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10/31/2018 10:19 EDT | Updated 10/31/2018 10:20 EDT

Tenant Rights Should Be Part Of The High School Curriculum

The education system must do a better job of preparing students to deal with the vultures they’ll face when they leave their family nest.

Some landlords have made public requests to be referred to as "rental housing providers" instead, claiming the current term has a "bad ring to it."

But news from last month shows why "landlord" will always be a more apt term.

On September 10, two Toronto landlords were arrested, and now face 22 charges in connection with a fire on their property that killed one of their tenants and injured three others.

On September 6, CBC reported that the Landlord and Tenant Board in Ontario ordered a landlord to pay back nearly $5,000 in rent she illegally collected from tenants while locking them out and listing their units on Airbnb.

Toronto Star via Getty Images
enants in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto protesting Above Guideline Rent increases on March 16, 2017.

In both cases, the victims in question were students, and this isn't a coincidence. According to Karen Andrews, a staff lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, landlords perceive students as a "vulnerable community" that "doesn't have legal resources, that don't fight back."

Greedy landlords, and their tendency to prey on desperate or uninformed people, won't go away while capitalism is around. So, the education system must do a better job of preparing students to deal with the vultures they'll face when they leave their family nest.

People of all ages deserve to know their rights as tenants, but ensuring high school students are informed is one of the best steps toward building a more assertive renting class.

Over the last few years, there has been popular support for the introduction of financial literacy into the school system. In 2017, the Ontario government launched a pilot program that revised the Grade 10 curriculum at 28 schools with this in mind.

One skill that was stressed is financial planning, with home ownership as the goal. While important, the reality is millennials are renting more often than their predecessors, due in large part to skyrocketing housing prices in urban centres. This isn't likely to change anytime soon.

As such, financial literacy programs must include tenancy rights.

An online community shouldn't be expected to fill in for education at a formal level.

The people tasked with putting together this component of the curriculum could get together with experts in the field, including lawyers, tenant advocacy groups, adjudicators and legislators. Through these discussions, they could devise a curriculum that aims to build a generation of renters that sees themselves as equal partners in a relationship, with their own set of rights.

This curriculum would have to tackle some of the most common issues renters face. For example, how does first and last month's rent work? Are damage deposits legal? What happens if you can't pay the rent on time? What can your landlord evict you for, how does the process work and how can you fight back? What makes a residence unsafe? What are some red flags you should look out for from landlords? Do you need to pay for repairs or upkeep in your unit?

Without knowing the right answer to these questions, tenants can end up paying illegal fees, complying with sketchy eviction attempts and being robbed of due compensation, living in dangerous buildings, not getting the standard of living their landlord is obliged to provide, falling for scams when looking for new units, etc.

A quick scan through a Facebook group, Ontario Tenant Rights, which has more than 20,000 members, reveals a general lack of knowledge regarding even basic tenant issues. The group is useful, with experienced and knowledgeable members providing answers on a daily basis, but an online community shouldn't be expected to fill in for education at a formal level.

Carlos Osorio via Getty Images
Tenants in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto protesting Above Guideline Rent increases on March 16, 2017.

The school system is the easiest way to reach and inform people in Ontario, because most youth, regardless of race, ethnicity, class or any other factor, go to school. This method can overcome many limitations of other important tenant-oriented services, such as those at universities, which benefit a narrower segment of the population.

Teaching tenant rights at school would also help overcome some existing disparities. For example, richer kids may have parents who are aware of their rights, with lawyers in the family or the means to easily hire one. But not everyone has that access.

This knowledge won't just help students in the future, but could also aid their family members living precariously and without access to, or knowledge of, these resources.

Additionally, informing students while they're young provides the best return on investment. As it stands, many people only become truly aware of their rights as tenants after having been burned at least once. Introducing tenant rights at the high school level could prevent these abuses from taking place.

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Of course, simply providing students with the knowledge they need to navigate the world as renters won't solve all problems. Landlords still hold the material balance of power, especially over desperate renters, such as students. Some situations are too complex to approach without legal aid, and the party with a lawyer usually has an advantage. Free legal aid services are often overwhelmed with demand, and many can't afford other representation.

Knowledge of rights has limited effectiveness at ensuring justice, as material resources are required to make sure these rights are enforced. Still, incorporating tenant rights into the high school curriculum will let students know when they should have a fight on their hands, and how to call a landlord's bluff.

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