did, for a time. In the years following the tragedy, about 500 units of Toronto housing were created or upgraded to meet or exceed the already existing standards. Not long after the plaque was installed, though, the funding that supported the upgrades and advocacy ended.
Photo from Toronto Star Archives

What has happened since then?

Not enough.

The City of Toronto has been struggling for many, many years to put in place one comprehensive by-law and set of regulations to cover all rooming houses.  To say they are bogged down would be an understatement.

You’ll remember that Toronto amalgamated in 1998.  Yet, the zoning by-laws with respect to rooming houses have yet to be harmonized.
Each of the former Toronto municipalities has different things to say on rooming houses.  Toronto and Etobicoke (in some areas) allow them but they must be licensed.  They’re OK in the old Borough of York in some areas too.  But in North York, East York and Scarborough rooming houses are not permitted.  That means that those that exist in these areas are illegal and unregulated.

A consultation process took place in Toronto this year.  A report will be coming back to Council.  The report will, among other things, look at “opportunities to improve conditions in rooming houses:” History suggests that Council will have a tough time making decisions.

What about other initiatives?  Toronto’s poverty reductions strategy, for example, makes mention of rooming houses. It recommends that the city “continue efforts to consult and develop an effective policy framework and enforcement strategy with respect to rooming house.”  That action word “continue” does not offer encouragement that something concrete will be achieved in the near future.
Conditions remain unsafe.  Recently, a Toronto landlord was convicted of multiple fire code violations in the death of a woman in a rooming house fire from 2013.  A fire in an unlicensed house in the Spadina/Dundas area killed two and injured many others in March 2014.  Other Canadian cities face similar problems.

Health Issues

Safety is a certainly huge concern but there are long term health issues for those who live in rooming houses and other vulnerable housing situations as well.  Two years a study called Housing Vulnerability and Health: Canada’s Hidden Emergency was published. The study looked at the deaths of 15,000 people living in such housing.  The authors found that the average life span of these 15,000 people was “7-10 years shorter than the life span of the general Canadian population.” Women had about the same chance of living to the age of 75 as an average women in Guatemala, a country where many lack access to basic health care.

Action is needed. Municipalities don’t have the resources or the resolve to get results.  Senior levels of government must step to the plate.



Hamilton Community Legal Clinic Blog Pieces: 


Saturday, December 12, 2015

What to do about Predatory Lending?

(Payday loans are the Lay’s Potato chips of finance.  You can’t have just one and they are terrible for you… John Oliver https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDylgzybWAw)

I was asked on Thursday how I felt about the Ontario’s new legislation that deals with alternative financial services.

My answer was that I'm quite disappointed.

It is hard to believe it has taken 2 years of consultation and this is all we get.

Consumer advocate Mel Fruitman put it better.

“I hate it when government does that. It says 'we're going to do something but it's going to be a year before we do something and we can't tell you anything until we do it,'" he told the CBC. http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/ontario-subprime-lenders-1.3359460

I was involved in some consultation by the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services this past July.  This was part of lengthy process that included a 2014 “panel of volunteers with expertise in matters related to payday lending.”  That panel had concluded, not surprisingly since there were lenders involved, that everything was pretty much OK.  Some tightening of regulations and a little more education for consumers was all that was needed.

To the government’s credit, they realized more had to be done.  It seemed to me that the staff leading that 2015 consultation that I had attended knew how badly people were being exploited by the payday loan predators and other private sector operations that “help” people with money problems.  I believed that they were going to do something significant about it given the political realities that they had to work with.

What happened, then?  

To be fair, there are good things in Bill 156 – An Act to amend various Acts with respect to financial services.

ACORN Canada has done a lot of advocacy in this area.  Their spokesperson, Donna Borden, had this to say:

This announcement is a great first step.  There are still countless ways the banking system could be made fair for low-to-middle income Canadians.” 

I read the Bill yesterday.  Bill 156 amends various other pieces of legislation. Specifically:

The Collection and Debt Settlement Services Act
The Courts of justice Act
Budget Measures Act 2009
The Consumer Protection Act
and more, I think.

So, to do a thorough analysis of it one would have to look at all those acts and see how each amendment changed it.  That is a lot of work. I’ll reference Mel Fruitman again:  

It is very difficult to comment on an announcement about an announcement about an announcement." 


Provincial governments have largely remained on the sidelines or brought in regulations that were as weak as the ninth batter in a National League lineup. Some municipal governments have stepped up. But it appears that no new powers will be given to municipalities to deal with the problem as Howard Elliott noted in the Hamilton Spectator. http://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/6168980-the-spectator-s-view-payday-loan-changes-don-t-go-far-enough/

This “industry” hurts communities. Peter Kucherepa, an Ottawa lawyer, has researched the payday loans and argues that  enabling cash transactions (the mainstay of how this industry functions) can contribute to the proliferation of the drug industry and other criminal activity in neighbourhoods.

There are health issue too. Kucherepa cites research from St. Michael’s Hospital in 2014. That study “clearly shows that the proliferation of cash based money lenders lowers community life expectancy and increases pre-mature deaths.” 

You can read Kucherepa’s paper at https://www.dropbox.com/s/y5tq9frrd18g6at/Pay%20day%20Loan%20Paper%20V7(CONSULTATION)%20(4).pdf?dl=0

Kucherepa also compares interest rates for the two week loans that are legally permitted in each province. For example, if you borrow $300 in Nova Scotia, the payday loan company could legally recover $2,106 from you.  In Quebec that $300 loan could result in a maximum repayment of $405.

If provinces won’t act and municipalities can’t,  perhaps the solution lies with making a change to the Criminal Code of Canada.  About ten years ago an exemption from criminal prosecution was made for Payday Loans so that they could exceed a 60% interest per annum. (Criminal code of Canada 347.1)
Recent example of advertising  used by the "Industry"
That should change. 

My Oxford English Dictionary  says “a crime is something disgraceful or very unfair.”

That ought to make these lending practices criminal.