Master keys to NB Housing apartments were lost or stolen three times in a nine-month span, costing the low-income housing corporation multiple headaches and more than $200,000 to fix so far, a CBC News investigation has found.

The three separate incidents affected nearly half the units owned by NB Housing across the province.

The missing keys have cost more than $213,000, according to documents obtained by CBC News through right to information legislation.

Most of the expense comes from changing locks, hiring temporary security and handing out new keys to tenants in 1,691 units.

No one from NB Housing or the Department of Social Development was made available for an interview for this story.

An unexplained delay

Lost keys

NB Housing employees change the locks at a complex in Saint John in March. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

Department spokesperson Anne Mooers said the department takes the safety of tenants in NB Housing buildings seriously and "acts quickly" to ensure locks are replaced and security added to affected buildings when keys go missing.

But the department hasn't yet explained why tenants in Saint John weren't told about the most recent case of missing keys for more than a month.

A ring of master keys was lost on Feb. 13, but NB Housing didn't report the loss to police until March 22, Saint John Police have said.

The loss affected 1,009 units, nearly all of the NB Housing apartments in Saint John. Police are still investigating the case.

Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman ordered an investigation into the delay. He's awaiting the findings of that review, Mooers said.

Dorothy Shephard, the Progressive Conservative Social Development critic, said the cost of missing keys has added up to "a lot of money."

"We are always going to have human error, but I do know that Minister Horsman had promised that after the incident in Fredericton, there would be policies and procedures put in place to mitigate it from happening again."

The $100,000 briefcase

Lock

NB Housing had to change locks on more than 1,600 apartments.

NB Housing made headlines in June 2016 when a maintenance worker left a briefcase filled with keys — along with a list of tenant names, phone numbers, addresses and monthly rent amounts — in an unlocked car in Fredericton.

The briefcase was stolen and the list has never been recovered.

It was an expensive theft.

It cost NB Housing $98,506 to buy new hardware, hire a locksmith company, pay staff overtime and add security to affected buildings, the documents show.

The theft affected every NB Housing unit in the Fredericton region, which stretches up to Plaster Rock.

It doesn't say how many tenants live in those units.

NB Housing reported the privacy breach to Anne Bertrand, the province's privacy commissioner.

Her report on the theft, issued last month but not publicly published yet, describes it as "entirely preventable."

'A lack of attention'

Anne Bertrand

Anne Bertrand, the access to information and privacy commissioner, says the theft of a briefcase, which included NB Housing master keys, in Fredericton in June 2016 was 'entirely preventable.' (CBC )

"No one intended to cause harm in this case, but a lack of attention led to that event nonetheless," the report said.

The maintenance worker took the keys and personal information home in case of an after-hours emergency at a building in the sprawling region.

The staff member was distracted that day and forgot to lock his personal vehicle, "which was not his usual practice." The theft happened in the early hours of June 25, 2016, a Saturday.

NB Housing posted security guards at affected buildings and started changing locks two days later.

But it took until Dec. 12, 2016 — nearly six months later — for all affected residents to be notified of what happened.

"Personnel went door to door to notify in person, telephoned those who were not at home during those times," Bertrand wrote.

NB Housing changed its practices as a result of the theft. After-hours maintenance workers are no longer allowed to have lists with tenant names and addresses, which must be kept at regional offices.

Keys stolen in Moncton

Dorothy Shephard

Dorothy Shephard, the Progressive Conservative social development critic, wants to know what's being done to prevent future NB Housing key losses. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

But it wasn't enough to prevent more missing keys.

Another set of keys was stolen in November 2016, this time in the Moncton region.

The theft affected 107 units and cost $4,859 to change locks and install an alarm system.

Three months later, it happened again when a ring of master keys in Saint John were lost, prompting the minister's investigation.

That loss is estimated to cost approximately $110,000 to change the locks and hire security services.

Since then, NB Housing has started keeping keys "in a secure area when not in use," Mooers said.

But Shephard wants more answers from Horsman.

"Three incidents in nine months is a lot," she said.

"And I think that we owe it to the taxpayers of New Brunswick and to the residents of NB Housing to ensure that this doesn't happen again."