Winnipeg newcomer falls victim to illegal tenancy agreement
Accelerated rent or tenant services charges are prohibited in Manitoba
A newcomer to Canada who had to pay a year's rent up front for a Winnipeg apartment is warning other newcomers about their tenancy rights.
Irène Madzou, who came to Winnipeg from Paris as a permanent resident in February 2016, found an apartment she liked downtown on Smith Street.
She viewed it, filled out an application form with Westcorp, the company that ran it at the time, and was prepared to take the suite.
"A few hours later after I was called to tell me that something went wrong with my application because they couldn't check my bank history, that I didn't have an employment here yet," she said.
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She said a representative Westcorp, which is based in Edmonton, offered her a solution.
"You can pay in advance for a year, for a full year up front, and this would be the only way if you want to get this apartment," she said she was told.
Madzou had the money, liked the apartment and didn't want to look elsewhere. She paid $13,300 — which included a damage deposit — for the entire year.
"[I feel] disappointed and actually upset because this could've been avoided if I knew my rights," she said.
Advance payment should never be a requirement of tenants under Manitoba law.
"There are times where tenants may pay rent up front, but it certainly can't be a requirement of the tenancy agreement," said Tom Ormiston, deputy director of the Residential Tenancies Branch.
He said a security deposit cannot be more than half a month's rent, and post-dated cheques cannot be accepted as a requirement of tenancy. He said he was not aware of any other situation where a tenant has been required to pay a full year up front.
"If that would've been brought to us, we would've reached out to the landlord to inform he or she that that can't be done under the requirement of the act."
'Only because I was a newcomer'
Staff at an agency helping people get settled in Canada say more can be done to educate people about their rights.
"Newcomers can be vulnerable because they're not aware of the culture here and what might be appropriate," said Diana Epp-Fransen, housing advisor with New Journey Housing.
"I know that sometimes newcomers will offer to pay six months because they are new, they don't have any rental references or a co-signer. But if they're coming with some money, they might be able to afford it, and it's a way to get around not having the connections," she said.
While Epp-Fransen hasn't heard of people being required to pay in advance, she said she's heard of immigrants falling victim to another kind of scam, where they pay a deposit on an apartment after seeing a fake ad for it before coming to Canada.
"That's why we do what we do here. We teach newcomers about how the system works. Hopefully our clients are less likely to be scammed," she said.
Tarek Gomaa immigrated to Winnipeg from Egypt in 2015, and knows how desperate people like him can be to find a home. The biggest challenges are finding a co-signer, which many landlords ask for, and references, he said.
Gomaa said he paid six months in advance for his first apartment — an offer his landlord accepted because Gomaa did not have someone to co-sign.
"It was only because I was a newcomer. I had no rental history, of course. I just arrived. No one would find a co-signer even he stays in Canada for 10 years," he said.
Now he works at New Journey Housing, translating and helping other immigrants learn the ropes and their rights before they sign a tenancy agreement.
'More upset than scammed'
After her first year, Madzou stayed another year in the apartment but paid month-to-month for 2017, she said.
She said she wishes she had been informed of her rights before she signed for the advance payment. She said she felt "trapped" into the agreement and it created an "awkward" dynamic between her and her landlord, she said.
"I felt more upset than scammed," she said.
As a newcomer to Manitoba, she did get resources and help from Manitoba Start, but that wasn't until she'd been in the province for a month or two.
"This could have been avoided if I knew my rights, if somehow I had been told in advance that 'This might happen so be careful, and these are your other options.'"
Now she's happily settled in a house with her partner and they have tenants of their own.
Ormiston said the Residential Tenancies Branch is available to answer questions and conduct mediation and investigations when there are disputes between landlords and tenants.
Complaints involving requirement of future payments can also be directed to the Winnipeg Police Service or the Human Rights Commission, he said.
Westcorp did not respond to CBC's requests for comment.