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Nina Willis seemed like the ideal tenant.
She was well-spoken and tidy, posing as an employee for a cellphone company with offices in Toronto and Montreal. She came with glowing references.
What landlord Darius Vakili, 63, didn’t know was that the 48-year-old Willis was a tenant from hell, with a track record of bounced cheques and eviction notices.
A Star investigation reveals that the rules governing the provincial Landlord and Tenant Board have allowed people like Willis to flourish. Privacy legislation means her dodgy past as a tenant is kept secret from prospective landlords.
Willis denies any wrongdoing. “There is a lot more to it than what you have been told,” she said, but did not provide details. “I don’t have anything to hide. I have done nothing wrong.”
Landlord Vakili, who owns a small rental home in Don Mills is one in a long series of at least six landlords who have had trouble with Willis. Vakili is locked in a battle to evict Willis and recover more than $7,000 in unpaid rent.
Like landlords who have sought information on Willis, the Star was told by the Landlord and Tenant Board individuals cannot request a tenant’s history. We had to use court records and interviews with past landlords to piece together Willis’s rental history. In the six cases we were able to find, the Star found that Willis rents a house, falls behind, issues cheques that bounce or only pays portions of what she owes.
When a landlord tries to evict her she complains of shoddy maintenance and appeals to the Landlord and Tenant Board. She has lost every case, but sometimes appeals to court, which further delays her eviction. Along the way, Willis has frequently issued allegations of harassment and discrimination against her many landlords.
Recently, she was charged with fraud and forgery by Toronto Police for allegedly providing “fake” employment information and writing bad cheques.
In interviews Willis’s landlords say they feel powerless in front of the provincially funded board.
In Vakili’s case Willis has been fighting off eviction orders for more than six months by paying portions of rent, claiming Vakili’s property failed to meet health and safety standards and asking for adjournments to present evidence that Vakili was harassing her.
“You feel you are helpless, you complain to the authorities and they take her side,” said landlord Vakili, who originally planned to give the house to his daughter but says he may be forced to sell the property. “I really don’t know what to do. If she stays another year I will be totally demolished.”
The six cases found by the Star date back to 2005.
An April 2012 ruling by Landlord and Tenant Board adjudicator Vincent Ching “failed to find (Willis) credible in any way.” Ching ordered Willis to vacate Vakili’s property, after he rejected her lawyer’s defence that she was “trying to make amends.”
The order doesn’t mean she is out. Ching estimated the time it would take from the order to the sheriff arriving could be up to four weeks. At any time Willis can pay the full amount of what she owes and stay.
Vakili was one of two landlords who reported Willis to police. A date for the trial has not been set. Willis told the Star the fraud allegations were false and she intended to sue.
The Star obtained information related to six properties Willis rented in the past seven years through files from Divisional Court and interviews with landlords, lawyers and paralegals.
The Landlord and Tenant board (formerly the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal) was created in 1998 to keep eviction and maintenance disputes out of Ontario courts and ensure fair hearings for the tens of thousands of landlords and tenants who appear before the board every year.
Critics say those protections have also allowed a small number of tenants who manipulate the system at the taxpayer’s expense and ruin small landlords.
“The process in and of itself is good intentions gone awry,” said lawyer David Strashin, who specializes in landlord and tenant law and who has represented three of the Willis landlords.
In 2007, the Residential Tenancies Act came into force and the tribunal was renamed the Landlord and Tenant Board. That, according to advocates for landlords, is when evicting tenants like Willis became even more difficult.
The new rules mean every person facing eviction has increased rights to mediation or a hearing, the board must consider any issues raised by a tenant related to non payment of rent, and tenants can pay the money they owe at any time to stop an eviction.
Willis’s landlords want her record and the record of tenants like her to be made public.
Prior to 2003, people could pay a fee and the board would produce reports on repeat tenants. The practice was stopped after the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario ruled that even though the hearings were public, releasing names, addresses and the amount of rent owed was a violation of the privacy act.
Landlord and Tenant board spokeswoman Donna Mrvaljevic said the board has chosen not to release information on tenants’ history because provincial privacy legislation “gives an institution the discretion to refuse to confirm or deny whether records exist.”
It is only when Willis appeals a board eviction notice that the file moves to court and into the public realm, where landlords can access a file for a fee. Critics say landlords should have ready access to records and not have to go to court to see if someone is a problem tenant.
If you didn’t know her history Willis seems like a perfect tenant.
When she approaches the owners of small homes in the north and east end of the city she is friendly and well-dressed. Willis also claims to make a good living, and has a good relationship with her family and loves to garden.
Her husband, she has assured potential landlords, is handy and can handle small repairs. In the case where she claimed to work at a Toronto/Montreal cellphone company, the Star contacted the company, which said it had no record of Willis working there.
Tony Poupolo said Willis seemed like an “angel” to his elderly parents, who rented a house to her in 2008. She promised to take care of the property and deal with small repairs, then the rent stopped.
At the tribunal Willis again complained about the condition of the home. Poupolo said legal aid lawyers knew Willis and warned the family they were in for a fight.
In November 2008, the Landlord and Tenant Board ordered Willis to “move out of the rental unit on or before Nov. 9, 2008 and return the keys to the rental unit.”
Willis promptly appealed the board’s decision to Divisional Court, but lost. Poupolo’s said Willis owes his parents more than $12,000. Poupolo blames the tribunal for “allowing things to go on.”
Willis also damages the properties she lives in, landlords say. One landlord showed the Star photographs of a house after Willis was forced to leave, including a kitchen and other rooms filled with garbage, dirt, broken furniture and clothing. A smoke alarm dangled from the ceiling by wires in one room.
Another landlord who reported Willis to the police, Virginia Stoymenoff, 77, said Willis had installed locks on every door in her house, something she believes was done because Willis was subletting rooms to other tenants. Stoymenoff had to remove the locks at her own expense after Willis was forced to leave.
Willis called in city inspectors who ordered minor repairs on what landlord Stoymenoff claimed were “cosmetic issues” and opened a sealed cold room to complain about mould.
Willis has been ordered to pay Stoymenoff more than $8,500 in back rent.
“It has changed my lifestyle and it is so embarrassing to me that I was taken in so completely by her,” said Stoymenoff, who has written numerous times to associate board chair Lilian Ma complaining that the process at the Board takes too long. Ma has written back saying if she is not satisfied with a decision, she can appeal it.
Willis complains Stoymenoff and Vakili have banded together to harass her. The two landlords did meet when Stoymenoff found that Willis was now renting from Vakili. When Vakili appeared before the Landlord and Tenant Board to deal with Willis’ non payment of rent, he tried to introduce what he had learned about her history with Stoymenoff.
“Every time I show my documents they just ignore me,” Vakili said.
Board spokeswoman Mrvaljevic said landlords can submit evidence related to a tenant’s history but it is then up to each adjudicator to decide whether the material is “relevant and admissible.”
Lawyers and paralegals who represent small landlords said they have rarely seen a tenant’s previous history considered at board hearings.
Lawyer Strashin said in his experience “there seems to be a general refusal to consider that type of evidence,” because it could be considered to be prejudicial.
Court documents show Willis also uses the last name Noronha or Lancelotte.
Reached in Nova Scotia, Willis’ mother, Vivian, described her daughter as a “go getter,” a successful antiques dealer who has owned homes in Toronto and Oshawa. Her mother said Willis had been stolen from and is persecuted by people who are envious of her success. “She pays, pays, pays,” she said.
When confronted at the hearing Willis tried to pull a phone from a Star reporter then said: “You are going to make me famous, thanks. I didn’t know the Toronto Star supports people being homeless. It is not going to happen to me.”
Willis also tried to have the Star removed from her hearing. As she waited for her lawyer and dispute to be heard Willis paced in an outside hallway.
“I am exercising my rights. Damn right I am exercising my rights,” she said.
Friday afternoon, a Toronto Police detective contacted the Star and said Willis has alleged a Star reporter is stalking her. Police advised the Star not to contact Willis again.