SUDBURY -- Landlords and tenants alike have been navigating unchartered waters in recent months, with little support available to both during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alex McPhee is a landlord in Sudbury. He says one particular pair of tenants have not paid rent since October 2019.

"The most stressful part is we're paying for them to live," said McPhee. "I could understand if this happened during COVID, and they lost their jobs. I would be more than willing to say let's work something out, let's decrease the rent. I would have more of an understanding for it. But this is pre-COVID."

The province has had a moratorium on eviction notices in place for the last few months. It is expected to expire at the end of July.

While his problem pre-dates the pandemic, stalling from his tenants and delayed hearings by the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) pushed his hearing back until the end of March. By that time, the pandemic cancelled the hearing and it has been status quo ever since.

Too many tenants refuse to pay

"This has been stressful, stressful on my wife, stressful on myself," said McPhee. "We feel stuck because we cannot even sell the unit because nobody is going to purchase it. We thought about let's just sell it and take a hit, whatever sort of hit."

Ray Goulet, president of the Greater Sudbury Landlord Association, said McPhee is far from alone in his troubles.

"Too many tenants in town are deliberately doing this because they know they can get away with it," said Goulet. "Landlords get desperate. They don’t know what to do. Their hands are tied and they are supporting these tenants who just don't want to pay."

Goulet said that he is anxiously anticipating the passing of Bill 184, which would allow landlords to offer tenants behind on rent their own repayment plan, without involvement from the Landlord and Tenant Board.

"It's going to affect [landlords] in a positive way in that we will get evictions for those in arrears and we won't … be losing any more money," said Goulet. "It will be a quick eviction."

While landlords are happy about the changes, advocates for tenants worry it puts too much power in the hands of landlords.

Payment plans could be unfair

"When you look at the bill in combination with the affordable housing crisis and the pandemic, you really start seeing things that result in grave concerns for tenants," said Daina Majid, a staff lawyer for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario.

Majid, who said her centre has been seeing an increase in calls from concerned tenants throughout the pandemic, said she's concerned many of these payment plans she expects to be offered through Bill 184 will be deliberately unfair.

"Many tenants are fearful (it) will be a fast track for evictions because the repayment plans that happen outside the LTB do not come with the supports that you would normally find at the board, such as access to tenant duty counsel and a mediator that will explain the terms in the agreement and the consequences of those terms," said Majid.

Monique Woolnough, executive director of the Sudbury Legal Clinic, said she's hoping the moratorium on evictions is extended until either a vaccine is found, or the pandemic is more under control.

"A lot of tenants are scared of eviction," said Woolnough. "They may agree to payment plans they actually can't afford and then if they breach those payment plans, the landlord can apply by paper -- without that tenant ever having had a chance to tell their side of the story -- to evict them. So we're very concerned about what's coming next."

Woolnough, who said there have been a few illegal evictions in Sudbury since March, said there is often an inherent power discrepancy between landlords and tenants. She warns tenants to be careful of signing any documents.

"We would not recommend that people sign repayment agreements with their landlords," said Woolnough. "That doesn’t mean you can't actually repay your landlord -- there's nothing stopping you from doing that -- but those agreements put you at risk of being evicted without the chance to explain."

Representing all landlords under his association, Goulet said he expects the bill to help landlords in northeastern Ontario deal with problematic tenants in particular, such as the situation McPhee is facing.

Background checks are key

"We've got some cases in town where a tenant hasn't paid -- deliberately hasn't paid -- for 15 months," said Goulet. "Their garbage is out in the back ... They can't even put their garbage out on the street for the city to pick up, that's how bad it is with this tenant. We have other tenants who are trashing another house. This landlord's going to lose his house if he's not careful, he's had to dip into his retirement funds."

Goulet said he recommends all landlords do a thorough background check prior to having anything signed.

"What we're saying to tenants is be very careful," he said. "Pay your rent. That's very important because if you don't, there's a policy now in place -- automatic eviction and it's going to catch up to you.

"Before you know it, with the landlord organization the way they talk amongst themselves, you're going to have a lot of difficulty in trying to find an apartment."

With a solution still not in sight for his predicament, McPhee hopes other landlords to learn from his mistakes, and ensure a thorough background check of all applicants is done.

"If we can't find somebody that we're 100 per cent sure about, we're just not going to rent the place," he said. "It's just not worth it because once you get somebody in there, the process to get somebody out is just way too long. You're looking at six months."