Halifax tenants fighting landlords over cold apartments have law on their side
Municipal bylaw requires landlords to be able to maintain ambient temperature of 21 C in units
Darcy Warren is forced to wear three sweaters, two pairs of socks and a tuque just to hang out in his Dartmouth apartment.
No matter how high he raises the thermostat, the heat is sucked through three damaged windows that still haven't been fixed, even after repeated calls to his landlord with Northview Apartment.
"They're falling apart. The wind is just blasting out through them. When it gets really cold, the air just radiates in, so any heat that's on doesn't help," Warren said. "It's like an ice house in here."
When it comes to his pleas to fix the problem, Warren has the law on his side. There's a legal requirement in the Halifax region for landlords to be able to keep apartments warm.
Halifax bylaw M-200 states that buildings must be equipped with heating facilities able to keep an ambient temperature of 21 C, "which shall be obtainable throughout all occupied areas."
The bylaw also states windows, doors, skylights and basement or cellar hatchways have to be in good repair, weathertight and reasonably draft-free.
Warren said when he agreed to live in the building this fall, he was promised the windows would be fixed before he moved in October.
"We're now in January and the weather is only going to get worse, and it's going to get a lot colder," he said. "I was told that the maintenance supervisor would be calling me right away. And here we are, still no response."
Northview Apartment Real Estate Investment Trust did not respond to repeated requests from CBC News for comment.
Problems around heating in apartments during the winter are considered a "life-safety issue" according to Philip Dugandzic, manager of building standards for Halifax.
"If that's the only place they have to sleep, and if they don't know anybody in Halifax, they have no place to sleep other than a hotel, which isn't an option available to everyone. So it is an issue that we would prioritize," he said.
Manon Lavoie, 73, said the heating issues in her Bedford apartment have a direct impact on her health.
"People are not conscious of the health consequences of such things until they get sick," she said.
During the bout of freezing temperatures in late December, Lavoie said at 11 p.m. one night she realized there was no heat on in her building.
She called the on-site resident manager, who told her the furnace had run out of oil.
"How can a building like that go without oil? They must be warned," Lavoie said. "I said, 'Well are we going to get heat?' I was getting really sick. I was getting really scared."
Lavoie, who has a heart condition, said she called paramedics to have her vital signs checked and they gave her a blanket. It was about 8 a.m. the next day when the heat finally came back on, she said.
"It's a continuous worry," Lavoie said.
Oil delivery missed
Dan Sampson, director of property management with Killam Properties, confirmed that the apartment did run out of oil in December. Sampson said the building has a regular schedule for the heating oil company to refill the tank.
"This particular instance back in December, it just fell off the radar, I don't know. They missed the delivery and it did go dry.... One phone call and they were there," he said.
"We had significantly colder temperatures in December than we're used to."
Sampson said there was also a circular pump failure in December that caused some issues with the heat in the building, but he said it only lasted a few hours.
"We don't have a heating system problem at this particular building," he said.
Residential tenancies vs. municipality
Some freezing tenants go through the province's residential tenancies department with Service Nova Scotia to get help.
"I wouldn't say it's common, but it does happen," said Dean Johnston, director of residential tenancies with Service Nova Scotia. "We do get complaints where the tenants feel that the temperature in the unit isn't warm enough."
He urged tenants to make inquiries if they feel there's a safety problem with their rental unit.
"Sometimes it's us that can help with the resolution, sometimes we can help in conjunction with another government department or agency."
But bylaws for heating in Nova Scotia are usually set and dealt with by municipalities.
Dugandzic said the fastest way for tenants in Halifax to initiate a customer service request is to call 311, but people can also go to a contact centre a register a formal complaint.
From there, the file is sent to a building official, who contacts the complainant to set up an inspection.
Dugandzic said when any complaint comes in under the M-200 bylaw, building officials will check to make sure everything in the apartment is meeting the minimum standards.
"Based on the complaint, the nature of the complaint, potential life-safety impacts, we would respond to that very quickly, typically within 48 hours but as early as that same day or 24 hours later," he said.
Order to comply
If a problem is found, Dugandzic said the landlord is given an order to comply, which outlines the standards not met, the date of re-inspection and applicable penalties if they don't comply.
"If it's a heating issue and it's winter, that's a life-safety issue, so we'd be looking for a very quick turnaround on that. So get the heat back on within a day or so," he said.
If the building owner refuses to do the work, the city hires a contractor to do the work for them — and sends the bill to the owner.
Dugandzic said if the owner refuses to pay those costs, it ends up as a lien on the property.
"We do have the ability within the bylaw to prosecute, but generally prosecution takes weeks, months, potentially years. This is a much faster way to resolve the issue."