N.S. tenants say existing law too weak to protect from rent hikes, mistreatment
Advocates say tenants fear reprisals in a system where fines, penalties rarely applied
When word came last November that Nova Scotia's Liberal government had imposed rent control during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah DeWolfe was hopeful her worries over rising housing costs would be put on hold.
It was a hope that didn't last long for the 27-year-old mother of two young children.
DeWolfe says in early December her landlord informed her that rent for her Antigonish, N.S., apartment would rise from $650 a month to $1,000 as of January. In May, she says, her rent rose again to $1,200, despite the temporary two per cent cap on rent hikes brought in by the housing minister under the Emergency Management Act.
She receives about $400 per month from the province for rent assistance, but the $800 she's been paying on her own now constitutes over half of her income as a cafeteria worker.
"I suffer with mental illness. I have two kids. I didn't want the stress of going to [small claims] court. [The landlord] told me he has more power than me and he'd make sure I'd not win anything," DeWolfe said in a recent interview.
Repercussions rare for landlords
It's the kind of situation advocates say they've seen more of in the past year, as renters in the province fear pursuing complaints because they can't risk losing their housing in a tight market. And even when tenants decide to challenge treatment they consider illegal, landlords rarely face repercussions.
Mark Culligan, community legal worker at the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service in Halifax, says rent increases like DeWolfe's above the two per cent limit are not uncommon. "I think I've seen about a dozen of those cases since January," he said in a recent interview.
Often, Culligan says, tenants fear reprisals in a system where the fines and penalties provided for in legislation are hardly ever applied.
DeWolfe said when she told her landlord she might pursue the matter before a residential tenancy officer and small claims court, he suggested that would likely lead to her eventual eviction.
Donald MacKay, the building's owner and landlord, said in a May 28 telephone interview he needed to increase rent in order to pay for upgrades and repairs. He said when he inherited the property it was in poor condition, with the rent charged at an extremely low rate.
"[DeWolfe] wanted work done, and I said 'I'm going to go in and do the work and I'm going to increase the rent.' It's a three-bedroom flat of a house. If you want to go look in Antigonish, and see what rents go for for a three-bedroom flat, that's how it is," he said.
MacKay ended the interview by hanging up and did not respond to a followup question left on his voice mail asking if he had told DeWolfe she would eventually be evicted if she pressed her case.
Penalties rarely enforced
Culligan says existing penalty provisions under the Residential Tenancies Act — along with fines of between $500 and $10,000 for individuals who breach temporary rent control provisions of the Emergency Management Act — aren't being enforced. Before the temporary rent controls came into effect, obtaining fines for disobeying legislation was equally unlikely, he said.
Research by Mady Gillespie, who worked with the legal aid centre in 2020 while completing her law degree, found that there's no record of fines being imposed under the Residential Tenancies Act over the past 15 years, even though the legislation provides for $1,000 fines for breaching the act.
She found the problem is that anyone seeking a fine must get the approval of the attorney general, and the act is unclear whether it's up to the tenancies officers or the tenant to push for a punishment. "Nowhere in the Nova Scotia Residential Tenancies Act does it say who is meant to be the one to begin the proceedings," she wrote.
Gillespie found a few examples that are more than 15 years old where small claims courts had imposed "exemplary and punitive damages," in one case for $2,000, but this is a lengthy and difficult process few tenants can pursue.
One of the Dalhousie clinic's clients, Ahmed El-Ghanam, a former Dalhousie University engineering student, was thrown out of his one-room apartment in 2019 after trying to serve notice to the landlord that he planned to leave.
"He [the landlord] flipped out and was shouting at me an inch away from my face ... and said 'Get out of my house,"' he recalled in a recent interview.
El-Ghanam said he felt unsafe. He went to his room, removed his belongings, left the house and later made a claim against his landlord for the return of his security deposit and for rent, for a total of $556.
The landlord didn't appear before the residential tenancy hearing, and residential tenancy officer Dawn Miller said in her ruling she would award El-Ghanam the amount requested — but she didn't impose any penalty.
'Tenants are in greater need of protection'
The student went to small claims court and won an order for repayment of his deposit, but over a year later, the sheriff has failed to collect the money, and El-Ghanam said he's no longer willing to continue risking the sheriff's fee to have the collection effort continue, fearing it's a waste of money.
"As a person who was the victim ... I went to the courts. I pursued the law and basically the law failed me. What's the point of having a law if it is not enforced?" asked El-Ghanam. The landlord could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, a recently published report of the Nova Scotia Affordable Housing Commission found the balance of power has shifted dramatically away from tenants in recent years due to shortages of low-rent housing, with more than 44,000 Nova Scotians in need of affordable housing.
Culligan says the lack of administrative penalties and an enforcement unit in the Nova Scotia system means there is little to prevent landlords from making threats, or refusing to carry out repairs.
"Tenants are in greater need of protection from the state as their bargaining power in the marketplace erodes," he said.
Geoff MacLellan, the province's housing minister, said last month he's aware the Residential Tenancies Act "has got to be beefed up," but he did not propose specifics.
Kevin Russell, the executive director of the Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia, said in an interview last week that property owners are also at times mistreated by tenants, who sometimes simply don't pay rent and force them into lengthy processes to carry out an eviction and get paid.
He said it's a small minority of landlords who commit improper actions, but the association is open to modernizing the act to find ways to improve adherence to its regulations by both tenants and landlords.