University students claim Ontario utility company ‘taking advantage’ of low-income hydro subsidy

The company says it is in compliance with the program's rules and that success of applications is ultimately determined by the government.

A group of Brock University students say their utility company and property manager are “taking advantage” of a taxpayer-funded program meant to help low-income households in Ontario cope with high hydro bills.

The students say Wyse Meter Solutions and Castle Student Housing encouraged them to apply for a $45 monthly subsidy through the Ontario Electricity Support Program (OESP) on an individual basis, despite some students sharing the same apartment and the same electricity meter — something Ontario’s government told Global News the OESP was “not intended to allow.”

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“The Ministry is aware and the Ontario Energy Board is currently reviewing this matter,” wrote Ontario energy ministry spokesperson Natasha Demetriades when asked about claims that roommates are being encouraged to apply for the OESP separately.

“OESP credits are associated with household incomes. The OESP program was not intended to allow each member of the same household to separately qualify for their own OESP credit by having a separate billing account associated with the same meter,” she wrote.

Global News has obtained exclusive access to audio and video recordings of meetings between Brock students and the general manager of Foundry Lofts — a 286-unit privately-owned student housing complex managed by Castle and serviced by Wyse.

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During the meetings, students describe their anger and frustration over Wyse’s “outrageous” fees and the fact that Wyse and Castle encouraged them to take advantage of a low-income subsidy meant to help those most in need.

“OESP is government-funded, right? So that’s our tax dollars, right?” asked one student during a Feb. 4 meeting with Foundry Lofts’ general manager, Mark Ewing.

“I don’t like that third-party companies are coming in and you guys are coming in and charging us outrageous amounts and saying, ‘OK, just apply for OESP. It’s fine, it’s going to be fine,’” she said.

“You are taking our tax dollars, government tax dollars, that are actually supposed to be used for students or people in need of that money … and keeping that money for yourselves,” she said. “That’s taking advantage. That’s taking advantage.”

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Wyse says it is “in compliance with respect to OESP applications” and that it encourages residents to apply for the program based on the terms of their lease.

According to the company, residents of “purpose-built” student housing who sign individual leases should be allowed to receive separate OESP credits.

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The company says this should also allow it to bill customers individually who share the same apartment — even those who share the same electricity meter.

“Wyse has advised interested residents who wish to make applications to the OESP, they should do so based on their particular lease agreements,” said Wyse in a written statement sent to Global News.

Castle was sent a detailed list of questions related to this story, but chose not to answer — deferring to Wyse instead.

Wyse offers ‘by the bed’ billing

Wyse is a submetering company. Submeterers allow landlords to shift the cost of utilities from one large bill for the entire building to individual bills for each unit by installing “suite-meters” for every apartment.

One of the services Wyse advertises to companies such as Castle is “by the bed” billing — meaning Wyse sets up individual accounts and sends separate utility bills to residents, even roommates.

According to Wyse, this is supposed to work by splitting the “total bill” for each apartment evenly among the number of roommates.

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But as Global News has reported, some students with individual Wyse accounts at Foundry Lofts were charged what appear to be duplicate fees for the utilities used in their apartments. This included separate charges for electricity and delivery based off readings from a single meter — a practice the OEB says the rules do not “specifically allow.”

And unlike Hydro One, which says regulations prohibit it and other local distribution companies (LDCs) from sending multiple electricity bills connected to a single meter, there may not be any rules that explicitly prevent submetering companies such as Wyse from doing this — at least none the OEB will publicly acknowledge.

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Wyse also said residents at Foundry Lofts were sent separate bills because it was incorrectly told that students were on a per bed lease and had been individually billed in the past.

The company also said it is crediting back amounts to students who were incorrectly billed and that when individual billing occurs “every individual is only billed for their portion of the calculated bill.”

Wyse says gov’t determines success of OESP applications

Wyse’s individual billing also opens the door to roommates applying for the OESP separately because some roommates’ bills have a different address once room numbers are added to their apartment number and because each student is given a unique customer account.

“The OEB has a process that screens OESP applications for eligibility based on same names, addresses and account numbers in order to avoid duplication,” said OEB spokesperson Mary Ellen Beninger when asked if Wyse’s bill design contributed to the government approving roommates’ multiple OESP applications.

“Students should be angry that they appear to be being taken advantage of,” said Christine Van Geyn, Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

“If students are being told to apply to a program that they don’t qualify for, of course that’s an abuse of the program and its an abuse of taxpayer money,” she said.

For its part, Wyse says the success of OESP applications are “ultimately determined by the government” and that it encourages students to apply for the subsidy because it is “for their benefit to do so.”

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And while Van Geyn agrees the government is responsible for ensuring taxpayer dollars are not misused, she says companies also bear responsibility for their actions.

Wyse did not point to any specific rules or regulations that allow it to bill customers individually or that allow roommates to qualify for the OESP separately.

The company did, however, say it has complied with all requirements under the OEB’s Unit Sub-Metering Code and that its billing practices are in accordance with all federal and provincial regulations.

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Wyse also said it has conducted a review of students’ OESP applications and asked residents to confirm their eligibility. For those who were approved for the program but do not qualify, the company says it will temporarily offer credits.

“For the small handful of residents who were approved as OESP participants but who do not meet the program requirements, Wyse will issue a credit to them until such time that they meet OESP requirements,” the company said.

Student calls individual OESP credits a ‘scam’

During one of the meetings between residents of Foundry Lofts and Ewing, one student called separate OESP applications for roommates a “scam.”

“It’s for the OESP credit they offered you,” the student said, in response to another student’s question about why Wyse needed to know everyone’s specific room numbers.

“They’ll need to see a different address on each otherwise it won’t work, the scam won’t work,” the student said. “Government-wise, they think that’s a different unit, not the same unit with different bedrooms.”

According to the audio, Ewing responded to the student by saying he did not believe it was a scam and that students were being provided with a way to access government benefits.

“I don’t think it’s a scam,” Ewing said. “I think it’s free money you’re entitled to.”

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During a Feb. 13 meeting meant to address residents’ concerns about Wyse’s billing, Wyse’s co-CEO Peter Mills told students they could continue to receive the subsidy separately if they wanted.

“Anyone that is currently on an individual bill that’s on the OESP and they want to continue with that OESP credit, they will receive their own individual bill for their particular bedroom and the remaining residents in that unit will receive one group bill,” Mills said.

However, in a written statement, Wyse later told Global News that students at Foundry Lofts have to apply for the OESP jointly if they are on group leases.

“Wyse instructed students at our meeting on Feb. 13 that anyone on a group lease needs to reapply for the OESP as a group,” the company said. “This will continue to be communicated to students.”

Students claim accounts opened without consent

Ewing also challenged students when they asked if it was legal for Wyse to sign them up as customers and to send them bills without their consent after the company took control of the building’s utilities last September.

Ewing told the students “it’s not illegal” for Wyse to do this since they each signed leases saying they were responsible for the cost of their utilities.

But according to the OEB, submetering companies such as Wyse “may not open” an account without a customer’s consent.

“The OEB does not believe that it is appropriate for a person to be responsible for charges in relation to an account that was opened in the person’s name without that person’s request or consent,” Beninger said.

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In addition to calling Wyse’s billing system a “complete mess,” Ewing said Castle has experienced similar problems and complaints about Wyse as those expressed by residents of Foundry Lofts at other properties the company manages.

Neither Wyse nor Castle answered questions about claims of problems at other properties. Wyse also did not say if it opened customer accounts without consent.

Global News sent Ewing questions directly, but he did not provide a response. Instead, he forwarded the request to Castle’s management.

Asked what, if any, action it will take regarding OESP eligibility, the government said it is awaiting the results of the OEB’s investigation.


© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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