Seven tenants of a Hamilton apartment building say their personal information — including their names and rent payment histories — was taken by their landlord and submitted to a company without their consent.
The landlord, Live Well Property Management Ltd., entered the information into a database run by the Landlord Credit Bureau (LCB), a newly-licensed consumer reporting agency that boasts over 30,000 landlord and tenant users across North America.
The LCB tracks tenants’ payment habits and then transfers that data to Equifax, a multinational credit reporting agency which — through the information provided by the LCB — can either boost or lower a tenant’s credit score based on how promptly they pay their rent.
While some residents say their privacy has been breached, others worry about the consequences.
The LCB database keeps a list of individual tenant records which — besides a name, email, address and rent history, among other pieces of data — contains reviews written by landlords detailing their experiences with a given tenant.
“If we paid our rent late because our paycheque didn’t land on the first of the month, what would that do to our credit?” asked Dave Pace-Bonello, who has lived in three-storey building at 94 East Ave. S. for the past two decades.
“If our landlord writes a bad review about us just because he doesn’t like us, and another landlord sees that, what does that do to our chances of finding another home?”
The residents at 94 East were informed they had been registered to the service through emails sent to them by the LCB within the past year.
The emails framed the bureau as a “free benefit” for tenants and an opportunity for them to get “an advantage over other applicants” on future lease applications.
Residents who are late with rent, leave without proper notice or cause damages “will likely find it more difficult to obtain tenancy and credit in the future as this information is shared with other landlords and credit bureaus,” the emails say.
Zachary Killam, president and CEO of the LCB, told The Spectator consent is not always required to collect a tenant’s data.
He said the company’s standing as a consumer reporting agency gives it the lawful right to gather information without consent insofar as a debt is owed or an agreement has been breached.
Ann Cavoukian, a former Ontario privacy commissioner, called the collection of information without consent an “appalling” practice.
While she sympathizes with landlords who want a resource to recoup late rent payments, she said such a resource can’t be created at the expense of tenants who are unaware their personal information is being shared.
“Everything has to be totally upfront with people understanding what they’re getting into,” said Cavoukian.
Killam said the LCB “does not currently collect all of those,” but did not specify what information is collected or how.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has launched an investigation into alleged privacy breaches committed by the LCB.
Spokesperson Vito Pilieci couldn’t comment on the status of the probe, but said federal legislation typically requires “meaningful consent” for the collection, use or disclosure of information.
‘You have no reason to be worried’
Pace-Bonello and his longtime partner, Joey Nicol, asked Live Well management several times to remove their information off the LCB.
All but one request went unheeded.
In one email exchange dated March 24, 2020, Nicol asked her landlord, Matt Christie, why the couple’s information was taken without consent and to remove it from the LCB database.
“You have no reason to be worried,” replied Christie, who is listed as a director of Live Well in corporate records. “(You) always pay your rent on time and when you log in to LCB you will see that’s what has been recorded for you.”
A back-and-forth ensued.
“Consent is not required,” wrote Christie in a May 1 text to Pace-Bonello after Pace-Bonello again said he did not consent to the couple’s information being taken.
“I sent your request to the landlord. I’ll let you know the response once I have it,” he added.
“… and consent is 100 per cent not required.”
By July 9, Christie agreed to remove the couple’s record from the LCB database, which included their names, move-in dates, email addresses, rent amount and address. He told them in an email that if rent ever went unpaid in the future, Live Well might reopen their record.
The ordeal left the couple deflated.
“It made me not trust our landlord anymore,” said Nicol of Christie. “I didn’t understand why he was so invested in the LCB but not in us, his tenants. He knew our concerns and he still didn’t address them, and he made me feel combative for sticking up for our family.”
Another tenant at 94 East, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from Live Well, said she also struggled to remove her information off the LCB.
In one email with Marv Steier, a co-founder of the LCB who is no longer with the company, the tenant asked why she had to provide her SIN if the LCB reports to her credit agency.
“Your landlord is reporting your rent payments for your benefit,” wrote Steier in the email in late April 2020.
“I don’t want this ‘free benefit,’” the tenant replied. “My credit score has been over 800 for years, how would this benefit me?”
The tenant told The Spectator she didn’t consent to have her information collected and asked both the LCB and Live Well to have it removed. She said she never got a clear answer as to whether her record was deleted.
The Spectator posed several questions to Christie concerning the allegations that Live Well took tenants’ information without consent.
He responded with a statement about Pace-Bonello and Nicol.
“We’ve worked hard and considerably improved the standard of the building they live in and assisted them as needed, yet been subject to ongoing derogatory, rude and bullying behaviour from them towards our team,” Christie said via email.
Is the LCB impartial?
Ontario’s Consumer Reporting Act states if a credit agency collects negative or unfavourable information about an individual, there must be some form of effort on the part of the agency to corroborate that information.
The LCB said it does not accept anonymous information on its database and users’ identifications are verified prior to posts. They added landlord and tenant reviews are vetted by staff to ensure foul language and personal attacks are omitted.
“We do not allow false or vindictive reporting,” said Killam, the CEO, who noted consent from tenants is also required before a future landlord can look at their records.
However, it’s difficult to differentiate unfavourable information from fact if that information is subjective, argued Benjamin Reis, a housing lawyer with Downtown Legal Services at the University of Toronto.
“Information put into a consumer report must be based on the best available evidence,” said Reis. “Asking, ‘Tell me what you think about this tenant?’ is not what I think would be best evidence.
“What if we found out that the reason a landlord said, ‘Yes, I have a problem with this person,’ is because the landlord has a problem with people of colour? That’s quite possible.”
Killam said users are contractually bound to be non-discriminatory on the LCB platform. He also said tenants can access their own records and dispute them.
But a section of the LCB’s tenant record form — where landlords are asked six ‘yes or no’ questions about a person’s tenancy — puts that claim of impartial access under scrutiny.
“This information is NOT SHARED with the tenants but is shared with other landlords who search this tenant,” reads a disclaimer atop the questions, which range from whether the tenant paid rent late or were tried at court for breaching a lease agreement, to property damages or noise complaints.
Reis argued a company can’t claim to be impartial if it allows access to information to one set of users but not the other.
“This idea of a secret list where tenants don’t know if they’re on it, don’t know what was said about them or by who, that’s what most people think about when they think about a blacklist,” said Reis, adding “yes or no” questions also point to the LCB’s lack of due diligence.
“Instead of asking ‘yes or no’ whether the tenant was taken to court, why not include a copy of the decision so people get the facts?”
Douglas Kwan, director of advocacy and legal services of Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, echoed similar remarks about the LCB allowing landlord reviews.
“If you’re solely interested in a tenant’s ability to pay the rent, which is what their website says, what is the purpose of these reviews?” asked Kwan. “A landlord can make lots of comments that really have no place or doesn’t speak to whether a tenant can pay their rent.”
Both Reis and Kwan took issue with what they consider to be a conflict of interest in the LCB’s leadership.
According to corporate records obtained by The Spectator, Killam is one two directors at Live Well Property Management Ltd., which owns several properties in Hamilton and the GTA.
Killam said he hasn’t been actively involved with Live Well since 2018.
“There has never been a conflict of interest,” he said. “LCB is impartial and judicious in its operations and services.”
Reis argued the connection raises questions about neutrality, particularly with respect to consumer reporting agencies.
“Credit agencies like Equifax and TransUnion are institutions people are supposed to trust. But what if they were owned by someone who is also a director at a credit card company?” Reis asked.
“If Bell or Rogers claimed I owed a bill that I didn’t actually owe, I would expect that Equifax not be owned by Bell or Rogers.”
The LCB sues critical tenants
Killam and the LCB sued Pace-Bonello and Nicol for defamation and copyright infringement on Jan. 14.
According to a statement of claim filed in the Supreme Court of British Columbia — a province where the LCB is listed under a different name than the corporation number registered in Ontario — the couple “sought to damage the business and reputation of the LCB and their directors” by creating a website that contains information about the agency.
The website is alleged to have accused the LCB of unlawful and unethical conduct, the claim states, and infringed the trademark and copyright of the LCB.
The agency is seeking a permanent injunction restraining the couple from ever writing or publishing information about the LCB that it believes to be defamatory.
Pace-Bonello, who plans to defend himself at the hearing, said he created the website in June after months of haggling with Live Well to remove his information from the LCB.
It was intended to be a resource for tenants at 94 East who received the same unprompted LCB registration email as the couple did.
“We thought about how many of our neighbours also received that email and had no clue what was going on,” he said.
The website contains detailed information about the LCB, its terms of service, and what rights tenants have related to consent. There is a disclaimer at the end of each post noting the website is not legal advice and for “community educational” purposes.
It received plenty of traction from neighbours, Pace-Bonello said.
One tenant at 94 East, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from Live Well, said the site helped give context to that initial email from the LCB.
“If it weren’t for Dave and Joey, we wouldn’t know what (the LCB) was or why we should care or what our rights were,” said the tenant, who has lived in the building for three decades.
Pace-Bonello said he can understand why the LCB isn’t happy with the website — but he can’t understand why they are trying to silence him.
“They’re entitled to respond, absolutely. But to respond in a way that no further conversation can ever happen again, that doesn’t make any sense to me as a Canadian,” he said.
“When you see that someone wants to go to that length with you, rather than answer some of these questions and address these concerns in public, it’s shocking and it’s scary. It’s like the whole bottom falls out.”
For further reading click on Landlord Credit Bureau Facts.