Nova Scotia

Lunenburg landlord begins demolition work on apartment before renter moves out

A single mother living in the heritage district of Lunenburg, N.S., is fighting to get back into her apartment of six years after the water and power were shut off when the landlord began demolition work on the building earlier this month. 

Colin Edwards says he believed the tenant had vacated without telling him

The tenant and her 10-year-old daughter have lived at 186 Fox St. in Lunenburg, N.S., since December 2016. (Google Maps)

A single mother living in the heritage district of Lunenburg, N.S., is fighting to get back into her apartment of six years after the water and power were shut off when the landlord began demolition work on the building earlier this month. 

Around 10:30 a.m. on April 1, the woman said she tried to turn the tap on in her bathroom and no water came out. She then tried the bathtub and heard only air in the pipes. 

CBC is not naming the tenant to protect the privacy of her 10-year-old daughter.

"So I called my mom, and I cursed and I was pissed off and I said, he cut off my effing water," the woman said. "I said I can't even wash my hands."

The woman had already gone to the residential tenancy board and successfully received an order staying the notice to leave the four-unit building on Fox Street. The tenancy officer's decision was released March 31.

Her landlord, Colin Edwards, said when a demolition crew showed up the next day, he wasn't aware of this decision. He said he didn't receive the paperwork in the mail until April 8 — a week after the crew had ripped out the plumbing to her unit. 

The first-time landlord said he started work on the building that day because he assumed the woman and her daughter had already left the unit without telling him, even though the keys hadn't been returned, nor the lease officially terminated. 

"The optics definitely make it look like, 'Oh hey, this guy didn't cross the Ts and dot the Is,' but my perspective is, I was good enough to give 11 months, or 10 months notice and then I gave repeated notices in the months leading up," he said. "And every other tenant had no issue at all with that."

There's rules in place for a reason. If he wants to be a landlord, he needs to educate himself.- Lunenburg renter

Nova Scotia banned so-called renovictions, situations where tenants are evicted to make way for renovations, in November 2020. The measure lasted until March 22 of this year when the pandemic state of emergency was lifted.

The ban was replaced by a new set of renoviction rules. Tenants must be given at least three months notice, and if a tenant doesn't agree to leave, the landlord must apply for an eviction order known as a DR5.

The woman said the landlord is correct that he gave her notice, but she said "it's null and void" because it came during the pandemic ban.

"There's rules in place for a reason," she said. "If he wants to be a landlord, he needs to educate himself."

Big plans for the building

Edwards bought 186 Fox St. in August 2020 with big plans to turn it into a showpiece for his company that restores heritage buildings and does custom builds in Lunenburg and surrounding areas. 

The woman has lived there since 2016, and pays $550 a month, plus utilities for her two-bedroom, 650-square-foot unit. Edwards estimates the new units would be in the ballpark of $1,500.

Landlord and tenant agree the old building has problems and needs work.

In May 2021, Edwards sent the first email informing all tenants that they'd need to be prepared to move out when the renoviction ban lifted, as the construction work he was planning would be extensive and take up to a year. 

According to a spokesperson for the Town of Lunenburg, Edwards received the necessary permits last year, including a development permit, a building permit and a certificate of appropriateness for heritage.

A spokesperson for the Town of Lunenburg said Edwards has received this building permit for the work, but that there's a typo. She said the permit was issued May 2021, not 2011. (Submitted)

On Jan. 28, Edwards emailed the woman with a more formal notice that she'd need to be out of her unit in time for work to begin April 1.

"I let him know, basically you can't do this," she said. "And his reply to me was everyone's been on hold for a year. This is going ahead."

The following month, she filed an application with the tenancy board, fighting the notice to quit.

What happened on April 1

Fast forward a few months, and on April 1 at 10:53 am, the woman received an email from Edwards explaining why he'd disconnected her water.

His email stated that her tenancy had ended the day before, on March 31, and that he'd heard sounds coming from the apartment earlier that day, and assumed she was clearing out the last of her stuff. 

"You should be aware, however, that there is no longer water to [your apartment] and the electricity will be cut by the end of the workday today as well so that demolition of walls and floors can begin properly on Monday," Edwards wrote.

The tenant said there are many issues with the building, including a moldy ceiling in a storage area that contains the hot water heater. (Submitted)

She wrote back two hours later, saying what he was doing was illegal and she had a right to stay, pointing to the decision she'd received from the tenancy officer. Her mom also called the police. 

A spokesperson for the Nova Scotia RCMP said police received a complaint of a dispute between a tenant and landlord that day, but that the investigation "determined that this is a civil matter and police involvement has concluded."

In her application for the tenancy board hearing, the woman argued that Edwards wanted to evict all the tenants due to complaints about the condition of the building.

She also said that some of her belongings, including a guitar and Christmas tree, had been damaged by mould in a storage area, and that Edwards had failed to address the matter. She asked for $911 in compensation.

The woman is now staying at her mom's place, but the seniors' building doesn't allow children and pets so they can't stay long. (Submitted)

The tenancy officer dismissed the matter about the damaged items and a complaint about salt for the driveway, but accepted the tenant's account about the notice to quit, since Edwards had offered no evidence of his own.

In fact, he hadn't attended the virtual hearing on March 28.

He said he didn't call in that day because, after receiving the hearing notice in the mail on Feb. 18, he'd emailed the tenancy officer for clarity and never heard back. 

"The form said if no further action is taken by, I guess, [the tenant] then this file may be discarded, if nothing happens within seven days or something like this," Edwards said. 

"So I just thought to myself, I guess it's disappeared like every other issue with [the tenant] … She had a long history of sending up complaints."

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

Tammy Wohler, a lawyer with Nova Scotia Legal Aid, said Edwards may have misinterpreted the standard form because a hearing wouldn't be dropped that easily, and without official notice. 

She said there appears to be "a lot of willful blindness on behalf of the landlord."

"And you can't demolish a building with someone living there, and I would think that before you start demoing, whatever company did it, that you would make sure that the home was vacant," Wohler said.

The act is very clear, she said, that landlords and tenants must have a written agreement about a renoviction. If this doesn't happen, the landlord needs to be the one making an application to the tenancy board.

Wohler urged landlords, especially those who are new to the business, to contact the Investment Properties Owners Association of Nova Scotia if they have questions about the rules.

Giving notice that a tenant needs to leave before the renoviction ban was lifted also doesn't count, she said.

Landlord wants clarity from province

Edwards said that view is "certainly a possible interpretation" of the law and may be the stance of the residential tenancy officer. But he said his stance is the government initially said the ban would end on Feb. 1, 2022, or whenever the state of emergency ended, whichever came first.

Edwards takes issue with how the province has handled the ban.

"If the government can't provide some sort of clarity on this, and everybody is just told: freeze, don't move, and oh and then wait for further instructions ... you're planning like a major piece of work. You don't just all of a sudden start it from a standstill," he said. 

Colton LeBlanc, the minister responsible for the Residential Tenancies Act, said he thinks there's been some confusion about the new rules and it's why his office is doing some "targeted marketing" to educate tenants and landlords.

Edwards bought the building in Old Town Lunenburg with plans to completely gut it and do major renovations. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

"We've put the protections in place for the tenants ... but to ensure that there's a mechanism that landlords can conduct substantial renovations to ensure that their buildings are kept safe," LeBlanc said. 

After Edwards bought the building in 2020, the woman sent several emails to him, detailing her concerns about the condition of the unit, including mould and ice build-up in the driveway.

Edwards said the woman had many opportunities to propose a different date for moving out, and thinks she's fighting the eviction, in part, because she has a personal vendetta against him. 

Appeal underway

She's been in contact with her local MLA office and said she's also reached out to several lawyers looking for help. She was initially told to fill out another form with the residential tenancy board, a process that costs money she doesn't have.

Most of her belongings are still at her apartment, but with no power or water, she's moved in temporarily with her mom, who lives in a seniors building where kids and pets aren't allowed. 

"It's hard for [my daughter]. She just wants to go home," she said. 

Edwards is now appealing the tenancy board decision to stay the eviction, and in a separate small claims process, seeking about $2,500 for what he says are outstanding payments. 

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