The case of a Halifax property owner renting a single house to at least eight international students is an example of a "pattern" of landlords who attempt to skirt rental regulations, says one municipal councillor.

"We have a pattern on the peninsula of some landlords trying to basically operate lodging houses or boarding houses without understanding the law," said Waye Mason, the councillor for Halifax Downtown. 

"Definitely around the universities there's a real interest from people to maximize the profits they can make in a property and basically turn them into student residences."

The city's peninsula land-use bylaw says a single dwelling unit is not permitted to house more than three boarders or it will be considered a lodging house.

The city defines a lodging house as "a single dwelling unit in which four or more bedrooms are rented on an individual basis, and/or secured through means such as locking devices." A rooming house can only be established in an area zoned for one and must be licensed. 

A whole single dwelling unit could also be legally rented by a group of students sharing a single lease. That is what Payzant Street landlord Qun Liao now says she intends to do.

Her property is not zoned or licensed as a rooming house, but multiple students who lived there told CBC News it contained 10 people and they considered it overcrowded.

In a notice to Liao dated March 9, the city says she must remove all locks from bedroom doors, reduce the number of bedrooms to five, and not rent by individual room. Liao said she is taking steps to comply by the deadline of April 8.

Waye Mason

Waye Mason, the councillor for Halifax Downtown, says he has seen repeated instances of rooming houses that don't fully comply with city bylaws. (CBC)

Mason said there needs to be more education and clarity around the rooming house bylaw, and it may need to be revised. He added landlords who want to run rooming houses must observe fire safety regulations, and cited fires in other provinces as a warning of what can happen.

"You need to have fire-rated drywall, fire escapes, working smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and all that stuff," he said.

"It has to be more like a hotel, a commercial operation, and less like a home necessarily would be. I think a lot of people, they add up the dollars, and they think this is the best way to maximize their profit. But you have to comply with those things, for really good reasons."

Unlikely to complain

Students who spoke to CBC News about the house on Payzant Street never made a formal complaint about their concerns. Research by Students Nova Scotia found that's not unusual among international students.

"We looked specifically at international students as a population that may not have the local social support network in place to search for appropriate housing, or even know the city well enough to know what a good place to live in the city would be," said Nick Head-Petersen, the executive director of Students Nova Scotia.

Head-Petersen said international students sometimes have to pay increased rent, or are charged extra for maintenance that would normally be covered under a lease. They rarely complain to the residential tenancies board.

"That process can be a long process and what some of our interviewees said was they had to leave before their resolution came to any concerns that they brought forward," he said.

Megan Deveaux of Dalhousie Legal Aid said she sees international students on a daily basis who say they have been taken advantage of financially by a landlord.

The most common complaints, she said, are landlords who demand a large security deposit. Under Nova Scotia law, landlords can only ask for a security deposit of 50 per cent of one month's rent. She also said international students often rent on the basis of a photograph posted online.

"When they arrive and move in, they find the place is not at all what they are led to believe," she said.  

Ignorance no excuse

Liao said any confusion over the status of her Payzant Street house is due, in part, to the fact she is a recent immigrant from China and not fully aware of all Canadian rental regulations.

However, Mason said that while some sections of the rooming house bylaw are somewhat "nebulous," it is not acceptable for a landlord to plead ignorance.

"I think that it's incumbent on someone who's starting a commercial operation to do their due diligence and talk to an architect or a planner who understands the zoning and can do the analysis and tell you what's allowed and not allowed," Mason said.

"I know it's going to be hard for this person or any person in this situation to come into compliance, but ignorance is no excuse of the law, right? The laws are there, they've been there for decades, and you have to comply with them."