Tenant trouble too hard to track

Some local landlords are frustrated after learning too late that an ex-tenant who owes them thousands of dollars has a history of failing to pay.

One of the landlords, Susan Alexander, says that for 11 years, she and her husband rented out a house on Waverley Road without problems.

And when Margaret Peebles applied to rent it last December, Alexander said they did what they usually do – they gave Peebles an application form, checked her credit history, and phoned who they thought was Peebles’ previous landlord for a reference.

But as Peebles now admits, that reference was a fake.

In fact, her previous landlords had recently gone to Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board to evict Peebles and her business partner, Larry Hay, from a nearby home in Cliffside.

The Alexanders had no straightforward way to know that.

At one time, they might have asked the Landlord and Tenant Board to report whether Peebles had a history of such evictions. But in 2003, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner ruled that such reports are an invasion of tenants’ privacy.

It was only later, after Peebles had failed to pay nearly $6,800 in rent, that the Alexanders tracked down former addresses for Peebles’ dog care and soap-making businesses, which led them to the couple in Cliffside and two more landlords in the Beach who did not officially evict Peebles, but asked her to leave after she failed to pay rent.

One of them, Pauline McNally, said she has been owed rent for her Willow Avenue home for about five years. The other, Jonathan Mainwaring, said he is owed about $4,500 in rent for a home on Glen Manor Drive, adding that he had to pay at least that again to repair the floors and carpet after Peebles left.

“It’s flabbergasting,” said Alexander. “How are landlords supposed to protect themselves?”

Harry Fine, a paralegal and Humber College instructor with 17 years of experience at the Landlord and Tenant Board, said most landlords don’t take the time to thoroughly screen tenants.

“Landlords are very quick to get into a tenancy, and they don’t appreciate how long it takes to get out,” he said.

To thoroughly screen a prospective tenant, Fine suggested landlords do a credit check, seek the tenant’s consent to speak with his or her employer, and speak with at least one previous landlord – preferably not the most recent one, since they may be anxious to see the tenant go.

Above all, Fine said landlords should try to interview a future tenant in their current home.

“If there’s a better way, I’ve never heard of it,” he said.

Asked about seeking eviction records from the Landlord and Tenant Board, Fine said that not even a Freedom-of-Information request can compel one.

“It’s absolutely not accessible, which seems quite unfair,” he said.

Peebles says she fully intends to repay all her debts, and that she never meant to leave any rents unpaid.

“What you’re looking at is a case of financial hardship that has developed since my partner became quite ill,” she said. “We took quite a financial hit, and things started getting just worse and worse.”

After years in financial services, Peebles said the mutual fund company she was working for went under in the 2008 recession, and other industry jobs were hard to come by.

In 2009, Peebles started a small pet care company, based in the Beach, that mainly handles dog walking and in-home boarding of dogs when their owners are on vacation. At the same time, she said Hay, her housemate and business partner, developed a serious illness that prevented him from working, leaving her to support them both.

Peebles said the pet business has done well at times, but revenue varies as owners come and go.

“This is what comes when you’re self-employed,” she said. “Your income is not fixed and stable, and coming in every two weeks.”

Peebles said the pet care company requires a home in or near the Beach that can take pets, preventing her from renting smaller, less expensive places elsewhere.

Likewise, she said the soap-making business she started later requires a suite where fragrances won’t bother the neighbours, which rules out most apartments.

Asked if she was off-loading the risk of her two businesses onto her landlords, Peebles said, “I don’t have an answer to that – it’s not deliberately putting the risk on somebody.”

Peebles said she and Hay are now renting a place in the Upper Beach that is more affordable.

“We’re current, and we’re trying to pull it back together and build,” she said.

Asked whether landlords should have some sort of access to a tenant’s evictions history, Peebles said it seems like a reasonable idea.

“Even though it affects me, yes,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.”

“I don’t understand why you do that for credit card debt and stuff like that, and why is that less private?”

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