International researcher housing woes and tenant rights
February 8, 2010 2:44 PM   Subscribe

Question: I'm from the UK temporarily working and living in a university city in Ontario, Canada for the 2009/2010 academic year. Due to the fact that I work from home a lot and have to transfer large files (via Skype/DropBox/FTP) from Canada to my labmates overseas, my landlady's internet usage has gone up since I've become a tenant. I think she's using Rogers Express or Extreme Plan. If I'm understanding things correctly, according to the Ontario Landlord/Tenant Act, Canadian landlords can't increase a rent until 12 months after a tenancy has started. What do I do?

Apologies for the length

Background: I'm an international researcher conducting research in a lab as part of an exchange program. I am not a graduate student/exchange student/post-doc/employee of my visiting university (I am when at my home university), and thus not eligible for student/employee services at the university here in Canada. Even the international student advisor is ineligible to help. I already checked through my very helpful lab supervisor.

I am subletting a month-to month fully furnished room from my landlady directly (no 3rd parties involved) for $x.00/mo - all utilities included (internet/washer&dryer/dishwasher/electricity/heat) flat rate. When I moved in this sublet, we had a verbal agreement on the price and didn't sign an agreement (in hindsight I am kicking myself for this, but I guess I was overwhelmed by moving across the pond?). There was no discussion of internet usage limits, but she knew before I moved in that I would be working from home a lot.

As I mentioned above, I work from home when I am not at the lab in the university (75% of my work is from home, I'd estimate), as the university does not have office space for me (only lab space). Most of the time this is fine for me as I'll work in the university library/coffeeshops/on campus/around town. This way I don't use my landlady's internet quota each month and cost her extra (she uses little, mostly emails). She knows this and has commented on how social I've been since moving in.

Unfortunately, I've become quite ill since the beginning of January and have to temporarily suspend my lab duties until I become healthy once again (both Dr and Lab Supervisor rules). Thus, I've had to spend my time at home waiting for my body to fight whatever is attacking my immune system (I have chronic health issues so it takes longer for my body to become healthy again). This means that since 2010 began, my landlady's internet usage has spiked up due to me transferring data to my home lab/talking to family and friends via Skype at home (I only have a pay as you go cheap cellphone since I'm in Canada for less than a year).

In short, my landlady is not happy. I think she might try to raise my rent as a result, but wouldn't that violate the Rental Act? (She hasn't yet, but wrote me a note to "talk to her face to face" this morning - her words/underlining, not mine). Due to my health our generally opposite schedules (she gets up early/goes to bed by 9pm) while I get up after she leaves to shower/start my day and return home from coffeeshop/lab around midnight when not ill), we often communicate via notes/emails -- but I found the note today rather odd and forceful (and know she has commented on my working from home increasing her internet traffic even when I'm not stuck at home sick like I am currently). I hope I'm just over-thinking this plate of beans, but I want to know my rights/responsibilities before I talk to her this week.

I should note that I don't torrent or download anything besides my lab materials from my lab supervisors here and at my home university. I don't often stream TV shows/movies either, so that's not eating up bandwidth. I can't really cut down on Skype or file transfers because it's my job and I work from home.

My only thought of how to get out of this sticky situation is to pay her in lump sum to compensate, but is that even legal for us to enter in that agreement? As academics know, I'm not exactly rich on this researcher stipend, so it's not like I have a money tree sitting in my bank account.

As an aside, I don't really want to move due to this issue. Normally we get along great, so this seems like a small thing to crumble a good tenant/landlord relationship. I'm only in Canada for a few more months and it's difficult to find a good living/working condition as the one I am currently in. Compounding this issue is that I'm permanently in a wheelchair/use crutches and it's difficult to find nice, non-government apartments to sublet for a short term that are accessible for my needs.

What do I do? Where can I go for help? I tried calling the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board this afternoon but their lines were busy. My labmates don't have the answer, and I can't afford a lawyer (but this doesn't need a lawyer to solve this, right?).

posted by anonymous to Law & Government (15 answers total)
Can't this entire post be summed up in: I have an oral lease with my landlady that includes internet. I work at home and have used up her monthly bandwidth, and she wants me to pay more. What can I do?

I feel like you must be doing research into plates of beans. Talk to your landlady. See how much she wants you to pay. (I assume you must not have this information, as it isn't in the post). How much can it cost to cover her additional charges for the next "few months"? I can't imagine that she's going to try to raise your rent by 5000%. She just doesn't want to be out of pocket for the internet use. You're not disputing that you have used lots of bandwidth. Pay her overage fees, or pay to upgrade her to an unlimited use plan for the next few months.

Why is this a difficult question?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:01 PM on February 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

This seems like a total non-issue to me. Is $10 a month really worth being anal about the letter of the law? Especially considering that you get along very well otherwise?
posted by ripley_ at 3:02 PM on February 8, 2010

Is $10 a month really worth being anal about the letter of the law?

I'm not positive, but I believe the overage charge for Rogers ultra-light service maxes out at $50 p/mo.

That said, offering to pay her overage sounds to me like the polite thing to do. I realize this is an unexpected cost for you, but is it unaffordable?
posted by zarq at 3:10 PM on February 8, 2010

You're saying that your increased bandwidth is absolutely necessary due to your research job, but you also say that your Skype usage is for talking to family and friends. It seems possible that the Skype usage is more of the bandwidth than transferring files, so you might want to be clear about that when you talk with your landlady.
posted by amtho at 3:10 PM on February 8, 2010

Also, if she doesn't have an unlimited bandwidth plan, offering to pay the difference for her to upgrade seems like a possibility.
posted by amtho at 3:11 PM on February 8, 2010

Correction: It looks like the max fee is now $25 per month. They're going to double it in March to $50 per month.
posted by zarq at 3:11 PM on February 8, 2010

Also, if you're doing video conferencing through Skype, keeping the calls to audio only will save a ton of bandwidth. And you might consider checking out GTalk instead... apparently it uses less bandwidth for video conferencing.
posted by zarq at 3:14 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you want to know whether you are legally obliged to pay any additional amount over what you agreed upon, talk to your local community legal aid clinic, which can be found on the following website, or to one of the specialty landlord-tenant clinics/organizations listed on the page: Housing page of LAO.

Once you know what your rights are, you need to decide what to do about it.

First what are we talking about here? It seems strange to me that there would be a giant overcharge based on what you are saying.

Is your landlady someone who is good at navigating Rogers Customer Service? Is she someone who can call them and say WTF is going on with my bill -- we are not downloading the entire internet here?!, and / or get reasonably reliable answers as to what it would cost to change plans? If not, are you someone like that?

If you do decide, based upon the advice you receive, the overall benefit you have in your current living situation, and the short time period you will be living there, that you are going to offer to pay a fee for internet access, you will want to have solid ground rules about how much and what it covers. See above link for advice on putting together something that will suit you both.
posted by girlpublisher at 3:15 PM on February 8, 2010

I concur with the opinions above. Just pay the difference somehow. I doubt your landlady is trying to screw you over. She's been hit with an expense she (probably rightfully) feels she shouldn't have to pay. Honestly, I think many people in your situation would have already offered to shoulder all or part of the unexpected burden.

Have you discussed any of this with your home university? Since it sounds like a great deal of that internet usage benefits the home university's research, can they help in any way?
posted by The Potate at 3:20 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

FWIW, overage fees in Canada are often outrageously high, and there are often no unlimited options for home internet users. (It looks like the cap for overage fees is now 50$/month for Rogers.)

She can certainly apply for a rent increase if her utilities increase significantly (the increase would cover all her increased utilities cost, and possibly the filing fee and interest), and since you are on a verbal lease, you may be on a month to month lease, in which case she may be allowed to end your lease with 60 days notice. You really ought to be paying her for the excess internet fees -- she expected someone with basic home use, not downloading large data sets, significant use of Skype, and occasional streaming of tv shows and movies. Working from home may not have meant "lots of downloading" to her, more "rarely out of the apartment".
A landlord can apply to the Board for an increase above the guideline if:
* the landlord’s costs for municipal taxes and charges, and/or utilities (such as fuel, electricity or water) have increased significantly,
For increases in the cost of municipal taxes and charges, and/or utilities, there is no limit on the amount of rent increase that can be approved.
Legally, you're probably liable for all her overage fees. Ethically, I think you are definitely liable for those fees.
posted by jeather at 3:21 PM on February 8, 2010

So are you saying that you have a lap top and can use WiFi at cafes?

You work for a lab. Aren't they responsible for you being able to transmit files? If you were in Africa they would probably have to pay for your use of an Internet cafe, you wouldn't be responsible. But you are in Canada so the lab should adapt and pay the extra Internet fees that are required for you to work from Canada.

Unless you can use free WiFi. Then they are not responsible to pay your fees to work at home because it is more convenient for you.

If the lab doesn't want to pay and you want to keep your job you need to pay. It is in no way your landlady's responsibility.

If the connection has limits you should not be watching any video, using Skype, or going to any recreational sites that use Flash. That is rude.

Hope this helps.
posted by cda at 3:29 PM on February 8, 2010

There's a certain sort of "lets all play along" that goes with renting a part of someone's house (i'm assuming), especially when you're splitting utilities. Technically, maybe there is something to not raising rents until after the 12 months are up (and in BC, it's limited to the cost of inflation, unless appealed by the landlord), but it could be worse. Does your lease explicitly say she is covering the cost of the internet, and that you're to pay 50% or whatever? If not, she could just pull the plug and your shit outta luck. A lot of landlords make their tenants provide their own high-speed for the this exact reason. Be the good guy here, offer to pay the difference, or get your own. Anything else isn't worth the bad blood for something so minor (compared to the landlord/tenant hassles that actually are worth fighting over). Pick your battles.
posted by cgg at 3:33 PM on February 8, 2010

This is very clearly a work related expense, therefore your work should be paying for it. Either the lab at home, the new lab in Canada, or whatever funding body is paying for your trip. Really this kind of thing is standard practise for people that work from home (and yeah, your landlord certainly shouldn't be footing the bill).

The new lab not giving you any computer access or proper workspace also sounds kind of crappy, I've worked with many visiting scientists in various organisations/universities as well as been one myself (as a PhD student working in a non-academic research organisation I don't belong to) and basic computer access is always supplied where needed. My expereince is all in NZ but still, we don't do things particularly weirdly or anything and our international collaborators don't generally expect any more or less than they get.

So find out who pays for it, find out how much it's costing, then send the appropriate person the bill,
posted by shelleycat at 4:42 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing that might be really important to this question is the fact that you rent a fully furnished room in a home that you share with your landlady. My understanding is that for most legal purposes in Ontario, that means you are not in fact considered a tenant or covered under the usual landlord / tenant mechanisms.

I am not a lawyer, and my information is some years old, so you'll want to do more research on that, but please don't assume you're immune to rent increases or allowed the usual appeals because it may well not be true in this situation.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:05 PM on February 8, 2010

follow-up from the OP
"Thank you everyone for the quick and thoughtful replies, I appreciate your insight! For those of you who complained that the question was too long, I apologize. I only added that amount of detail to show that I, as a foreigner living in Canada had attempted to do my research to understand my rights and responsibilities of living as a tenant in a sublet that is shared by my landlady. Understanding other countries laws and regulations is a complicated task, and I wasn't sure if I was missing a regulatory authority/clause that would have answered my question immediately. I have lived in other countries overseas and each province/state/area handles tenant rights differently. I had conferred with other MeFites (lab mates) on the length of my question, and they said for issues dealing with the law, more details were appreciated. Apologies again!

Perhaps jacquilynne understood the question as I had originally intended, and "saw the forest through the trees", for the lack of a better term. Despite having read the Tenant Act, I didn't understand until her comment that I might not be covered under the Tenant Act anyways. It's a good thing to know, as Legalese isn't my strong suit! Thank you for pointing me in the right direction. I'll definitely look into that today.

Maybe I should have clarified in my question that it was never about the money (I am happily able to reimburse my landlady for overuse charges despite it being an unexpected expense), but rather the mechanisms of how to proceed. Being a foreigner, I certainly don't want to do anything wrong that could get my landlady in trouble or my researcher visa revoked. And thanks for the suggestions about it being covered by my home/Canadian lab or my researcher grant since it is a research expense, I'll be looking into it! Even if they won't, I will pay out of pocket. I totally agree with many of you that my landlady shouldn't have to burden the costs for my extra use due to work, and ethically I wanted to pay upfront. However, landlord/tenant issues are sometimes complex and I wanted to make sure what I was proposing (lump sum in compensation, as mentioned in my original post) would work.

I'll be talking to her later today, and from your advice and observations - I feel much more well versed in understanding everything. Thanks again everyone!"
posted by jessamyn at 6:48 AM on February 9, 2010

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