Apartment buildings in Halifax. Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

Tired of hearing stories of landlords removing tenants’ doors and windows to force them out, Halifax regional councillors want to step up enforcement of the municipality’s minimum standards bylaw.

“There’s been a recent rash of very disturbing media reports that have been kind of printed at face value where some landlords — just a few, not all of them, most landlords would never dream of ever doing something like this — are deliberately making units uninhabitable in order to encourage or force tenants to move,” Coun. Waye Mason said during council’s meeting on Tuesday.

This CBC story by Taryn Grant is a prime example. Grant reported that landlord Adam Barrett “removed the doors, windows and kitchen sink faucet from an apartment unit in Fairview to get the couple living there to leave.” The couple hadn’t paid their rent in months, and the landlord said they were problem tenants.

“They may be doing this because they’re frustrated with the speed with which the provincial tenancy system responds to concerns when someone’s not paying rent, or whatever the case may be,” Mason said.

“There is a tenancy board and there is a process for tenancy that resolves that, and we have no role in that. The only role the municipality has in Nova Scotia is to ensure that fire and health and life safety, the minimum standards, are met. And the fact that people are openly talking about deliberately making it so those standards are not met really is problematic. To me, I find it appalling.”

Mason brought a motion to council on Tuesday asking municipal staff to incorporate a fix to the issue in an upcoming report on a residential rental registration system.

In that report, Mason wants staff to “include options for strong penalties up to and including the maximum statutory amount, and rapid respond to remediate any unit where, in the opinion of the municipality, a landlord has deliberately made a unit uninhabitable and/or non-compliant.”

The municipality’s minimum standards are included in Bylaw M-200, Respecting Standards For Residential Occupancies. They include fire prevention measures, structural soundness, maintenance of windows and doors, and suitable heating.

Municipal building officials enforce the bylaw using a complaint-based system, but the municipality plans to use the coming rental registry and the recently publicly-posted database of violations, to start proactively inspecting units.

Mason wants to throw the book at any landlord flouting the law, doing away with warnings and moving straight to fines — potentially even using the maximum fine of $10,000, applied per day.

And he wants inspectors on site as quickly as possible.

Mason’s colleagues were on board, voting unanimously in favour of the motion. Some of them told stories about what landlords are doing in their districts.

Dartmouth Centre Coun. Sam Austin agreed there have been some “egregious examples.”

“Just today I had to refer one over to staff,” Austin said. “It’s not confirmed yet, but a landlord in my district may have taken the approach to try to get rid of his residents and turned off the elevator in his seven-storey building.”

Hammonds Plains-St. Margaret’s Coun. Pamela Lovelace said she’d just received a call last week about a woman and her children being evicted.

“And what could I do? I just had another note this morning from another woman who had her doors and windows removed from her apartment,” Lovelace said.

Lower Sackville Coun. Paul Russell wanted to remind councillors that not all landlords are bad. He worried the provincial government’s new, temporary rent control — capping rent increases at 2% annually — would mean landlords wouldn’t be able to afford to maintain buildings to minimum standards.

“With that cap, we are going to see the problems be exacerbated,” Russell said. “We are going to see more housing deteriorating, we are going to see more problems with less housing being available.”

Russell voted in favour of Mason’s motion, saying he hoped it wouldn’t be necessary for long.

Though she too voted in favour of Mason’s motion, Coun. Trish Purdy, representing Cole Harbour-Westphal-Lake Loon-Cherry Brook, worried about protections for landlords.

“When I read that landlords are taking doors off of their tenants’ apartments, I don’t see cruelty there, I see desperation,” Purdy said.

For Dartmouth South-Eastern Passage Coun. Becky Kent, the word cruelty nailed it. She noted that women, single parents, and seniors are especially vulnerable to these tactics.

“This is just abusive in some cases. It’s a manipulation of a situation where women are disproportionately affected by this,” she said.

The report on the rental registration, which will now include these new enforcement provisions, is scheduled to come to council in April.

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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