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Seniors asked to pay thousands more in monthly fees after landlord removes incentives

Three seniors in Ottawa say their monthly fees are increasing by hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, through what some experts describe as a concerning legal loophole in the province of Ontario.

Landlord offered 'marketing discounts' on rent and services, with no indication it would ever expire

82-year-old Penny Eccles says she plans to fight an increase of thousands of dollars to her monthly fees at a seniors' residence in Ottawa.

At 91 years of age, Eliane Bouchard never thought she'd have to move again.

But in slightly more than a month, she'll be moving from her studio apartment in Ottawa to another seniors' home in Kemptville, Ont., about 60 kilometres south of downtown Ottawa.

Bouchard says the cost to stay in her current home is increasing by nearly 40 per cent — from $2,452 a month to $3,405 — and there's possibly nothing she can do about it.

She'll be giving up in-suite laundry and a kitchenette for a smaller unit, but Bouchard said it's still the better choice.

"I don't mind. At least I'm going to be [able to be] very careful with the rest of my money," she said.

Bouchard is one of three tenants of an Alavida Lifestyles retirement residence who say their monthly fees are increasing by hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars through what some experts describe as concerning legal loophole.

Alavida runs four seniors' residences across Ottawa and has been offering tenants like Bouchard what it describes as "marketing discounts," which are being scaled back.

While the maximum allowable rental increase for 2024, set by Ontario's Landlord and Tenant Board, is 2.5 per cent, there is no cap on how much a seniors' home can increase fees for services, including meals.

"I'm broken," Bouchard said about leaving her home. "I'm very broken and I need help."

In an emailed statement from Alavida Lifestyles, chief financial officer Manny DiFilippo and CEO David Choo said "having permanent discounts in a very competitive marketplace would put significant financial strain on an operational business that requires the level of services required by care homes."

They said discounts were "implemented on a case-by-case basis as needed" and "were never intended and are not considered to be permanent in nature."

But the tenants CBC spoke to all said they were never told the discounts were temporary until recently and would not have moved into homes they would eventually be unable to afford had they been properly informed in the first place.

'I felt panic'

Five years ago, Bouchard moved into her apartment at Ravines Seniors' Suites and Retirement Residence, a private home by Alavida Lifestyles.

As a senior on a fixed income, she said she was offered a "marketing discount" that would save her $830 on her monthly fees, including her rent and meals.

She said at no point was she told her discount was temporary. But earlier this year, she was informed it would be removed over the next few months, increasing her monthly fees from $2,452 to $3,405.

"I felt panic," said Bouchard, whose monthly pension totals $2,900. With the increase in costs, she said she would have no choice but to dip into her savings, which would likely run out of money completely within four years, she said.

As a result, Bouchard's daughter scrambled to find another place for her to live. She's found one within her price range, but Bouchard said the whole experience has taken a serious toll on her mental health.

"I don't want to eat anymore. I just want to pass as soon as possible," said Bouchard. "I'm not going to do that, but that's the way I feel."

'I would never have moved here'

Katharine Elliott said she also has no choice but to move from the Ravines apartment she's called home for the last six years.

The 80-year-old was also recently told her market discount would soon be removed — increasing her monthly payments from $3,885 to $5,170.

"I just felt like my world had dropped out. I felt like I have no place to live. I could not possibly stay here with that kind of a price," said Elliott, who plans on moving in April.

Some residents feel there's little choice but to move, even with a lack of affordable options, with tens of thousands of people on the wait list for publicly funded long-term care homes in the province.

"I would never have moved here if I knew that in two years I would be paying over $2,000 more a month," said 82-year-old Penny Eccles.

Eccles is one of several seniors in her Park Place building in Ottawa who are considering legal action against the landlord. She said her monthly fees are expected to increase from $4,755 to more than $7,000, but has no plans to move or to pay the difference once her discount is removed.

While all acknowledge that the increase in costs are technically legal, "I find it extremely unethical, bordering on cruel," said Elliott.

Permanent discounts never promised, says landlord

Officials with Alavida Lifestyles said leases are reviewed on a regular basis and sometimes "tough decision[s]" need to be made.

"Being limited to rental increases by [the] Residential Tenancies Act, in an increasing cost environment, operators must look to ensuring that costs can be supported by the revenue base," said the statement from DiFilippo and Choo

They wouldn't comment on particular agreements between staff and residents but said "at no time did we instruct staff to present these discounts as permanent" and that "the leases clearly do not state that they are permanent in nature."

But Dania Majid, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, said it's problematic when landlords apply discounts without specifically set terms, including how it's being applied and for how long, in a tenant's lease agreement.

It's not uncommon for landlords to try to skirt around the legal limit on rent increases in the province, she said, with senior tenants being particularly vulnerable because of fixed incomes.

In this case, Majid said it's unclear if the discount was applied to a resident's rent or the retirement home's service package, which has no limited cost increase under the Residential Tenancies Act.

Tenants can contest potentially illegal rent increases, but with Ontario's Landlord and Tenant Board facing a backlog of thousands of unresolved cases, Majid said it's important to pay close attention to leases and what information is, or isn't, included in them.

"The tenant has every single right to know the breakdown of what they're paying for," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Williams is a journalist for CBC News based in Ottawa. She has also worked in P.E.I. and Toronto. She is part of the team that won a 2021 Canadian Association of Journalists national award for investigative journalism. Write in confidence to Nicole.Williams@cbc.ca.

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