It’s well known around Halifax that undergraduate students are financially naïve –especially when it comes to dealing with landlords.
Whether you’re away from home for the first time, or maybe just strapped for cash, finding a cheap place to live can be treacherous. It’s all fair game for the landlords in this city, and before you can say “can I get that in writing?” you’re spending your night scraping mold off your walls.
If you’re feeling frustrated by your living situation, it might be a good idea to keep one eye on the municipal election happening on Oct. 15.
In Halifax’s District 7, spanning the south end of the city to downtown, candidates are proposing a number of measures to strengthen tenants’ rights.
City counselors have a real influence over the legislation that governs how landlords are allowed to act, and how they’re punished.
Regulating landlords has become a hot-button issue this election: Halifax’s South End has no shortage of century-old houses in disrepair, not to mention converted basement apartments, which are becoming a common sight downtown. District 7’s incumbent, Waye Mason, points to the progress he’s made so far as city councillor.
“One thing we’ve done in the past few months is we’ve replaced the minimum standards bi-laws. That’s strengthened the rules around minimum safety and increased the penalties for landlords”
Mason says these changes could set the stage for even stricter regulations, such as new by-laws requiring all landlords to be licensed by the city.
One of Mason’s competitors, former District 7 city councillor Sue Uteck, thinks that Mason’s reforms don’t go far enough. While she agrees that new regulations should be a “combination of licensing landlords and municipal inspection”, she wants the city to reinstate rent control measures. Rent control – which sets limits on the amount a landlord can raise the rent – was abandoned by the city in 1993.
But strengthening tenants’ rights might not be as simple as imposing stricter regulations. Vincent Calderhead of Dalhousie Legal Aid says that while landlord licensing and rent control could protect vulnerable tenants, city council needs to make landlords responsible for health and safety-related closures.
“The city needs to use its powers to enact bylaws that would impose liability on landlords – not just fix their properties – but also to require landlords to cover the cost of temporary housing for tenants who have been left homeless when the city closes buildings for health or safety reasons”
Calderhead points out the fact that many tenants are in the desperate situation of having already paid their rent a month in advance. With no money and nowhere else to go, they end up suffering for the crimes of their landlords.
Reform is further complicated by the fact that by-law enforcement is a complaint-driven process. For the system to work, tenants need to know exactly what the responsibilities of their landlords are.
But the issue of educating people about their rights remains a gray-zone. At present, the responsibility for informing tenants of their rights tends to flip back and forth between the city and other private and civil organizations.
Dominick Desjardins – another contender for the District 7 council seat- thinks that more could be done to inform tenants.
“Students need to know what their rights are, and I definitely think universities have a role to play in education.”
While education measures at universities may be important, it’s hard to deny that Halifax needs a more cohesive plan.
Calderhead thinks more could be done to help educate the public, especially those who are economically vulnerable.
“The city could develop a tenant’s rights manual in collaboration with tenants groups, and ensure that when landlords begin a new tenancy, they provide every new tenant with the handbook”
Challenging a landlord might seem like a grueling bureaucratic process, but it can sometimes be as simple as calling up the municipal building inspector. By partnering with civil groups to create accessible resources, city councillors could potentially stop abuses before they happen.
Ultimately, Calderhead thinks that if tenants aren’t put in a better position, they’ll continue to suffer at the hands of abusive landlords. The real victims won’t be students, but those on government assistance, who struggle with the rising cost of housing.
“For the poorest of the poor in Nova Scotia—those people in receipt of social assistance—shelter allowances haven’t gone up in a decade. In fact, for single, disabled people who must rely on social assistance, their shelter allowance hasn’t been increased in 15 years. Leaving housing affordability to the market simply hasn’t worked for way too many tenants.”