a street of highrise apartment buildings in downtown Halifax
Apartment buildings in Halifax. Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

Each year, the Slumlord Smackdown contest looking for Halifax’s worst landlords gets hundreds of entries. It is hosted by ACORN, an association of low to moderate income earners fighting for a better community. The Smackdown is a chance for tenants to speak out about broken appliances, thermostats, and windows, doors that don’t lock, rats, cockroaches, and mould. The majority of landlords are great people who would never even be considered for the Smackdown, but there are always some landlords who “earn” the title quite handily.

Building inspectors might catch these issues with rental properties, but after an inspection needed to get an occupancy permit, the properties aren’t inspected on a regular basis. They might be inspected with a complaint to the provincial residential tenancy board, but the board has been very ineffective of late; they have only issued one ticket in the past year. However, sometime in March, there will be a proposal before the Halifax regional council for landlord registration. The public should demand more.

Registration would give HRM a better handle on the number of units available for rent in the municipality. But it would do nothing to help the tenants who deal with unsafe living conditions. That is why ACORN is demanding landlord licensing for the safety of people who rent.

Toronto ACORN championed and campaigned landlord licensing starting in 2005. They were finally successful in winning in 2016 with the creation of the RentSafe TO program, which has similar provisions to landlord licensing. Under Toronto’s program, residential buildings are inspected a minimum of every three years. More, if their condition warrants. An inspection can also be triggered by a tenant complaint if one is logged in on the telephone complaint system.

If an inspection finds that the condition of the building justifies an audit, this comes at the landlord’s expense. The inspector does not have an interest in the way you keep your apartment and the landlord should not be part of the inspection. With the program, the inspector is looking for building infractions, not whether you have hung that picture in the right spot. Because the landlord would not be around, the tenant does not need to worry about the landlord finding a reason to evict the tenant.

In addition to the inspections, the city must maintain a database of all the infractions incurred by the landlords or the corporations the building is registered under. A potential tenant can access the information on the municipality’s website and prepare for what the actual living conditions will be.

One of the major components of any landlord licensing system is ensuring that both landlords and tenants are aware of their legal responsibilities and rights. The municipality must develop guides outlining their responsibilities for both the landlords and the tenants. They are not simple pamphlets to be discarded.

In Toronto, landlords who have buildings over three stories or have a minimum of 10 units are the only ones that need to register. In order to have a comprehensive system, all landlords — even those who operate secondary or backyard suites — could be included. This would give HRM a good handle on the actual number of rental units in the municipality. HRM will need to decide what it thinks is best for its particular situation.

The penalty for infractions must be a substantial fine. It is important that the landlord be charged an amount that cannot be shrugged off as a cost of doing business and is an actual deterrent to ensure that the problem is not habitual.

The extra cost of hiring inspectors and administering the system is covered by a fee levied on landlords at a rate of about $10 per unit per month. The cost of the program might ultimately be downloaded onto the tenants themselves, but at a cost of less than $1 a day, the inspection and the database of landlords’ violations are benefits of the program that make it worthwhile for tenants.

Please contact your councillor if you think landlord licensing — rather than simply landlord registration — is a good idea.

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Writer, advocate of equal rights. Former staff of Ecology Action Centre and NSLEO. MFA in Creative Nonfiction, University of King's College. Master of Urban and Rural Planning, Dalhousie University. Bachelor...

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