When Zaynab moved out of the “downtownish” Sydney home she was renting last year, she expected to get back the $600 security deposit she had given her landlord at the start of the lease.
A speech language pathologist who immigrated to Nova Scotia from Boston in 2018 (“I am Muslim, Iranian, and gay, and it wasn’t a great time to be in the States”), Zaynab said in an interview she had rented the place “sight unseen.” Although she said it was “kind of ratty” — a fence in the backyard was in poor shape and she found chicken bones in the dishwasher — overall, the apartment was “pretty good.” (The Examiner is only using Zaynab’s first name, because she is in the process of looking for a new apartment and is worried that telling her story could land her on one of the illegal “bad tenants” lists kept by Nova Scotia landlords.)
Because she had a dog, two cats, and budgies, Zaynab knew she would have to pay attention to cleaning up well when she moved out — especially the room where the budgies lived. She also had a small heater in the room, with a reflective panel that was supposed to peel off the wall. She said it didn’t come off cleanly, and she let the landlord know.
After 10 days, Zaynab says she asked the landlord for her deposit back. She says he told her the apartment was filthy, and that he was keeping $200 to cover the cost of repainting the wall where the reflective panel had not come off cleanly. “He said it cost him $200 to paint over a little piece of film on the wall,” she told the Examiner in an interview.
Under the Nova Scotia Residential Tenancies Act, landlords have the right to ask for up to half a month’s rent as a security or damage deposit. The full amount, plus interest, is due to the tenant within 10 days of the end of tenancy. (However, the interest rate was set at 1% in 1995 and in 2013 was reduced to 0%, where it remains today.) Landlords who want to keep any of the money to cover the cost of repairing damage must apply to retain the funds if their tenants are not in agreement.
That’s what should happen. And while the law is clear, many tenants seem unaware of it, allowing too many landlords to use damage deposits as free money they can pocket at the end of the tenancy period.
This is not a new problem in Nova Scotia. 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.
Zach Wells says the current system isn’t serving anyone. He said some landlords withhold security deposits illegally, counting on tenants not fighting them. And from the landlords’ point of view, the deposit likely won’t be nearly enough to cover the costs of serious damage.
Wells works as a labour relations officer for the union representing faculty and professional support staff at the Nova Scotia Community College. He has also been a landlord for 17 years, currently renting out three units in Halifax and two in Moncton. “You’re not supposed to withhold funds for ordinary wear and tear and trivial stuff,” he said in an interview.
When he was a renter, Wells said he was “dinged by landlords for stupid stuff like a bent key.” He remembers one landlord who “went through a thousand square foot apartment and managed to get a palm-sized dustpan full of hair and dust, and charged us for his time to clean that up.” Another tried to keep part of the deposit to compensate for the cost of burnt-out lightbulbs. “He said halogen bulbs are expensive,” Wells recalled. “I said, yeah, but we’ve been paying you $1,000 a month for the last year, so suck it up.”
Asked what would constitute ordinary wear and tear, not subject to withholding a deposit, Wells said, “Anything related to paint, especially if it’s been a couple of years since the unit was painted, and anything related to scratches or scuffs on floors. In terms of the cleanliness of a unit after after a vacancy, I think of it in terms of ‘tenant clean’ and ‘landlord clean.’ So I’m looking for ‘tenant clean’ when they move out, which just means that they have made an honest effort, that there aren’t still piles of garbage, and there isn’t visible filth.”
Scroll through local Facebook groups devoted to local landlords, and it’s not hard to find people who believe apartments should be returned in the exact same condition in which they were rented — freshly painted or professionally cleaned, for instance. “There’s been too much history of landlords arbitrarily retaining deposits and just telling the tenant ‘well, you’ll have to fight me for it,’” Wells said.
Damage deposits are the norm in most provinces, but they are not treated the same. In Quebec, all security deposits are illegal. Landlords cannot ask for any money other than rent. Damage deposits are also illegal in Ontario, but landlords can ask for a rent deposit of up to one month’s rent. In other provinces, security deposits range from half to a full month’s rent.
New Brunswick offers a system designed to mediate between landlords and tenants. Tenants can pay their security deposits at Service New Brunswick Centres or directly to the landlord. If the landlord receives the deposit, they have 15 days to give it to the Residential Tenancies Tribunal. At the end of the lease, tenants apply to get the deposit back. If the landlord wants to withhold all or part of it, and the tenant disputes the claim, the matter goes before a residential tenancies officer, who will adjudicate it. The province “aims to provide a decision within 45 days.”
Wells admits he generally does not remit deposits to the province for the two units he rents in New Brunswick, instead asking tenants if it’s okay for him to treat them the same way he does in Nova Scotia: “New Brunswick law requires submitting this to the Rentalsman office. That creates a lot more bureaucracy and red tape at the end of the tenancy, both for you and for me.” But he says it’s a practice he plans to discontinue, “because all of these issues are so fraught now, there’s so much tension between landlords and tenants that I don’t want to come across as possibly doing something shady at the beginning of the tenancy.”
When Zaynab’s landlord said he was keeping part of her deposit, she wasn’t sure what to do. Section 7 (1) of the Residential Tenancies Act says landlords are obliged to provide “a copy or reproduction” of the act within 10 days of signing a lease, accepting a key, or moving in. But she said her landlord just wrote “novascotia.ca” on her lease.
As someone new to Nova Scotia, Zaynab wasn’t sure what the rules were. And she said she believes her landlord’s previous tenants were students who were not aware of their rights either. She felt a responsibility to pursue her claim, so future tenants would not be taken advantage of. Describing herself as “the most stubborn immigrant woman in the province,” Zaynab said, “I’m an immigrant but I had a lot of resources…. I’m 30, I have a master’s degree, I have a lot of advantages in that situation. But I didn’t know my rights or how to protect them. I imagine those students [who rented before her] were not getting their money back. So I pursued it all the way to the end… I probably could have eaten the $200, but for international students, that’s a lot of ramen.”
“Pursuing it all the way to the end” in Zaynab’s case meant first connecting online with Jenna Young, who regularly tweets advice on tenants’ rights, then filing a claim to get her deposit refunded. When that didn’t work, she went to the sheriff’s office and put a lien on the property.
Knowing her rights was also an issue for Michelle Hébert. In November 2020, she left her marriage and found herself needing to find a place within two weeks. Hébert, 50, is a provincial government employee and the author of a book on social work in the aftermath of the Halifax explosion. She’d been a homeowner for years, wasn’t familiar with tenants’ rights, and didn’t fully read her lease.
The rent on her place in the Hydrostone neighbourhood was $2,100 a month, and she paid half of that as a damage deposit. Hébert broke her lease early and moved out in May 2021. “I moved, it’s a pandemic, everything’s chaos, and I kind of forgot to follow up” on the security deposit she said.
When a friend asked her about the deposit, Hébert texted the landlord. “He didn’t get back to me for about a week, and it was oh, I must have forgotten. And then I had to wait a bit longer, and he said he was going to talk to his finance person, and it dragged on. It was a couple of months before I got anything.”
Although she found a new tenant who moved in the next day, Hébert said the company withheld $275 of her deposit because she broke the lease early. The money she did eventually get returned came by e-transfer. “There’s no reason that couldn’t have be done on the spot, within the hour after they did the inspection” on the day she moved out, she said.
“I just kept thinking that I was going to have this money, that it was going to be in my account. I had moving expenses, I was separated, I had a lot of things to take care of. I could handle it, but it was tighter than I had expected, Hébert said. “I thought God if this was me 20 years ago or I didn’t have this job, I would be in really big trouble.”
Speaking to “finance” is one delaying tactic landlords use. Tenants have also reported stalling tactics like requiring a self-addressed stamped envelope in order to return a damage deposit by cheque — even though rent was payable by automatic bank transfer.
Jenna Young says one of the hurdles tenants face is not knowing their rights. And knowing them is not enough. Renters need to make sure landlords know their tenants are familiar with the Residential Tenancies Act and its provisions. “One of my favourite hobbies is helping Nova Scotians whose landlords are breaking the law. If you’re not sure whether your landlord is doing something illegal, please don’t hesitate to send me a DM! I’d be glad to chat,” Young has said on Twitter. In late August, she wrote a thread outlining the rules around damage deposits.
“My personal experience is that a lot of Halifax landlords (especially on the peninsula, where there’s a high student population) assume you don’t know your rights,” Young wrote in a private message to the Examiner. “Helpfully reminding them goes a long way!”
She suggests including a paragraph along the following lines in any “notice to quit” letter sent to a landlord:
As per the Residential Tenancies Act of Nova Scotia, my security deposit of [$ Amount] must be returned to me within 10 days of [End of Lease Date]. You may send this to me by e-transfer at [Email Address] or by mail to [New Mailing Address]. If you have any concerns or wish to retain any part of this deposit, you will be required to file a Form J with the Residential Tenancy Director within 10 days of [End of Lease Date]. Please feel free to reach out to me at [Phone Number or Email Address] if you have any concerns.
Young said she makes sure landlords know she is aware of her rights and has never had any issues with damage deposits being withheld. But she said “historically, it’s the main issue people reach out to me for.” (Right now she is also getting a lot of questions about illegal rent increases, she said.)
Zaynab did eventually get her $200 back, plus the $350 or so in fees it cost her to enforce her rights. She moved out in August and was reimbursed the following February. She said she broke even, but “that doesn’t account for the hours I spent running around… It’s like a million hoops you have to go through. It was an ordeal.”
Zaynab was coached through the process by Young, but she noted that finding someone on Twitter to help is hardly “efficient” for most people, especially “for these international students, who may not have a robust network like I do.”
“The protections are there, but you have to jump through a million hoops. I think the onus to explain them should be on the landlord and they should pay the fees for any hoops you have to jump through,” Zaynab said. “The onus should be shifted from the tenant to the landlord.”