Nova Scotia

They did their time, but criminal records mean it's hard to find a home

Jamie Banfield was told he couldn't live in a Middle Sackville, N.S., mobile home park due to his drunk-driving convictions. Even public housing authorities have refused prospective tenants based on their criminal records.

‘You got to suffer the consequences I get it,' says Nova Scotia man. 'But really, I can’t live anywhere?’

Due to his drunk-driving convictions, Jamie Banfield had to fight to be allowed to move into a Middle Sackville, N.S., mobile home park. (David Burke/CBC)

Jamie Banfield isn't perfect. He's made some bad decisions, lashed out, and loved booze too much. 

The 41-year-old has two impaired driving convictions and one for resisting arrest, has spent 30 days in jail, paid fines and can only drive if he blows into a special alcohol-detection device attached to his car's ignition.

He accepts the consequences of his actions. But what he can't accept is being denied a place to live in a Middle Sackville, N.S., mobile home park because of those 2011 and 2013 offences.

"I got caught and you got to suffer the consequences, I get it. But really, I can't live anywhere? Shame on you," he said in an interview. "What does a driving offence have to do with renting? Absolutely nothing in my opinion."

He is not alone. While Banfield's problems were with the landlord of the private mobile home park, public housing officials in Nova Scotia have also denied rentals to prospective tenants due to their criminal histories.

In order to drive, Jamie Banfield has to blow into an Alcolock device before he can drive his car. (David Laughlin/CBC)

The Cape Breton Island Housing Authority, for instance, refused seven people from Jan 1, 2016, to Oct 31, 2017, based solely on provincial court checks, according to records obtained through freedom-of-information laws. Another four were denied based on court checks and landlord references.

It's a practice even the head of the province's housing authority didn't know was occurring, and one the legal aid lawyer who represented Banfield during his dispute argues is discriminatory.

"I don't think it's a good tool to use to determine if someone is going to be a good tenant or not," said lawyer Tammy Wohler.

"All it does, quite frankly, is set up a system where you are systemically discriminating against people who are involved in the criminal court system. Essentially that acts as a second punishment or invisible punishment, which is not what's intended by the courts, in my view, or the legislature, or else we would have that in the Residential Tenancies Act."

Tammy Wohler is a staff lawyer with Nova Scotia Legal Aid. (David Burke/CBC)

When Banfield's mother died in 2016, he inherited her mobile home in the Century Park Land Lease Community in Middle Sackville. But when he applied to move in, he said the landlord who owns the property refused to let him live there because of his criminal record. He said he was told he would either have to sell the home or move it.

With the help of Wohler, he went to the Residential Tenancies Board but admits he didn't expect much to come from it.

"Your anger just builds and builds and builds, because no matter what you do there's always somebody in your way that doesn't understand you," said Banfield.

"They don't understand what it's like if they don't have a criminal record, what it's like to have a criminal record and to get employment and to get a home."       

The board, however, sided with Banfield and he was allowed to move into the mobile home. It took almost a year to get everything settled.

Banfield's landlord did not respond to CBC News request for comment.

Banfield inherited his mother's home after she died. (David Burke/CBC)

It's unusual for landlords to ask for a criminal-record check, according to the province's Investment Property Owners Association. Most only perform a credit check and call a prospective tenant's references.

Those that do look into a person's criminal past sometimes use the less thorough method of calling the provincial court. Unlike a criminal-record check, a provincial court check lacks context and doesn't say what led to a charge, the nature of a charge or the outcome, according to Wohler.

Even so, provincial court checks were being used to deny would-be tenants public housing in Cape Breton, a fact the executive director of housing authorities at the Department of Community Services admits he was unaware of until CBC News requested the information.

"We understood what was taking place was that staff from the housing authority would contact provincial court staff and inquire about the applicant," said Ed Lake.

"Since then that practice has been discontinued and is no longer taking place in Cape Breton and is not taking place anywhere else in the province."

Wohler said the existence of a criminal record tells a landlord nothing about how a person will be as a tenant. (Shutterstock / Olena Yakobchuk)

There is nothing in the department's policies that states someone with a criminal record should be denied housing, said Lake. Those who feel they were refused due to a criminal past should ask for a review.

"Whether you have a criminal record or not, or whatever your past may be, that past is past and we consider you on the basis of whether or not you're going to be a good tenant and a good neighbour for our housing," said Lake. 

In the meantime, Banfield is spending his days trying to be a good tenant and neighbour after his struggle to move into his home. 

"It's not a very good thing when you're trying to bounce back, try to get back to your life after you make a mistake or two," he said. "I messed up and I get it, but I paid for it and I hope nobody else has to go through it."


David Burke


David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.