In each “Behind the Scenes” segment, Village Media's Scott Sexsmith sits down with one of our local journalists to talk about the story behind the story.
These interviews are designed to help you better understand how our community-based reporters gather the information that lands in your local news feed. You can find more Behind the Scenes from reporters across Ontario here.
Today's spotlight is on NewmarketToday's Joseph Quigley, whose story ''House from depths of hell': Newmarket resident warns of illegal apartments' was published on September 11, 2023.
Here's the original story if you need to catch up:
Lee Scott thought he had landed a good deal when he moved into a basement apartment in Newmarket in July.
Finding an affordable place to live is difficult, Scott said, as he is living on the Ontario Disability Support Program. On finding an apartment listed for $1,300 all-inclusive that could work for him and a roommate also on ODSP, Scott said he quickly pounced on the opportunity.
But Scott said he soon realized the apartment was in poor condition, with mould and plumbing that soon broke down. The basement apartment turned out to be illegal and not up to the building code, leaving Scott and his roommate in a difficult situation with fewer legal protections.
“We’re both feeling kind of lost about the situation. We feel like we got treated unfairly because we got sold an illegal lease,” he said. “We’re really beside ourselves right now.”
After his mother passed away, Scott moved from Orillia to Newmarket to be closer to family. The former construction worker has lived on ODSP for several years after seriously injuring his back slipping on ice and falling onto a cinderblock when doing home renovations.
Scott said the person hey thought was the landlord had promised he would get the home professionally cleaned before he moved in.
But that did not happen, Scott said. He said he had to clean the apartment himself, a process that took a couple of months given its disarray and rampant mice feces.
The toilet was also non-functional for five weeks, Scott said, an issue the supposed landlord refused to remedy during that time. Flooding was also an issue in the apartment, he said.
He described it as "a house from the depths of hell."
Tensions rose between themselves and the 'landlord', Scott said. But the biggest surprise came in July on discovering the person they had thought was the landlord was actually a tenant himself who had sublet the apartment without the actual landlord’s knowledge. Then, that person moved away, putting them as the sole tenants of the home.
“Our lease agreement is for the basement apartment,” Scott said. “We didn’t agree to this, and now we are feeling like we have been taken for fools.”
Unable to get contact information for the true landlord, Scott reached out to the Town of Newmarket’s bylaw department, which connected him with the owner of the property. Bylaw inspected the apartment and determined it was not up to code and illegal, Scott said.
Scott said that the bylaw department told the landlord to renovate to bring the rental up to code or face thousands in fines.
“They’re the ones that really helped us out in the end. We're very thankful to the Newmarket bylaw (officers),” he said.
The municipality said it cannot comment on individual cases but wants to ensure dwelling units are safe for everyone.
“If the unit is found in contravention with any of the town’s bylaws, the town will require the property owner to obtain proper permits to renovate to ensure their dwelling is safe and up to code. If the property owners fail to act, the town can pursue charges,” the municipality said.
Community Legal Clinic of York Region executive director Jeff Schlemmer said that if you find out your apartment is illegal after moving in, you lose a lot of legal protection.
“They have no legal right to go to the landlord and tenant board, for example, and they are kind of in jeopardy of being evicted at any time,” he said. “It’s a big hole in the protections provided by the act … the most important thing is to find another place and move as quickly as possible.”
To avoid moving into an illegal apartment, the town said you can look up registered basement apartments through the town’s accessory dwelling unit registration list before entering into an agreement with the property owner. Being on the list means the town has inspected the unit and confirmed it is safe for habitation.
Anyone who suspects illegal construction activity or illegal units can contact the town at 905-895-5193, and the bylaw or the building department can investigate.
After the experience, Scott urged others to take caution and check with the town to confirm any second unit is legal and who the owner is.
“You don’t want to get into a jam like we got into,” he said. “I just want to make sure nobody else gets in a predicament like that.”
Finding a place to rent
Scott does not blame the actual landlord for what happened, given he said the landlord was unaware of the sublet. But with renovations now needed on the property, Scott said he has to be out by the end of September and is looking for a new place to live.
But finding a new apartment is no easy task for Scott. The limited amount he receives from ODSP makes many places unaffordable, he said. Further, the requirements landlords may have are another barrier, with many wanting tenants who are working and not on ODSP.
“You have to have over 700 credit (score), you have to have money in the bank, a full-time job. You have to have so many of these things, and we don’t have them unfortunately,” he said. “It’s very hard for us to actually get a place.”
Homelessness is a possibility he is bracing for. He said he is getting rid of possessions, looking to give away his cats and has even looked around for shelters.
“Everything I’ve worked for in the last five years, I have to throw it in the garbage,” Scott said.
It is difficult for those on ODSP to find places to live, Schlemmer said. Although he praised a 6.5 per cent increase to ODSP this year, he said it is not enough to outplace recent inflation.
“We have moved into a time now where we are not supporting our most vulnerable citizens,” he said “It’s really a paradigm shift in the way we care for citizens that can’t support themselves … We have to decide as a society, are we going to be content to let them end up in shelters or on the street? Because that’s where we’re headed.”