1. Deforestation Inc, Part 6
We’ve published Part 6 of Joan Baxter’s Deforestation Inc series. Baxter writes:
On August 15, 2003, Timothy Mapes, an editor with the Wall Street Journal, reported on the 2001 US$13.9 billion default by Asia Pulp & Paper that had left creditors — “including every major international bank, many pension funds and the U.S. government” — fuming.
At that time, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) was considered the crown jewel in the massive Sinar Mas business empire of Indonesia’s Wijaya (sometimes also Widjaja) family. Paper Excellence had not yet been born.
As reported in the third article of this series, creditors struggled for years to recoup what they were owed, and in the end, had little choice but to accept a restructuring agreement and take what one analyst calls “a haircut.”
Mapes wrote that creditors wanted repayment and “accused the family of shifting hundreds of millions of dollars from the business into offshore accounts.”
He also reported that APP’s largest creditor, the Indonesian government, had “played the most important role in the Widjajas’ resilience” and that the Indonesian government had “repeatedly sided with the family against other large creditors who have lobbied for outside scrutiny of APP’s cash flow and management.”
Then came this paragraph:
Frustrated lenders say the debt saga also holds a warning for Indonesia: Foreign investors may start to shun the country if the government doesn’t force APP to give its creditors a better deal. The ambassadors to Indonesia from the U.S., Japan, Canada and eight European countries wrote in a March letter to President Megawati Sukarnoputri that “failure to reasonably satisfy the creditors of APP will affect the confidence of future potential investors into Indonesia.” [emphasis added]
A letter signed by the Canadian ambassador to Indonesia’s president about Asia Pulp & Paper was something I wanted to see, given the family ties between APP and Paper Excellence.
APP is a conglomerate headed by Teguh Ganda Wijaya, who is the son of the late founder of the massive Sinar Mas Group that owns APP, and he is father to Jackson Wijaya, the owner of Paper Excellence, which owns the Northern Pulp mill and 420,000 acres of land in Nova Scotia.
It was a letter I wanted to see, but unfortunately, I couldn’t get it from Mapes, as he died in 2021.
So in June 2022, I filed an access to information request with Global Affairs Canada, asking for a copy of the March 2003 letter and for any related correspondence or documentation on APP’s 2001 default.
Half a year later, Global Affairs provided me with 56 pages of heavily redacted material related to my request. If the letter was there, there was no way of knowing.
This completes the series.
Baxter has done outstanding work, and I’m beyond happy to publish it.
2. Fixed-term leases
“A Halifax landlord is using fixed-term leases to evict multiple tenants and increase rents in their units by more than 25%,” reports Zane Woodford:
Peppermint Properties, owned by Louis Wolfson, lists a residential portfolio of 17 buildings on its website, all of them on the peninsula. The Halifax Examiner has spoken with five tenants at three of those buildings, all of whom have been notified their fixed-term leases won’t be renewed. Rents for their units are increasing 28 to 46%.
This item is written by Jennifer Henderson.
Last night, the NDP hosted a public meeting on housing in North End Halifax.
At the meeting, Halifax-Needham MLA Suzy Hansen said when the House of Assembly is recalled next week, the NDP will introduce legislation to make rent control permanent and “plug a loophole” to prevent landlords from using fixed-term leases to get around the cap on rent increases. That 2% cap is set to come off at the end of December.
“The vacancy rate in Halifax is 1%,” said Hansen. “We need permanent rent control and we need to close loopholes and we plan to do that.”
A north end Halifax tenant who introduced herself as Robyn told the meeting she feels she is “a victim” of a fixed-term lease.
“In September, the rent is being increased from $1,248 to $2,195 for the one bedroom apartment I’ve lived in for four years,” said Robyn. “That’s an 80% increase! The apartment is 500 square feet and does not include parking. I pay $80 a month to park the car at a lot around the corner.
Robyn’s apartment is owned by Louis Wolfson’s Peppermint Properties (the same company Zane Woodford reported on in item #2 above).
According to Woodford, Peppermint Properties’ tenants’ apartments are already being advertised at rents 30-45% higher than what they are paying now. Had the property owner renewed the leases instead of terminating them — which is also an option under the present legislation — the maximum rent increase would have been limited to 2%.
Property owners complain that the combination of three years of rent control and rising prices for electricity, oil, building materials, and insurance, makes their business unsustainable.
A unit that rents for a set period of time — whether it’s one, two, or three years — allows the owner to charge more for that unit after it is vacated. The new lease is not subject to the 2% annual rent cap and landlords argue this provision enables them to recoup some of their prior costs.
The other reason property owners like fixed-term leases is because it may be the only way they can evict a “tenant from hell” — a tenant who wilfully destroys property while failing to pay rent, or whose behaviour terrorizes their neighbours in the same building. This is a problem, too.
Whatever legislation the NDP introduces to outlaw fixed-term leases as a means to circumvent rent control will have to be drafted carefully.
Halifax Chebucto MLA and former NDP leader Gary Burrill said the key to prevent excessive rent increases and renovictions is sustained public pressure.
“The reason that we got the 2% rent cap was because of public pressure,” recalled Burrill. “The Liberal government of the time said we do not believe in the rent cap; we will not do it. And then one day, in November 2020, they announced that they would do it. Because there were demonstrations and the public was writing the premier.”
“And I think, the situation currently with the fixed-term lease, is like what it was 2.5 years ago with rent control,” continued Burrill. “The government does not want to plug this loophole but there is a crescendo of pain from people. So, we are going to introduce legislation that says like the way rent control works in other provinces such as B.C. and Manitoba, its effect cannot be circumvented by the use of fixed term leases”
As evidence of the need to fix the loophole, Burrill said rent went up an average of 9% in Nova Scotia last year despite legislation that was supposed to limit increases to only 2%. He blamed fixed-term leases.
Last night’s meeting also heard from Beth Hayward, the parent of a university student who is looking for a house to rent for her daughter and four roommates after their lease expires. Hayward said one home owner told her she already had 300 applicants.
Shauna, who is enrolled in a two-year social services program at the Nova Scotia Community College in Dartmouth, told the meeting about one-third of her class has dropped out because of the housing crunch. Others have moved back home with their parents because their part-time jobs aren’t enough to cover rent while attending NSCC five days a week.
Other speakers called on the government to build more public housing and do more to assist a growing population of homeless people.
Hansen told the audience 6,500 people are currently waiting for a subsidized apartment in public housing. The capital budget presented earlier this week does not include money to build any more of these units.
“The acting director of the African Nova Scotian Justice Institute says federal funding for the institute will go toward programming to help Black people in Nova Scotia better understand and assert their rights,” reports Matthew Byard:
On Wednesday, the federal Department of Justice announced it will spend $607,200 over three years for a Justice Partnership and Innovation Program.
The money will go to the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition (ANSDPAD) to hire a full-time lawyer, legal assistant, and legal support and research person to provide free independent legal information and advice to clients of the African Nova Scotian Justice Institute.
In an interview with the Halifax Examiner, Robert Wright said the funding will also be used to help educate Black people in Nova Scotia about their legal rights around issues such as housing, education, land and property, wrongful dismissal or harassment at the workplace, human rights claims, and police complaints.
Yesterday, Nova Scotia reported seven new deaths from COVID, recorded during the most recent reporting period, March 7-13.
The reporting of deaths lags, so none of the seven deaths occurred during the reporting period (that is, all occurred before March 7). There may have been COVID deaths during the reporting period, but they won’t be recorded until future reports.
As an example of the lagging reporting of COVID deaths, in the January monthly Epidemiologic Summary (issued Feb. 15), 27 deaths were reported for the month of January; Wednesday, that January death count was revised upward to 53.
The Epidemiologic Summary issued Wednesday also records 15 COVID deaths for the month of February. That figure will almost certainly also be revised upward next month.
Of the 15 deaths that we so far know occurred in February, 87% (13) were aged 70 years old and older, and 33% (5) were people living in a long-term care facility.
Through the pandemic, 807 Nova Scotians have died from COVID, 322 of whom have died since July 1, 2022.
Overall, people aged 70+ are 28 times more likely to die from COVID compared to people aged 50-69, and people who are unvaccinated or under-vaccinated are hospitalized and die at two times the rate as those who received a booster within 168 days.
The table above shows the hospitalization and death rates by age group, July 1, 2022 to February 28, 2023. Notably, only one of the 315 people who died from COVID in that period were younger than 50.
Also, during the March 7-13 reporting period, 28 people were hospitalized because of COVID (up from 15 the previous week).
Nova Scotia Health reported the current (as of Thursday) COVID hospitalization status (not including the IWK):
• in hospital for COVID: 13 (4 of whom are in the ICU)
• in hospital for something else but have COVID: 71
• in hospital who contracted COVID after admission to hospital: 54
Tuesday, Maclean’s published a real estate article by reporter Alex Cyr about a guy named Ian Urbina building a house on Prince Edward Island.
I was enraged by the article.
Ian Urbina is famous reporter, with works published by the New York Times, The Atlantic, and other big names in journalism, and he has turned his exposés of crimes on the high seas into a venture called the The Outlaw Ocean Project, which describes itself as “a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington D.C. that produces investigative stories about human rights, labor, and environmental concerns on the two thirds of the planet covered by water.”
Well, The Outlaw Ocean Project may be a non-profit, but judging by his purchase on P.E.I., Urbina is far wealthier than any reporter who deigns to join me at dive bars. Wrote Cyr:
He [Urbina] longed for a peaceful place near a body of water to think and work, and P.E.I.’s North Shore—battered in September by Hurricane Fiona but normally quiet and serene—appeared to fit the bill. So he gave into his curiosity and, despite never having set foot on the island, started shopping online for properties.
He found a 10-acre piece of land on the water near the eastern hamlet of Naufrage. From his research on Google Maps, he could tell the area would be quiet—a two-kilometre-long driveway separated his plot from the island’s network of paved roads that extended for 75 kilometres before reaching Charlottetown. The privacy appealed to him so much that he bought the land sight unseen, with plans to build a vacation home.
Last summer was Urbina’s first on P.E.I. He marvelled at the island’s resounding calm, the quaintness of Charlottetown and sunsets unencumbered by city lights. “What captivated me most was how few people there are,” he said. “It creates a deep quiet that makes it so easy to write and relax.”
Much of Cyr’s article is about the house Urbina had built on his secluded property, a $345,000 prefab box designed by the Nova Scotia company Lloyoll and transported to P.E.I., and which Cyr describes in the most horrid and sappy real estate lingo.
I’ve never met Urbina, but I immediately hated him, so I tweeted:
A “reporter” parachutes into a place he’s never visited before and fences off 10 acres of oceanfront land where he can be alone without having to deal with those pesky locals, has someone build a fancy house, so he can visit once or twice a year to write about, er, human rights.
Then I thought: what kind of asshole spends a half million dollars in search of seclusion and then talks to a national magazine about it? Couldn’t Urbina just rent a cottage the couple of weeks out of the year he plans to visit P.E.I. and shut the hell up about it? No one would even know he’s there.
So I was feeling all smug and went about my day. A couple of hours later, I realized I’d been played.
There’s an entire genre of real estate reporting that is specifically designed to induce rage. Toronto Life is famous for these pieces — articles in which a 20-something tells us anyone can buy a house but then 20 paragraphs in we learn their parents paid the down-payment and co-signed the loan, that sort of thing. Will it surprise you to learn that Alex Cyr, the author of the Maclean’s piece, is also an editor at Toronto Life?
The rage-inducing is intentional: it gets the article shared on social media, with people saying stuff like “can you believe these assholes?” and thousands more people click on the article, upping the all-important CPMs, the “cost per million impressions” on which advertising revenue is based.
The rage-inducing article has of late replaced SEO (search engine optimization) as the primary means of attracting eyeballs, as Google and other search engines don’t want people gaming their platforms but instead want publishers to pay them for higher placement in search results, so have taken steps to make SEO less rewarding.
(Google is a terrible search engine, precisely because it uses an advertiser-generated revenue model.)
Anyway, just something else to be aware of: if an article pisses you off, it’s probably doing so intentionally.
This is the world we live in. Everything, even our anger, is commodified.
For myself, I’m going to try to raise money the old-fashioned way, and just ask for it. Please subscribe.
Aggregate, Regional and Sectoral Implications of Transportation Costs (Friday, 2:30pm, Room 2184, McCain Building) — Sophie Osotimehin from Université du Québec à Montréal will talk
Stokes Seminar (Friday, 3:30pm, …
Violin Masterclass with Andrew Wan (Friday, 7:30pm, Room 406, Dalhousie Arts Centre) — more info here
In the harbour
10:00: AlgoTitan, oil tanker, sails from Imperial Oil for sea
10:30: Rossi A. Desgagnes, chemical tanker, moves from Irving to Imperial Oil
12:00: MSC Cornelia, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Sines, Portugal
12:30: Morning Cecilie, car carrier, sails from Autoport for sea
15:00: NYK Romulus, container ship, arrives at Bedford Basin anchorage from Antwerp, Belgium
16:30: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, sails from Fairview Cove for Saint-Pierre
18:30: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, sails from Pier 42 for St. John’s
19:00: Fairwind Legion, cargo ship, moves from Pier 9 to anchorage
19:30: Acadian, oil tanker, arrives at Irving Oil from Saint John
20:45: British Engineer, oil/chemical tanker, arrives at Inner Harbour anchorage from IJmuiden, Netherlands
The final report of the Mass Casualty Commission will be published later this month, and today I start preparing for the reporting on it. I’ll be glad when this is over.