Landlord Reviews are all Hearsay, and That’s OK
By Athina Pantazopoulos
In April 2023, two Ontario residents, fed up with the landlord-favouring power imbalance deeply entrenched in the rental market, created a review website that allows renters to anonymously rate their landlords. As the two co-founders point out in an interview with CBC News, landlords often ask potential tenants to provide a great deal of personal information, including salary, habits, and personal references. Tenants, on the other hand, rarely have the opportunity to screen their landlords in any meaningful way. If the tenant is particularly precocious, they might investigate if a case has been brought against their landlord at the residential tenancy board of their jurisdiction (for example, the RTDRS in Alberta), but even then, information is scarce.
Landlords in Ontario, however, are concerned that a rating website could cause financial harm to landlords. One particular quandary, noted in the same CBC news article, is that the reviews are not required to be backed by the findings of a court or tribunal and may constitute unreliable hearsay or falsehood. While the heart of this concern is legitimate, it demonstrates just how little landlords are required to understand about the legal system in Canada.
A ratings website is not a court of law. There is no requirement that ratings be backed by evidence or confirmed by judgement because they do not constitute legal findings of fact. And there are a great many benefits to that!
First, it allows a broader spectrum of comments, both negative and positive, to be published publicly. Not every review is a bad one! Reviewers of this site are encouraged to leave good reviews in order to promote conscientious landlords. Even when reviews are negative, these comments often relay grievances that are not significant enough to merit legal action, but that are still beneficial for a prospective tenant to know. Even when conditions would merit legal action, given the significant cost and delay at many of the courts and tribunals throughout the country, legal action is often not pursued. Prospective tenants, particularly those that lack the financial means to bring a future landlord to court, benefit from knowing about these situations before they sign a lease.
Second, judges and board/tribunal members are just people and are not immune to error or bias. There is a difference between objective truth and a legal finding. The “finder of fact” in a court or tribunal setting is tasked with getting as close to the truth as possible, but realistically they may favour a version of events that is misremembered, exaggerated, or false. This is inevitable, humans err, and the finder of fact was not present when the events in question took place. While the findings of fact in a court or tribunal process is usually more reliable than a ratings website, it is not guaranteed to reflect the lived reality of a tenant.
Third, the laws of many provinces, Alberta included, favour landlords even in cases where they are found to have breached their duties. In Alberta, there have been a number of cases in recent years that demonstrate that it is difficult for tenants to find any legal relief when faced with “almost uninhabitable premises.” Once a tenant has signed a rental agreement and relocated, they may be trapped for the term of their lease, or at least until their financial situation allows them to relocate again. They cannot necessarily rely on boards and tribunals to step in and require action from their landlords, so it is crucial that they know with whom they are entering into a lease agreement.
While landlords may still be skeptical about a website that allows unconfirmed comments that may directly impact their livelihood, this type of platform is not unprecedented. Restaurants, hotels, and other service providers have been subject to such reviews on platforms like Yelp! and Google Reviews for years. Consumers are familiar with this model and are generally critical enough to distinguish a valid review from a purely defamatory comment. I do not anticipate that landlord rating sites will be disappearing anytime soon.