THUNDER BAY – Proposed changes to the City of Thunder Bay’s property and yard standards don’t go far enough to protect tenants' rights or support residents who want to naturalize their yards, advocates say.
The city unveiled draft versions of new yard maintenance and property standards bylaws last week, along with two new bylaws focused on minimum heat requirements and vacant buildings.
A survey on the proposed changes is available at the city’s website until May 30, along with more information. City council will review the bylaws in June and vote on approval in July.
City staff say the rules overhaul, along with a recent staffing expansion in the municipal enforcement division, will help tackle long enforcement delays.
The changes would clarify officers' powers of entry, reduce notice requirements, and create a revised fine system starting at $300 and ranging to $10,000 for repeat offenders ($100,000 for corporations).
Yard naturalization and tenant issues dominated an open house held last week, but other changes could be impactful.
The new yards bylaw would also outlaw storing inoperative vehicles on residential lots by 2025, while the new vacant building bylaw would tighten standards for unoccupied buildings, requiring owners to register them after 90 days, and in some cases reduce grass cutting requirements.
Tenant protections critiqued
The new minimum heat bylaw is meant to strengthen protections for tenants when landlords aren’t providing adequate heat of 21 C. The rules were previously included under the property standards bylaw.
The bylaw would create a new offence and a daily fine system that ramps up for repeat offenders.
Mike Maher, review counsel with Lakehead University Community Legal Services, raised serious concerns with the draft property standards and minimum heat bylaws at an open house last week.
The legal clinic, funded by Legal Aid and staffed by law students, refers to those bylaws daily while representing renters in disputes over heat supply, weather stripping, maintenance, and safety, he said.
Maher appreciates the city’s attempts to tighten enforcement, saying some landlords draw out simple cases like inadequate heat for months.
However, he said the new rules are shot through with problems and missed opportunities when it comes to protecting tenants’ rights.
“The spirit of change is great, but the execution really leaves something to be desired,” he said.
He was disappointed the city didn’t ask groups like the Kinna-aweya and Lakehead legal clinics for feedback.
“I think it’s really important that tenants and people who advocate on behalf of tenants get a seat at the table,” he said.
To file a complaint, the minimum heat bylaw requires tenants produce an original copy of their rental agreement, something Maher said would be a challenge for many of his clients.
They'd also have to record ten temperature readings over a 24-hour period using two separate thermometers, something he likewise called impractical.
Maher also worries the bylaws lean too heavily on terms like “adequate,” “workmanlike,” or “good,” rather than clear standards.
“Those things are very difficult to prove and often require the tenant to basically marshal expert evidence,” he said. “What this new bylaw really doesn’t have is any kind of objective measure.”
He also called for landlords to be licensed, noting Windsor is conducting a pilot project on a registration system.
Doug Vincent, the city's manager of licensing and enforcement, said the city welcomes community feedback, but is confident the proposed changes will help address current shortcomings.
“The older bylaws have a lot of steps in there that required a lot of extra time to get things resolved,” he said. “It frustrated people who called with the complaint, it frustrated the officers who were dealing with them.”
“Items like minimum heat, where a landlord isn’t supplying appropriate heat, for us to actually enforce it, we could be months trying to resolve that before we get an order confirmed.”
Advocates disappointed in naturalization changes
The city faced equally tough feedback on changes intended to support yard naturalization.
The proposed new clean and clear yards bylaw would allow residents to “naturalize” up to 50 per cent of open yard space – not including buildings or gardens – with ground cover like native grasses and wildflowers, which would be exempt from 20-centimetre grass cutting rules.
Naturalized areas must still be maintained, Vincent stressed.
"You’re not just suddenly not cutting that property and letting it grow with whatever was growing there before,” he said. “It’s really maintaining certain types of species that encourage biodiversity, use by wildlife.”
Resident Kyla Moore pushed for rules supporting naturalization last year in a deputation to city council. She’s not necessarily impressed with the result.
Moore sees naturalization as an important way people can help reverse staggering declines in biodiversity – she pointed to the loss of an estimated 30 per cent of North America’s bird population in the past half-century, while pollinating insects face similar concerns.
Residents who naturalize their lawns are generally left alone by the city as it stands, she said. She worries the new rules, with the 50 per cent standard, could lead to more enforcement.
“Unfortunately, I think it actually takes us backwards,” she said. “We’re going from a grey area where naturalized yards aren’t specifically restricted, but they’re also not promoted.”
It’s true officers typically haven't enforced violations for naturalized yards, Vincent said.
“I don’t think by and large we’ve even been dealing with the areas people have had, because we can tell they’re intentionally being cared for,” he said. “We just look to see if someone has an unkempt yard.”
Resident Andrew Cameron, who attended last week’s open house to learn more about the proposed changes, said the rules are still too restrictive.
“I always thought it was kind of ridiculous, but now that I’m a property owner I find it insulting,” he said. “I just don’t want the city to tell me how to manage my property. If they can’t prove it’s going to cause health and safety issues scientifically, then they can get out – that’s my attitude.”
Cameron’s naturalization efforts at his Port Arthur property have been received positively by neighbours, he said, while he’s getting more visits from birds and pollinators.
“That’s an easily enforceable number, but I don’t see a particular reason for it,” he said of the 50 per cent limit on naturalization.
The threshold was selected largely as a compromise, said Vincent.
“It’s totally up to the community how much – certainly, it could be 100 per cent,” he said. “It’s simply a starting point for discussion. If we were to have made it 70-30 or 30-70, people would be asking us where did we come up with that figure.”
Moore is also unhappy with a grass buffer of one to three metres required for naturalized yards that neighbour grass.
“I just want our bylaw… not to favour turf grass and those who prefer turf grass over a naturalized area,” she said. “Turf grass itself can come into a naturalized garden and invade it, so it works both ways."
Moore is hopeful community feedback will show the city there's a desire to go further.