A woman now living in Hants County and looking for an apartment wants to warn anyone searching for housing about paying deposits requested by landlords.
Nicoline Wyszynski was searching for an apartment in August 2022 when she found a place she liked in Lantz. The new development called Melody Lane is owned by Abruzzi Properties but wasn’t ready to move into when Wyszynski first viewed it. Nino Fabrizi owns Abruzzi Properties according to the Nova Scotia Joint Stock Registry, and is based in Fall River.
Wyszynski said she and a woman named Sheri, who works with Abruzzi Properties, kept in touch via text.
Through a Google and Facebook search of the phone number on the texts, the Halifax Examiner learned the person is Sheri Ritchie.
Wyszynski paid a security deposit of $600 to Abruzzi Properties, although she never signed a lease for the apartment. She does have a note handwritten by Ritchie that gives details and rental costs for the two-bedroom apartment, plus another one-bedroom apartment.
The Examiner has seen the series of texts between Wyszynski and Ritchie that date from August 2022 to Dec. 8, 2022. In those texts, Ritchie and Wyszynski, who mentioned she’s a senior living on a low-income, discussed the security deposit of $600, which Ritchie said was non-refundable.
“I didn’t promise anything,” Ritchie wrote in one text. “Like I said, I could only give a guesstimated [sic] time frame of when they would be ready … construction has been a process and have run into a few delays, but progress is being made. I told you we could not sign a lease until we had a date, and you were okay with that and willing to wait. I am sorry but you understood and accepted that the security deposit would be non-refundable.”
Over other texts, Wyszynski asked about signing a lease and a move-in date. That move-in date changed over the course of a few months from “early fall timeframe” to January 2023. In one text, Ritchie said they’re waiting to get power hooked up to the unit. In other texts, Wyszynski said Ritchie cannot keep the deposit.
“The last text I got was that I was moving in in January, but it didn’t say what date or what year,” Wyszynski said in an interview with the Examiner. “So, I went to the residential tenancy board. I had to.”
Wyszynski hasn’t heard from Ritchie since early December and now has a hearing at residential tenancies scheduled for Jan. 24 in an effort to get her security deposit back.
Wyszynski said she saw Ritchie talking with other potential tenants about the apartments.
“Two other people, I witnessed them signing papers with Sheri, that if they turn it down, she can keep the money. I never signed anything, nothing. I said to Sheri, I agreed to taking the unit, but I did not agree to you keeping my deposit, which is illegal.”
Wyszynski said she also spoke to Nova Scotia Legal Aid and Dalhousie Legal Aid and was told where she wasn’t given a hard move-in date and hasn’t moved into the place, that’s it wasn’t legal to ask a potential tenant for a deposit on an apartment.
The Examiner reached out to Ritchie via two emails and left a message on their voicemail but hasn’t heard back. We’ll update this story if we do.
Only security deposits of half a month’s rent are permitted
Joanne Hussey is a community legal worker with Dalhousie Legal Aid Service. Hussey said she hears often about people paying deposits, applications fees, or first and last months’ rent. But she said these kinds of fees are not permitted in Nova Scotia.
“Any money that you pay to a landlord that is not rent is deemed to be part of the damage deposit because that is the only thing landlords are allowed to collect,” Hussey said. “And that can’t be more than half of whatever the rent is per month.”
This is what’s written in Nova Scotia’s Residential Tenancies Act:
No landlord shall demand, accept or receive from a tenant as a security deposit a sum of money or other value that is in excess of one half of the rent per month that is or would be required to be paid for the residential premises.
Still, that hasn’t prevented landlords in Nova Scotia from asking for deposits that are illegal. In June 2022, Zane Woodford wrote about a Halifax woman who was denied an apartment because she refused to pay an illegal deposit.
And in September 2021, Philip Moscovitch wrote about some of the ways in which landlords skirt the law to keep security deposits after a tenant vacates a rental property, a problem that is not new in the province. Moscovitch wrote:
A 2004 guide to tenants’ rights published by the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service notes: “Landlords love to keep security deposits.” Then, as now, a common problem was landlords hanging onto deposits to cover basic maintenance, or the kind of wear that might be expected from people living in an apartment over several months or years.
Hussey said in Wyszynski’s situation, the difficulty is that there isn’t a landlord-tenant relationship yet because Wyszynski didn’t sign a lease.
“That doesn’t leave the person with many options,” she said. “If it was a situation where someone had been a tenant and they just had got their damage deposit back and they were objecting to that, then they can go through residential tenancies process. But without that landlord-tenant relationship it is really difficult to figure out a way to prove what the relationship was or to identify the appropriate means to actually get the money back.”
Tenants are desperate for housing
Hussey said these situations are made worse by the current housing situation because there is a level of desperation for people looking for housing. Tenants either don’t know the rules or are willing to pay deposits to try to secure housing.
“We’ve heard people paying application fees just to see an available unit, which is illegal, but there is very little way to challenge it. Once you paid it as a tenant, you likely don’t want to take that on because you don’t want to risk losing your housing,” Hussey said.
Hussey said in Wyszynski’s situation, the only options would be to take it to police to see if it meets the standard for a criminal charge or she could go to small claims court to try and recoup the money that way.
“That’s a really tough process depending on what sort of evidence you’re able to provide,” Hussey said. “And it requires a lot of work on part of the application to be able to track down that person. And if you don’t have contact with that person then it’s really tough.”
If someone is looking for housing, Hussey said people should get a lease signed first.
“I realize that’s difficult. There is a fundamental problem with most issues relating to landlords and tenants is that landlords have more bargaining power from the beginning. But if possible, get something in writing first,” Hussey said. “Definitely always document any kind of conversations, if possible have them by email or text, so there’s a record, and receipts for any money that’s paid and with any explanation of why it’s paid. Again, I think I suggest those things knowing how idealistic that sounds given the situation many people are in trying to find housing.”
More enforcement around rules needed
Hussey said she’d like to see more clarification around security deposits and more enforcement of the rules.
“This is one of the things that we would like to see coming out of the conversations the government is having now about an enforcement branch for residential tenancies,” Hussey said. “So, having some spot checks, having some reviews of what sort of processes or application forms are landlords using when they’re advertising a property. Those are the things the department could take a more active role in to try and identify, okay, which landlords are using forms that are using forms that are asking questions or require payments that are not in keeping with the act. I think that’s more an appropriate role for the department or the government to be playing than it is for individual tenants to try an enforce.”
Wyszynski has been living with her daughter in Rawdon while she looks for a place. She’s applied for one apartment, but she said many rentals get snapped up by other tenants quickly. She has a simple message for others looking for rental housing.
“Don’t give the deposit because it’s not legal,” she said.