1501 Woodbine Ave.

Residents of 1501 Woodbine Avenue have had enough

Robi Hamilton hasn’t been on her balcony for four months due to balcony construction. Only able to open her balcony door by four inches, the space equals about a tenth of her apartment rent at 1501 Woodbine Ave. Hamilton, who has not been compensated financially for the inconvenience, estimates a loss of approximately $360 to $400 since Nov. 8., 2016. Repairs started in August 2016 on the building. Her apartment is one of the last to be affected by the renovations.

Hamilton is a member in the Tenants’ Association of her building, at the corner of Woodbine Avenue and O’Connor Drive, where she has lived for 12 years. She has been present for meetings with the property manager MetCap Living, with the City of Toronto’s Municipal Licensing and Standards department and with her local city councillor Janet Davis on the issues in the building.

“Lists are made, things are discussed and some things get done, but it is so slow,” Hamilton said in an interview. “Sometimes they say things will get done, but it doesn’t get done.”

In a 2015 ML&S Annual Report the building (owned by Arsandco Investments) was written up as an example of the steady progress being made since a scathing 2013 city property standards audit. Highlighting that the landlords were fined $10,000, and taken to court, the report also says that since 2015 “City staff and the new management group developed an action plan that prioritized health and safety improvements.”

But according to residents of the East York landmark, there is still a long road ahead. Some of the structural issues include: lack of access to balconies still under repair, two underground parking garages with countless pot holes and damaged concrete walls, and an an elevator that hardly does the job–tenants complain about getting stuck multiple times. Then there are living conditions inside the building such as pest and bedbug infestation, and mold.

Water penetration in the parking garage was also a problem, according to the city’s data.  To date, the city considers 65 per cent of the garage repairs have been done. Hamilton wonders when the rest will actually get done. Although highlighting that fact that she is by no means an engineer, some of the construction she says doesn’t look up to par. The workers used 4′ x 8′ sheets of plywood in some of the ceiling repair.

Take a tour through an East York apartment building that's been on the City of Toronto's radar for years due to violations of property standards and other bylaw issues. Residents say changes are being made, but not quickly enough. Toronto Observer reporters Rhianne Campbell, Anissa Calma-Brown, Sammy Abdo, Marjan Asadullah and Tina Adamopoulos took a tour.

What has been done?

In 2013 ML&S ordered an audit of the building, which resulted in a report of all the actions the owner was required to carry out. In its 2015 annual report, ML&S revealed the changes that have been made and the plans that were to be implemented into 2016.

The report outlines that the owners failed to cooperate with the property standards issued by the City of Toronto. In November 2014, the property owner was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine, although that case appears to be still before the courts.

In 2015, inspection officers continued to address the building conditions at 1501 Woodbine Ave., which resulted in the hiring of the new property owners, MetCap.

“As a result of these remedial actions and MRAB’s collaborative approach, the owner and the property management of the building are much closer to compliance.”

By 2015, 70 per cent of the outstanding violations were closed. There are still 27 outstanding deficiencies in the building, specifically in the garage, and repairs remain open that had been scheduled to be done by the summer of 2016.

A city audit report says of the 122 violations inside and outside the building, 103 are still outstanding. However 19 have been closed, according to the report.

In an interview, MetCap Living CEO Brent Merrill said the 1501 Woodbine building is a unique building and therefore, requires extra time to fix its infrastructure.

“We are trying to straighten out all of the issues in the building. We’re trying to finish the balcony and the garage and once we finish those, we’ll re-carpet every hallway. We’re going to expand on that building. The balconies alone are one to two million (dollars) and the garage is another four to five hundred thousand. So, we’ll be spending, in total, more than three million dollars to bring it to MetCap’s standards,” he said in an interview.

When asked about the lack of cleanliness in the building, Merrill said that “it’s MetCap’s policy that the buildings need to be cleaned, so we’re going to make sure it does and we always make sure it does…so it will be cleaned.”

Despite the current situation of the garage in 1501 Woodbine Ave., Merrill said that “the garage has no issues right now in terms of safety. The engineers signed off on that and now what they want to do is get the balconies done, then the garage.”

We just felt that we didn't want everyone to be working everywhere and drive the residents absolutely nuts. Brent Merrill, CEO

Resident Problems

One of the main problems in the building is the bedbug situation. This is something that Maurizio Marino knows all too well. Marino, who has lived in the building for six years, has bedbug bites on his hands and legs.

“It’s affected my skin. It’s literally pain and sleepless nights,” Marino said. He has had an infestation in his apartment since June 2016. Fumigation happens once a month.

“All they (MetCap) are going to do is say that ‘We treated your apartment’, but they went six months without adequately treating it. The damage is done,” Marino said. “You are not in control, you’re in damage control right now.”

“In my situation, I’m sure there have been other tenants whose fumigation got lost in the woodwork.”

He wants to see empathy from property management; he feels that the lack of communication between MetCap and tenants has created a foundation of mistrust.

“There is a greater need for property management to have an understanding of exactly what’s going on. They need to talk to us like human beings,” Marino said. “When you do that, there is a better understanding and more clarity.”

Marino has asked himself many times why he just doesn’t move. The answer? It’s home.

Robi Hamilton knows of other people who have left because the bedbug infestation has escalated. She also had a problem, but was able to treat it herself.

“You can’t effectively treat for bedbugs and cockroaches on a unit by unit basis. You have to do block treatment to be effective and if the building is really bad you have to do the whole building,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton had exterminators come twice for cockroach treatment. The treatment she says, was not enough.

She now battles the problem with cockroach treatment and a fly swatter.

For Hamilton, resistance to move comes down to the location of the building: it is close to transportation, highways and the city. That also impacts the rent. Hamilton currently pays just over $900 a month in rent.

“If I had to move and come back to any other one bedroom apartment in the building, I would be paying $200 more a month than I am now,” she said. “I don’t think I can find as much space, with this location at a price that I can afford.”

Displayed on her fridge, not too far away from her loose kitchen tap that she has tried to fix herself over the course of three years  is a bulletin from ML&S which highlights and encourages residents to know their tenant rights. Hamilton said that she has the right to live in a home that is safe, clean and secure. This is what they are asking for, she says.

“I’d like to know that when I come home, I’d be able walk down the stairs and know that I’m not going to encounter a stranger or find needles or used condoms — I’ve had all three.”

Hamilton is referring to security issues in the building, although she says building security has improved. As of June 2016, security cameras were placed per floor, however there are no security cameras at the end of the hallway, which Hamilton would like to see. The locks to the main entrance off Woodbine Avenue and off another entrance from Ventnor Avenue have improved, where Hamilton says that during the 2013 audit, they “worked less than 50 per cent of the time.”

“I consider myself pretty strong. Have I felt scared coming in? I have. There was one night when I pulled into the parking garage and my row had no lighting. That was one of the few times I called 311 (City of Toronto services hotline) and it was fixed in less than 24 hours.”

Another resident, Pamela Mills, has seen the worst of it.

Mills has lived in the building for nine years. According to her, during that time, she has “witnessed its steady decline.”

A year ago, she had what she says was the worst year she has experienced in the building.

Mills has found needles in the hallway and strangers passed out in front of her own door.

“I called 911 but waited in the lobby for them to arrive,” Mills said.

The problems came to a head after a drug raid on her floor.

She says that she still hears of stories of similar incidents still occurring.

“We are tired of living in filth, in an unsecured building, with security doors constantly breaking including the parking garage door.”

Mills says that the doors of the lobby  need to be replaced. She has lived through four superintendents and says that the locks have not been changed. In terms of the parking garage, Mills says that wires of the parking garage door are left exposed.

Mills says that as a taxpaying citizen, she just wants to live in a safe and clean building, “as it is our constitutional right.”

“We are tired of ML&S officers’ complacency, lack of transparency and their inability to enforce the minimal standards set out already by law.”

Timeline by Tina Adamopoulos/Toronto Observer

Neffy Henry, 22, dresses her two-year-old son in layers before she puts him to bed each night. Frustrated with sleeping in a cold apartment, due to the window not being able to shut properly, she continues to make complaints to the building manager and her concerns continue to be unresolved.

Living in the building for the last two and a half years, Henry says she originally thought the building was going to be a turning point in her life.

“When you’re young you just want a fresh start,” Henry said. “It was good in the beginning and they are trying but they aren’t trying enough. Especially not good enough for people with babies.”

The main concerns for Henry  are mold, mice and bedbugs.

“I’ve have a horrible mice problem, for three months now and nobody is doing anything,” Henry said.

Many of Henry’s friends have asked why she hasn’t moved if her building is so terrible. The rent is $970 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

“For a single mom, that’s what I can afford,” Henry said. “I pay a good amount of rent to the building so they should be able to keep up with the necessities it needs.”

Garage

People aren’t happy

Helen Chilas has had a long-standing relationship with the 1501 Woodbine Ave. building — one that dates back more than 30 years.

Chilas, a tenant as well as a member of the board of directors with the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA), has been present in meetings with MetCap and her local city councillor, Janet Davis, discussing issues regarding the condition of the building. Chilas, however, recalls a time the building was in a different state.

“I remember years ago, this building was fabulous. Every time I came to visit my parents, who lived here for over 30 years, and I felt the need to dress up and look my best. My father would ask, ‘What’s the occasion?’ and I would say ‘Nothing. I just feel I should look my best when I’m here.'”

Chilas says the owners of the building and the property management company are in “breach of contract.”

When asked if she was willing to leave the building for something better, Chilas said people live in different places for different reasons, and that she has a responsibility to take care of her elderly mother, now a widow.

“I pay my rent, and I respect the common spaces we all share. Why should I have to move?”

The MetCap building sign on the front lawn was bent for the past six weeks, according to Helen Chilas. With the strong winds, she worries for the public’s safety. (Editorial note: by late March the sign had been fixed).

The City of Toronto

The district manager of Toronto’s Municipal Licensing and Standards department, Pat Burke, says that MetCap has been very responsive to him, and that he has no problems with the organization on his end.

In response to specific complaints that people have been living in the building’s stairwells, Burke denies seeing any record or complaint being recorded.  He says an inspector is sent to the building every two weeks to ensure everything is running smoothly and no record of that occurrence has been made.

Burke says the City of Toronto has made an effort to make changes to the building, and one of the ways they plan to do that is by implementing a new bylaw.

Councillor Janet Davis even took to Twitter to voice her frustration with the condition of the buildings in the GTA, after the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA) tweeted a thank you message to her and to another councillor for advocating on their behalf.

The City of Toronto recently passed a new bylaw for apartment buildings. The bylaw was approved Wednesday March 29, 2017. It will cover rental properties that are three or more stories high, with over 10 units.

It will hold building owners and operators to:

Identify life and safety risks earlier, better communication between tenants and a complete list of property/owner responsibilities.

ML&S spokesperson Tammy Robbinson outlined the most significant changes to how owners and operators run their buildings.

The bylaw will require owners and operators to do a(n):

  • Annual registration with City of Toronto
  • Process for tracking tenant service requests
  • Regular inspections in common areas every (30 days) for cleanliness and pests
  • Developing and maintaining an operational plan for cleaning, waste management and capital planning
  • The use of licensed contractors for mechanical system repairs
  • Owner cannot rent a unit to new tenant if there are property standards orders with the unit

Fines:

  • Penalties will include increased fines, not exceeding $100,000
  • Fees will be waived for Toronto Community Housing and other social housing providers; however, all of the rules still apply

Some tenants of the 1501 Woodbine building have gone on social media to express their frustration with the building’s condition:

“Sometimes I feel like the horse with the blinders on. I know that the problems are there, but they are the same problems that were there last year,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton documents issues and progress in the building, publishing them online.

An edited version of this video was shown to attendees at the Tenant Issues Committee meeting, Toronto City Hall, on Feb. 24, 2016. It shows ongoing issues re: deteriorating balconies, inadequate lighting and concrete damage in the parking garage, and trash around the building exterior. Robi Hamilton's YouTube channel.

She also has been reprimanded and received negative reaction from ML&S officials who said documents presented at that meeting were not to be released to the public.

“They (ML&S) don’t talk to me. That’s okay. We’ve asked, we’ve begged and have come close to demanding (for change). It’s time to fix it. Enough talk.”

Even as Toronto City Council’s new, stronger, apartment standards bylaw is now a reality, Robi Hamilton just wants the old, existing problems at 1501 Woodbine Ave. to be fixed already. She is tired of fighting.

“Stronger tenant support at City Hall is needed – but what I believe is needed even more is full enforcement of the laws that are already in place,” Hamilton said. “We have violations that are still outstanding from the 2013 audit of 1501 Woodbine. Files have been closed without actions taken to remedy the deficiencies.”

Mills says that for true change, she would like to see different inspectors come in, where in her opinion, “complacency and familiarity are far too common.”

For her, the fine line is simple, landlords should not be able to profit if their buildings are not to code.

As to the new tight regulations on landlords, Hamilton says time will tell.

“Actions speak louder than words. And frankly, I’m sick and tired of the seemingly endless talks, discussions, meetings, and the delays in ongoing court cases.”