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Earlscourt tenants locked out since February fire

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Dispute goes to court Friday

Cathy Dobson

Nearly five months after a fire displaced residents at an Earlscourt Drive apartment building, tenants still don’t have access and some are living in shelters or couch surfing.

That’s despite a May 5 ruling by Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board that 14 tenants at 721B Earlscourt Dr. must be allowed repossession of their units. It’s also despite a City of Sarnia order that access to the building is permitted, excluding the second floor, one unit on the first floor and three units on the third floor.

Several who live in parts of the building where the city says occupancy is allowed, returned after the May 5 ruling and found they were locked out. 

They continue to be locked out because the landlord appealed the May 5 Landlord and Tenant Board decision, which automatically stays the order, says Andrew Bolter, executive director of Community Legal Assistance Sarnia (CLAS).

Once the dispute enters the legal system the wheels turn slowly, he said, but CLAS is trying to find a way to get the tenants back home by bringing a motion to quash the appeal to Divisional Court Friday.

“If we manage to get their appeal quashed, then the Landlord and Tenant Board interim order restoring the 14 tenancies can be enforced,” Bolter said. “It’s still our position that the landlord is illegally locking out the tenants.”

Bolter said CLAS’ motion argues that there is no merit to the appeal and that the appeal is “an abuse of process, is frivolous and vexatious.”

721B Earlscourt Dr., before renovations began. (Cathy Dobson photo)

Some of the tenants who are locked out have moved on and signed leases elsewhere, Bolter said.  “One bought a house. But at least one is in a shelter, one was living rough, and one who had insurance is staying in a motel but their insurance runs out at the end of July.”

Others are staying temporarily with family and friends.

“There’s never been a termination of tenancies. We want the tenants back as soon as possible and, in the legal world, this is the fastest we could get to Divisonal Court after the landlord made that appeal,” said Bolter.

Landlord Ash Singh, president of Mississauga-based Equity Builders, said safety concerns were missed by the Board and that his insurance company gave directions to lock the tenants out.

In particular, Singh said there may be issues with the air quality in the building.

He said air quality testing was conducted a week ago and he doesn’t have the results yet.

“We are not here to ruin people’s lives,” Singh said. “I have letters from the Ministry of Health and an engineer that say the building is unsafe for occupancy.”

However, Bolter said those documents have never been produced.

Singh told The Journal his insurance company has hired a contractor to renovate the building and he is not aware of the work schedule.

“I don’t know when the tenants will be able to move back in,” Singh said. “I want them to be patient and don’t blame me.”

He said hardships suffered by his locked-out tenants could have been avoided if they all had tenant’s insurance.

“I really get frustrated,” he said.  Tenants need to be aware they need insurance. Even though our leases call for it, 90% of the Earlscourt tenants didn’t have insurance.”

Bolter said most of the tenants have lived in the building for several years and have relatively low rents.

Finding a new apartment in this market will cost twice as much for many of them and they can’t afford it, he said.

“We’re afraid this is what is known as a renoviction,” Bolter said. “There’s massive economic incentive for landlords to increase their income by offering people cash to leave, renovating, and renting out to new tenants for much more.”

Singh said that is not his intention and that construction delays are not in anyone’s interest, including his.

“The situation is unfortunate for all,” he said. “…as landlords, we are prejudiced with next year’s insurance renewal as costs will skyrocket after a $1 million claim that was not our fault..”.

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