'Crumbling down': Tenants fear for safety, health in Winnipeg company's buildings
Property management company owner says meth crisis in downtown core, government bureaucracy to blame
One of Winnipeg's largest property management companies is ignoring dangerous conditions in its buildings and forcing tenants out of some of the few affordable housing units in the city, several tenants and local advocates say.
CBC News spoke to nearly a dozen current and former Armour Property Management tenants. All expressed feelings of frustration over the company's slow pace to address concerns. They also said they're worried about the security of their buildings — and about retaliation from the company for speaking out.
CBC's investigation uncovered dozens of allegations, including health hazards ignored, repairs delayed, and tenants' rights violated.
Widespread concerns about Armour even prompted a community group to steer its clients away from Armour buildings, because tenants would find themselves forced to either live in poor conditions or leave some of the only affordable housing available to them.
"They take advantage of people who have a bad rental history by providing them with a place to live, but then violate their rights as tenants, who feel they must go along with things as is because they have nowhere else to go," Benjamin Simcoe, housing co-ordinator for the Spence Neighbourhood Association, said in a statement to CBC.
Go inside some problem buildings:
Analysis of repair orders data from the provincial regulator, the Residential Tenancies Branch, suggests that compared to other big landlords in the city, Armour has one of the worst track records.
CBC News found that Armour Property Management, with 5,000 units, had 56 orders to make repairs since the company began operating in March of 2015. That's more than three times as many as any other comparable property manager in Manitoba over that same period of time.
Comparably sized Sussex Realty, for example, had 16 orders during that same time period. Towers Realty, which manages more units than Armour, had 10.
Armour says its problems are limited to a few buildings in the downtown core. The problems are made worse, the company says, by the city's ongoing meth crisis and overlapping government bureaucracies that prevent them from evicting problem tenants.
We've got a very strong track record dedicated to revitalizing buildings that have been either condemned or need millions of dollars of work.- Mike Romani, Armour Property Management president
Mike Romani, president of Armour, said his company can't be compared to others, because those other companies don't have as large a footprint as Armour in the downtown — and therefore don't face the same challenges.
"These areas that we manage in … have a lot of heavy lifting," said Romani. "Those properties that you're referring to, those companies don't have a lot of properties that require a lot of heavy lifting."
Romani said there isn't a lineup of people "wanting to invest their dollars into this type of product."
'Makes you feel pretty low'
For months, black mould grew on the bathroom ceiling of Jim McKenzie's downtown Winnipeg apartment, spawning mushrooms as large as a fist.
Until recently, McKenzie lived at 729 Wellington Ave., a century-old red brick building in the West End. McKenzie says despite repeated calls, his landlord did little about the harmful fungi until December — after a visit by a city bylaw officer — when they cut the mouldy ceiling out.
"They just don't want to do anything, I guess, because my rent is so low. It makes you feel pretty low," McKenzie said. "I guess they don't care about this problem."
After Armour cut out the mould, McKenzie could still pull back the plastic cover over the gaping hole. With a flashlight, he could see a black pipe leaking and mould covering the floor joists of the suite above his basement apartment.
"It is really bad for my health. I'm breathing it in … These spores [are] in everything," McKenzie told CBC News in December, when he was still living at the Wellington address.
After the company finally replaced the drywall, McKenzie could still hear water dripping.
Fed up with Armour's failure to fix the leak he believes caused the mould, McKenzie recently moved into a rooming house.
'Strong track record' revitalizing buildings
Romani denies his company ignored McKenzie's requests, saying that a search of Armour's records found no request for repairs.
CBC News has viewed emails sent to Armour's chief operating officer, Robert Gregory, which show that he knew about the mould by Oct. 29 at the latest. Crews came to cut out the mould in the first week of December, McKenzie said.
"I can't specifically tell you why that was dropped, but the fact of the matter is I don't skirt from an issue," Romani said.
If a person does want to live in a building that's very rundown and not well taken care of — which I think these buildings do match that model — then I think that there's a marketplace for that.- Mike Romani
Romani acknowledges that the building at 729 Wellington is in need of extensive renovations, but he said the building is currently owned by someone in Saskatchewan. Under their third-party management agreement, the owner is ultimately responsible for making repairs. Armour is in the process of buying the building, and plans to "revamp" it.
CBC News reached out to the building's owners, but did not receive a response.
Armour Property Management incorporated in March 2015, quickly amassing a portfolio of 96 buildings with roughly 5,000 rental units. It directly owns 40 of those buildings, and provides management services for the other 56.
"We've got a very strong track record dedicated to revitalizing buildings that have been either condemned or need millions of dollars of work," said Mike Romani, Armour's president.
Purchasing buildings that are in need of repairs and investing in them is part of Armour's core business strategy, Romani said. He bought his first building nearly 15 years ago, and since then he estimates he's invested $50 million in buying and renovating properties in Winnipeg.
"People can look and say, 'This is a big bad developer that's coming in and building and kicking out people in the properties that are affordable,'" Romani said. But he doesn't see things that way.
"Everybody offers a certain product in the marketplace," said Romani. "If a person does want to live in a building that's very rundown and not well taken care of — which I think these buildings do match that model — then I think that there's a marketplace for that."
Romani said the company is the largest private property manager in downtown Winnipeg and as such, it's seeing a rise in drug-related incidents in its buildings. Unless all stakeholders — including police, firefighters, business associations, city bylaw officers and the Residential Tenancies Branch — work together, there is little Armour can do, he said.
"It's not an issue with our specific buildings, individually. It's an issue in the downtown core that they are continually having problems with."
Local groups take action
Spence Neighbourhood Association's Simcoe said he and his team of outreach workers spend a significant amount of resources trying to fix problems created by Armour's practices, including an unwillingness to conduct necessary repairs. Many Armour tenants have said they don't feel safe in their homes, he said.
"The level of management Armour provides is extremely minimal. The company is very hands-off, and we believe they make their money by providing as little service as they possibly can," said Simcoe.
It's so stressful. They just want to make it really unbearable for you so that you'll leave.- Armour tenant Christopher Reed
In November, concerns raised by Armour tenants prompted the West Broadway Tenants Committee — a grassroots advocacy group — to organize a meeting to try to address the ongoing problems.
Nearly two dozen people packed into a small room at the headquarters of the West Broadway Community Organization, sharing stories that ranged from foot-dragging on repairs to violence and intimidation inside their buildings.
"Armour is the one that we're focusing on, just because this is the one that we've heard kind of all the stories from," said committee member James Wilt.
"We feel that there is enough anecdotal evidence from tenants that it does seem a good opportunity to attempt to hold the property management company to account."
Christopher Reed, who lives in an Armour-managed property in West Broadway, said he lives in fear of squatters who regularly pry open the doors, inject drugs, and have sex and urinate in the hallways. One person sleeping in the hallway pulled a knife on him, and another tenant was stabbed with a used needle, Reed said.
"I shouldn't have to go out in the hallway and police the hallway," said Reed, who has lived in the three-storey white stucco building at 211 Furby St. since 2016.
When he has complained about problems, Reed says Armour representatives have sworn at him and told him to leave.
"It's so stressful. They just want to make it really unbearable for you so that you'll leave," he said.
In text messages with Reed shared with CBC News, building owner Karin Harper Penner denied neglecting issues at 211 Furby St.
"Since you find the conditions at 211 Furby so deplorable, I respectfully suggest you hand in your notice to vacate next time your lease is up and find another building to live," she said in the text message.
In an interview with CBC, Harper Penner said the building's doors are secured, but tenants let other people in.
"We can't help it if people let other people in," she said. "It's not so easy to [evict] a tenant ... that is letting people in. [The Residential Tenancies Branch] makes it very difficult."
In November, Reed submitted a request for repairs with Residential Tenancies Branch to fix doors, light fixtures, mailbox locks and walls. The regulatory agency ordered repairs on Jan. 7 with a deadline of Feb. 8, but that deadline passed. The agency then issued an order to redirect Reed's rent to pay a contractor to complete the repairs.
The problems in Reed's building are similar to those reported at another Armour-managed property in West Broadway, owned by Patrick Penner, who is married to Karin Harper Penner and is one of the principals at Armour.
In January, residents at 212 Langside St. complained to CBC News about trash, condoms and needles left in hallways in the building. Winnipeg police had been called to the building four times between Jan. 1 and Jan. 18.
At the time, Penner blamed the problems on a few troublesome tenants he said he was trying to remove.
Chase Eichler has lived in the building for about nine years. He said conditions in the building have improved somewhat in the last two months. The building has new caretakers and at least one of the problem tenants has been removed — but Eichler isn't letting the company off the hook for past problems.
"Two months of good behaviour doesn't really overwrite three or four years of negligence," he said.
In the spring of 2015, he was notified that management of the building was switching from Winpark Dorchester to Armour. Weeks later, the landlord applied for an above-guideline rent increase, which it said was necessary because of extensive renovations.
Another tenant in the building stuck a letter under his door, urging him and other tenants to fight the increase. The company wanted to raise Eichler's rent from $614 to $835, but he appealed to the Residential Tenancies Commission, which hears appeals of orders and decisions issued by the Residential Tenancies Branch.
The commission brought the rent increase down. Eichler currently pays $786 per month for his one-bedroom apartment.
Eichler chose to stay in his unit and fight the rent increase, but he says he's one of the few remaining tenants from that time.
"That scared a lot of people out of the building," he said. "A lot of 'notice of abandonment' notices went up on the doors. A lot of people just straight-up left."
Fight to stay leaves tenant alone
In the North End, all the windows of a 44-suite apartment building on Keewatin Street appear empty — except for the one covered by a Kiss blanket.
Jenn Houdayer, 25, is the last remaining inhabitant in the Armour-managed property, which is undergoing extensive renovations.
Cold winter air blows through a broken window into a stairwell, where someone has scrawled "F--k Armour" on the wall in black marker. Similar graffiti covers the inside of the elevator, mementoes left by tenants on their way out the door after Armour terminated their leases.
Last July, weeks after Armour took over the building from another property manager, residents in the building received notice that their tenancy was terminated and that they must move out by Nov. 30 so the building could undergo "extensive renovations." The rent for those moving back after the renovations would be doubled.
"They were pretty hurt," Houdayer said.
See what it's like to be this building's only tenant:
A full garbage bag sits in the hallway outside Houdayer's door because she has nowhere behind the building to put it. The company took away the dumpsters.
"I've been collecting it in my apartment until it stinks and then leaving it out in the hallway," she said.
Armour's president Romani said the company has sent memos telling Houdayer to leave her garbage in a room on the main floor, but she keeps leaving it out back where it gets rummaged through.
Houdayer said she's scared to go to sleep at night inside her bachelor apartment because of frequent break-ins in the building. Renovation workers have left the building's doors propped open, she says.
One day in late January, Houdayer noticed water dripping down from her ceiling, creating a paint bubble in her bathroom and wrecking her television in the living room. She thinks a squatter in the suite above her had tried to take a shower but left the water running.
Less than two weeks before, she said, squatters had flooded suites from the top floor of the six-storey building all the way down to the ground floor.
When she moved into the building in April, Houdayer said she immediately felt welcomed by her new neighbours. Those neighbours all left when they received the termination notice from Armour, but Houdayer immediately suspected something wasn't right.
"I was four months into a 12-month long tenancy agreement. It's a legal document. They can't just say, 'Sorry, you're not living here anymore,'" said Houdayer, who pays about $450 per month.
When she told Armour she wouldn't leave, she said a representative for the company threatened to lock her out of her suite.
"They kept saying, 'No, no, no, you can't do that. You wouldn't want to have to get the sheriff after you and forcefully evict you, and we'll lock the doors behind you with your possessions inside,'" Houdayer said.
She called the Residential Tenancies Branch to complain and was told that her lease allowed her to stay until March 31, 2019.
"I was so happy, I almost cried," she said.
Other tenants who also had signed 12-month leases might have been able to stay too, but Houdayer says they left because fighting back was simply too much work.
"People were just discouraged I think," she said.
"You get a letter from your property management … you're gonna want to believe what they say, and you're not going to think that they're gonna be doing you wrong, but they are. Especially this one."
Armour president Mike Romani said 86 Keewatin is another building that is being "repositioned." He said that when Armour took over the building, the company was told by the seller that all tenants were on month-to-month leases, which is why everyone received the same move-out date.
Caitlin Ferry, who works for a North End-based program that helps resolve disputes between landlords and tenants, said many renters lack awareness of their rights — a fact some landlords can take advantage of.
"[They] intimidate people by handing them a slip of paper that says they have to get out by a certain date," said Ferry, intake co-ordinator for the Tenant Landlord Cooperation program at the North End Community Renewal Corporation.
Consequences for tenants
In addition to the high number of repair orders, Armour also has vastly more utility orders against it than any other similar-sized company.
The Residential Tenancies Branch issues utility orders when a landlord hasn't been paying its Hydro bill, and tenants are at risk of losing their power. A utility order allows the tenancy regulator to redirect rent to pay the bill and keep the lights on.
Since March 2015, Armour has racked up 42 utility orders, while most other companies have between zero and two during that same time.
"That's in line with our experience, and is one of the primary reasons we try not to house people with Armour," said Spence Neighbourhood Association's Simcoe.
When asked about the high number, Romani initially said he didn't know what a utility order was. After it was explained, he said the number was likely the result of a recent acquisition of buildings in Thompson, Man. The utility orders in the RTB system, however, date back as far as 2015.
Romani then said the issue might be due to owners of buildings under third-party management not collecting enough money through rent to cover their bills. If the owners aren't able to cover the difference themselves, "certain bills may be delayed," he said.
A property management company's failure to properly maintain its buildings can drastically affect the lives of its tenants, Simcoe said.
A building in poor condition can mean that families separated by Child and Family Services can't be reunited, he said. Broken buzzers, a common complaint of Armour tenants, can mean Handi-Transit riders miss their rides.
Several Armour properties visited by CBC News had broken mailboxes, which can lead to social assistance cheques getting stolen, Simcoe said. His neighbourhood association has started providing mailboxes for Armour tenants
After connecting with Jim McKenzie at the meeting of Armour tenants in November and learning about his mould problem, the Tenant Landlord Cooperation's Caitlin Ferry signed him up as a program client. Although Ferry couldn't comment on McKenzie's case specifically, a bylaw officer came to his apartment to inspect the mould.
"He basically said, 'Oh my God.' And then he walked out the door," McKenzie said.
Shortly after that, the mouldy ceiling was gone.
When a reporter pointed out to Romani that the mouldy ceiling was removed after the Tenant Landlord Cooperation and bylaw officer got involved, he said he had never heard of the the program, but questioned why the bylaw office would have gotten involved rather than Residential Tenancies Branch. He accused the bylaw office of acting as "a revenue-generating function for the city."
"We've got great working relationships with them and they empathize with us in a lot of those situations, but they're mandated by the city to provide a tax base," Romani said.
"And because we're the largest landlord in the downtown core, next to Manitoba Housing, by default, we're obviously going to be policed."
Residential Tenancies Branch is the regulatory body for people living in rental units and the advocate for the landlord, Romani said, arguing the city is adding an extra layer of bureaucracy, creating confusion for tenants and his company.
A spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg said bylaw officers enforce the Neighbourhood Liveability Bylaw. The city would not comment on McKenzie's specific case.
In the second-floor suite of a Spence Street rooming house, Jim McKenzie shuffles around his bed, which takes up most of the space of the single room he moved into after his lease at 729 Wellington Ave. expired.
A sewing machine and tables along the wall are piled high with materials for McKenzie to make his beaded moccasins, a skill he taught himself.
There's not much space, and McKenzie hopes to find something bigger soon, but he likes his new landlord.
"I used to work for him," McKenzie, adding he helped install the floorboards under his feet.
The experience with Armour felt like a "David and Goliath" struggle at times, he said.
"They're not taking care of the problem. They're just making more problems for themselves."
After months of uncertainty about where she would go at the end of March, and just weeks before the end of her lease, Houdayer received word she had been accepted into a Manitoba Housing unit.
Romani said the company would have been willing to help Houdayer find another place to live, but she says she doesn't want to live in another Armour building.
"I thought this was a good place for me to be. And that all came crumbling down."
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