Halifax municipal planning officials are investigating a complaint involving a south-end rental property that some international students describe as overcrowded and unsafe.

CBC News spoke to seven students who lived in the house at 6299 Payzant Ave., which is owned by a woman named Qun Liao. Liao immigrated from China to Canada in 2013, and purchased the property, which is a block away from Dalhousie University, in July 2015.

Hugh Shi was one of the first students to put down a deposit to book a room in August 2015, based on an advertisement he saw on a Chinese language message board.

"It's very overcrowded," Shi says. 

Hugh Shi

Hugh Shi says he lived in the house on Payzant Street for one month, but moved out because of overcrowding. (CBC)

Shi moved into the house at the beginning of September, but moved out at the end of the month because it did not meet his expectations.

Shi says his room had a lock on the door, but the landlord sometimes entered without notice. 

The owner of the property, Qun Liao, initially declined to do a recorded interview, but agreed to bring a camera operator and a reporter into both her Payzant Avenue property and a second she owns nears Saint Mary's University to take cellphone video.

CBC observed at least four people who appeared to be tenants in the Payzant Avenue house. For privacy reasons these people are not captured on the footage from inside the home.

Halifax rental property under investigation2:24

All of the tenant rooms had individual door locks. There were smoke alarms on each level of the house, but all of them had the covers removed. Liao says that was done in January by a contractor who took them off in order to paint.

Liao showed a fire extinguisher that was stored under a counter in the main kitchen. A rear stairway was blocked by painting materials and a trash container.

A city spokesperson says an investigation was opened on Jan. 12 into whether the house is in compliance with the land-use bylaw. The city says there should be no more than three lodgers in a residential single-unit dwelling such as the two Liao owns.

Liao says she is renting to eight people in eight bedrooms, each with separate locks. Based on plans Liao submitted to a city planner, it appeared some spaces that were marked as "dining room," "family room," or "office" are being used as bedrooms.  

Lyra Yan is a Chinese student at a Beijing university who went on an exchange at Dalhousie University during the fall of 2015. She rented a room at the Payzant Avenue house between late August and early December.

Yan says she did not sign any lease with the landlord, but paid $700 per month for her room.

"If you want to know if it's kind of the average for a Canadian house, I think it's too crowded," Yan says by telephone. "So I think basically the same space, the same house, they will be just four or five people. But our house contained about 10 people every day."

Yan says she did not know how to lodge a complaint, and chose to put up with the situation until she returned to China after three months.

"I literally don't know how to, because this was the first time I went abroad. I don't know the regulations in Canada. I don't know who to turn to, and I was too busy with my studies," Yan says.  

On Thursday, following the CBC News story about the Payzant Avenue rental, Liao told CBC that tenants did sign leases, and in at least one case for a four-month term.

She also says she did not open the room doors of any tenants without notice.

'I don't want to imagine the consequences' 

Liao also owns a second property, and advertises rooms for rent in both. The second property is located near Saint Mary's University, and it's where Liao lives.

On Jan. 22, the city also opened an investigation into whether that property is in compliance with the land-use bylaw, acting on a complaint from the public. Both investigations are still open.

Former tenant Hugh Shi says he complained to the city about both properties. He thinks the number of people in the properties could be a safety hazard.

"If there is a fire in the house, I don't want to imagine the consequences if they don't move out," he says.

Shi says Liao was rude to him, other tenants, and a contractor who was doing renovations on both houses. Shi became friendly with the contractor and did some paid work for him on the house where Liao lives. The contractor, Bing Han, is now seeking $7,000 from Liao in small claims court.

'The wicked Chinese carpenter'

Liao says she is the victim of a smear campaign between her former tenants and the contractor.

"If there is something wrong about my rental, I think the HRM will be involved," she wrote to CBC in an email.

"I have been bothered by the wicked Chinese carpenter for three months and lots of Chinese in Halifax they did know some parts of the story … no matter what they thought, truth is truth."

She says Shi did not do any work on the home where she lives.

Liao says the city told her in January that she had to change her single-unit house into a two-unit dwelling. She paid for an application to change to two-unit status, but her application has not yet been approved.

The city provided Liao with a list of 16 required modifications, which she says she has not yet done because she is waiting on the outcome of the court case with the contractor.

"As soon as I know the HRM didn't agree my house as two units … I went to HRM and paid $3100 dollars to get the approval," Liao wrote to CBC. "I don't think I did something wrong."

Liao says in the meantime she is permitted to rent between six and eight bedrooms in the house.

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