Nova Scotia

Lack of tenancy enforcement creating 'a breeding ground for abuses,' says legal worker

Landlords and tenants alike are being impacted by enforcement issues

Posted: August 22, 2022
Last Updated: August 22, 2022

Patricia Celan says trying to evict her tenants has taken up almost all her time for months. (David Laughlin/CBC)

When Patricia Celan bought her first rental property in Dartmouth, N.S., to help her get through graduate school, she thought it would be smooth sailing. But when she handed over the keys to her new tenants, things changed. 

Celan's tenants provided her with cheques for the first month's rent and damage deposit, as well as post-dated cheques for the first year. But the first one bounced. The cheques were fraudulent. 

As the weeks passed with no rent, Celan tried to go through the official channels to evict her tenants. After a hearing with residential tenancies, she received an order of the director that her tenants should pay her the missing rent and vacate the unit.

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But months later, the tenants still haven't paid rent, and are still living in her unit. 

"It's become basically a full-time job trying to figure out different ways to deal with the different components of this, dealing with the stress of it," she said. "The emotional impact is really, really overwhelming. It has completely drained me."

Celan is now on a leave of absence from her studies, and deeper in debt. She believes the slow process and lack of enforcement within residential tenancies can encourage people who break the law by letting them get away with it. 

Calls for provincial enforcement unit

According to the province of Nova Scotia, when a landlord or a tenant has an issue with the other party that they're unable to resolve alone, they can apply to the director of the Residential Tenancies Program for mediation or a hearing. 

If mediation doesn't work, the two parties can move to a hearing with a residential tenancy officer. Within 14 days, the officer will provide a decision. The other party has 10 days to appeal, then the order can be enforced in small claims court. 

Kevin Russell, the executive director of the Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia, said his organization has been asking for the government to create a compliance and enforcement unit since July 2021.

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"Laws that are supposed to protect property owners and tenants from abuse need better enforcement from the Nova Scotia government," Russell said in a statement. 

Missing damage deposit 

Ahmad Almallah is a renter who moved out of a Halifax unit last August. He said the unit was cleaned and there was no damage, and he received positive feedback from the unit's property manager, so he expected to get his $1,575 damage deposit back. 

A year later, he has not received the money.

In December 2021, after going through the residential tenancy hearing process, Almallah made it to small claims court, but his former landlord still would not pay. 

Ahmad Almallah says his fight isn't even about the money anymore. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

"It showed that the landlord is very bold in his stance where he knows that nothing is going to be enforced, nothing is going to happen against him," Almallah said. 

After obtaining a small claims court execution order, Almallah said he has the option to pay $100 for a sheriff to collect the money from his former landlord's bank, but he has no way to find out where the man banks. 

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"The issue is down rooted deeply, I think, with the residential tenancy board where more enforcement has to take place," he said. "I think the issue is bigger than my issue."

Mark Culligan of Dalhousie Legal Aid says in his work with tenants, he sees landlords that have been breaking the law repeatedly for years with no punishment. (Robert Guertin/CBC)

Mark Culligan, a community legal worker who represents tenants in disputes with landlords, said he has seen the lack of enforcement affect a significant amount of his clients.

He said without enforcement, Nova Scotia's residential tenancy system "creates a breeding ground for abuses" by landlords.

"If no one is getting penalized when they break the law, then people will go ahead and break the law."

Government working on enforcement

Last month, the minister responsible for the residential tenancies program, Colton Leblanc, said his department is working on enforcement. 

"Enforcement is complicated," Leblanc said. "There is a small minority of tenants and landlords that may not be following the rules as they are in the legislation ... we're looking at those areas very tentatively and look forward to bringing those changes potentially in the future in the legislature."

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Leblanc said the Department of Service Nova Scotia and Internal Services is conducting research and jurisdictional scans on how enforcement mechanisms could be implemented in Nova Scotia. 

Looking to other provinces

Culligan said the absence of a "meaningful system of fines" has a disproportionate impact on tenants, and the housing crisis in the province has "laid bare" the weakness of the enforcement system. 

"I think for a long time, the political class in Nova Scotia didn't think tenancies were a problem," he said. "[They thought] there were a lot of vacant units and people could just move when there was a problem. But now we don't have that luxury and we have to catch up when it comes to creating a functioning legal system to enforce the law."

He said some provinces, like Ontario and British Columbia, have a compliance and enforcement department or a system of administrative fines that the director of residential tenancies can assign to people who are breaking the law. 

"If other provinces are doing it and they're doing it better, then let's start there."

Russell also pointed to other jurisdictions.

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"A law is only as good as its enforcement," he said. "Too many landlords have no choice when tenants abuse the system, don't pay affordable rents, damage or destroy property or threaten other tenants. We also know that tenants are frustrated. Nova Scotia needs to properly enforce its Residential Tenancies Act, with the kind of enforcement unit we see in other Canadian provinces."

Celan says the apartment she rents out on Jamieson Street in Dartmouth has sustained an estimated thousands of dollars of damage from her tenants. (David Laughlin/CBC)

In her attempts to recoup her losses, Celan went to the police to report her tenants for fraud and damages, but she was told it was a tenancy issue. 

When reading through the Residential Tenancies Act, she found an option for enforcement that included a summary conviction. 

"Do police give a ticket? Does the court give something? Does the residential tenancies board give something? Everyone I asked, they said, 'It's not us'. Nobody seems to know how to enforce this."

Celan's tenants appealed the order of the director and they have a new hearing set for Aug. 31. Celan hopes she can have them out of her unit by mid-September. 

"Knowing that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel, it gives me hope," she said. "But that being said, I also thought there was a light at the end of the tunnel multiple other times."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola Seguin
Reporter

Nicola Seguin is a TV, radio, and online journalist with CBC Nova Scotia, based in Kjipuktuk (Halifax). If you have a story idea, email her at nicola.seguin@cbc.ca or find her on twitter @nicseg95.