In April 2021, Cindy Fowler started a private Facebook group called Hope for Highfield in an effort to address some of the concerns tenants in the area have about the buildings in Highfield Park in Dartmouth where they live. The Halifax Examiner spoke with Fowler about the Facebook group and her work. Back then, the tenants were concerned about pests, rats, overflowing dumpsters, and slow responses to repair work.
Now a year later, Fowler said some changes have been made, but there’s more work to be done to clean up the buildings and the Highfield neighbourhood.
“It’s kind of depressing and negative,” Fowler said about the ongoing issues, which are often shared by tenants in the Facebook group. “I knew I wasn’t alone in my concerns and my issues, but through the group I learned how widespread the issues are. We are coming together. Not only are we sharing our issues and concerns, but we’re also educating each other as well.”
At least for Fowler, one issue has been addressed. After what she calls a “three-year battle,” Fowler said she no longer has cockroaches in her apartment.
“The technician was here probably a month ago and I haven’t seen any signs of them,” Fowler said. “He told me now they consider my apartment clean.”
Still, Fowler said there’s a downside to that. Because there were so many bugs in her apartment for so long, they left a residue behind, mostly in her kitchen.
“The conditions are unsanitary,” Fowler said, adding she wants the building manager to clean up that residue somehow. She’d like the bait removed in her cupboards and see them cleaned up properly. She’d also like to have the carpets in her apartment removed as she said they’re unsanitary, as well.
One of the common complaints from tenants from a year ago in the group is overflowing garbage in the dumpsters. Fowler said that issue continues.
Another issue common among tenants is complaints about the staff at Westdale Properties.
“The staff will pass the buck,” Fowler said. “They will say, ‘Oh, I wasn’t aware’ or ‘I wasn’t a part of that, so I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
Fowler said when her son was homeschooled during the pandemic, she had issues with a neighbour who was yelling and using expletives. Fowler called the police, and she also tried to reach out to the building manager.
“The person I talked to said the building manager was on holidays and wasn’t available,” Fowler said. “I got a little bit pushy with them and I said, ‘This is a pretty big situation. I would really like to talk with someone right now.’ And the person told me they were going to make a note on the situation and they waited for the building manager to get back to me. That was a few months ago, and I still haven’t talked with them.”
Westdale Properties owns 20 buildings in Highfield, including the building where Fowler lives. Westdale Construction Limited and Urbanfund Corp. purchased the buildings in Highfield back in 2017 for $113 million from Oxford Properties. The Examiner spoke with Westdale’s COO Mitchell Cohen last year about the Hope for Highfield Facebook group and tenants’ concerns. Here’s what Cohen said then:
Our tenants, sometimes, have really good ideas, things we haven’t thought about,” Cohen says. “Unless I am aware of this or the individual tenants come and we work with them, there’s nothing I can really say about dumpsters overflowing. We have regular dumpster pickup and at times they are crystal clear of debris. There are other times when tenants or the wind or whatever blows it around.
We deal with tenant concerns on an ongoing basis, but we’d be happy to meet with the tenant group are and hear their suggestions for improvements.
Fowler said she or anyone in the group has ever met with Cohen. Over the past year, Fowler said members of her Hope for Highfield Facebook group worked with their local ACORN chapter on some issues, including a peaceful protest this past February. Westdale was voted as the biggest slumlord in ACORN’s annual Slumlord Smackdown contest.
Lisa Hayhurst is a member of Hope for Highfield and serves as the co-chair of ACORN’s Dartmouth chapter. She’s also lived in one of Westdale’s buildings in Highfield for the past six years. She said she’s seen all the same issues, including overflowing garbage and no repairs to the building.
“There hasn’t been many changes,” Hayhurst about the last year since the Hope for Highfield started. “[Cohen] said it’s just a few select tenants who are complaining, which isn’t the case at all. He doesn’t want to listen to the tenants.”
Hayhurst said she’s put in requests for repairs, but when she followed up, she was told there’s no record of complaints. Hayhurst said one of the issues in her building are broken stairs that need to be fixed. She said she’s injured herself falling down those steps.
Hayhurst said ACORN is now fighting for landlord licensing.
“Companies need to be held accountable for their buildings and what state of disrepair they’re in,” Hayhurst said. “You can’t have people living with drafty windows, leaks, and everything falling apart. They need to be held accountable and fix the problem.”
Fowler said the ads for Westdale properties in Highfield Park make the community sound much better.
“The advertisements make it seem so shiny and squeaky,” she said. “I would love Mitchell Cohen to come here and meet with us as a community and follow us around and let us talk. I feel the way they advertise the community is really shady. It’s so unfair to people moving in here not knowing what they could be getting into.”
The Examiner reached out to Cohen on Thursday and asked for responses to the issues the tenants in Highfield have. As for the garbage, Cohen said it’s an ongoing issue.
“It’s a constant, constant job to look the grounds when there are 2,500 residents in our family,” Cohen said. “We have 2,500 people who live in Highfield Park and we are family. The landlord has a lot of responsibilities to keep it clean, safe in a hospitable manner. And we’re on it all the time.”
Cohen said in the summer, garbage is more visible, but then it’s covered up by snow and slush. He said Westdale hired more staff to help clean up the garbage on the grounds and buildings, and they’re trying to figure out the best way to manage the garbage pick-up situation.
“But there’s only so much we can do,” Cohen continued. “Sometimes tenants have to take some responsibility. It’s their home also, and we have a real problem with people who don’t use dumpsters or waste receptacles properly. We have a situation where people go into the dumpsters, take things, and throw them all over the place. And we do what we can to prevent that. We’re looking at relocating the bins, and making the bins more user-friendly. But we’re doing our part, and we’re increasing the amount of signage in our buildings for the tenants to also do their part. We’ve increased our clean-ups of the property, we’re working with the waste management company there.”
On Wednesday, one of the tenants at 55 Highfield Dr. posted a photo of this order from HRM. Cohen said he’s aware of the order, and he will be meeting with municipal officials next week to “remedy the situation.”
“I’m not making any excuses, but we manage close to 55,000 apartment suites across North America,” Cohen said, “and we don’t notice everything. We try to and we should. But sometimes these things, no pun intended, slip through the cracks. We’re on the work order from the region and we’re going to remedy it. Of course we are.”
Cohen also addressed the issues tenants have with staff.
“I stand 100% behind my staff,” he said. “The staff at Westdale are consummate professionals. They know what their job is, and barring anything, they’re there to make tenants comfortable and happy with their home. And yes, sometimes they cannot please everybody, and people react negatively, but as chief operating officer of this North American-wide company I stand behind my staff. If I find out something is amiss, I step in. There have been tenants who contact me directly, and I’ve made sure their concerns are either valid or unfounded.”
Cohen said Westdale has completed a number of projects and repairs at its Highfield properties over the last year, and has plans to do more. He said Westdale is trying to make the property “look better and show better.” That includes keeping the grounds clean, cleaning up the hallways and carpets, and ensuring trash is cleaned up. He said they’re also working on paving areas of parking lots and reworking some of the carpets in the buildings. He said some of the balconies need repairs, and some have already been fixed with more repairs planned.
As for meeting with Fowler and tenants in the Hope for Highfield, Cohen said he’s not on Facebook and never received an invitation but he’s open to meeting with tenants.
“My job across North America, and in Highfield, is to ensure tenants are happy,” Cohen said. “If they’d like to have a meeting with me and our Highfield site staff, who again, I have 100% confidence in, I’m happy to.”
Fowler, meanwhile, said she plans on keeping the Facebook group going, and she’s also organizing a community cleanup for sometime in June.
“There hasn’t been a lot of happiness or fun going on in the community,” Fowler said. “I figure if I can do some of this, it puts a positive spin on the community and the group as well.”
In the Examiner’s interview with Cohen, he said he and the Highfield staff would take part in the community cleanup, too. Cohen said staff often organize events for tenants, including Halloween and Christmas parties for kids.
Fowler said she’d like to meet with Cohen in person.
“I feel like he not only owes it to me and the community, but I am really frustrated,” Fowler said. “He can’t really downsize our concerns and minimize us. We pay our rent and we deserve healthy, safe, and sanitary surroundings.”