In March 2019, Vanessa moved into a one-bedroom apartment at 1566 Robie Street, a classic wood house near Bliss Street in Halifax’s south end. The home was old, but its good bones showed through a lack of upkeep.
“The interior is what attracted me to that place,” says Vanessa, who only wanted to use her first name to avoid professional identification. “We had a furnace that was a little bit leaky, there was an old hole in the floor that I put a mat over and no one bothered it. It certainly could’ve used some work but it was not in disrepair by any means.”
When Vanessa first arrived, the building was owned by Tekvic Limited and run by Dartmouth-based Open Door Property Management. But in early 2021, Vanessa’s building as well as neighbouring 1560, 1568 and 1574 Robie Street were bought for $5.88 million by developer George Tsimiklis (Tsimiklis also owns GT Holdings, but provincial Land Registry records say he owns this property as an individual). In a phone interview with The Coast, George’s brother Steve (Stavros) Tsimiklis confirmed that George owns the properties, and Steve helps manage them. George also owns from 1560 to 1548 Robie, giving him control of the strip from Bliss Street to the middle of the block.
When the building sold, Vanessa says the previous owners assured her “nothing’s going to change, your lease is still the same, everything’s transferring over.” And things did stay the same at first, except for Vanessa and her partner transferring rent to Tsimiklis instead of the old management company. The terms of Vanessa’s lease meant it automatically renewed for another year on March 1, 2021, so it was a surprise when she got a call in August from Steve Tsimiklis.
“He told us that we were squatting there and that we had no lease, and that there’s no reason to be there,” she says. “Basically saying ‘we’re going to kick you out by the end of September.’”
That wasn’t the only call Steve Tsimiklis made in August. Ben, who requested only his first name be used, lived with his wife in the apartment above Vanessa. “I got a phone call from someone who didn’t really identify themselves, they didn’t make it clear who they were representing,” he says.
The caller first told Ben he needed to move out because the building was being demolished. Ben knew that at the time, the state of emergency made renovictions illegal. When he mentioned this, the caller changed tack, and told Ben that if he didn't agree to leave, the company would get an affidavit declaring the new owners were moving in.
Ben says the caller, who eventually identified himself as Steve Tsimiklis, “alternated between threats and pretending that he was doing us a favour.”
When Ben and his wife moved into the apartment in January 2019, neighbours warned they’d heard rumblings for years that a new development was in the works. “We assumed there would be some kind of due process there,” Ben says, but the HRM Centre Plan, approved in 2021, allows developers who follow its guidelines to build “by right,” skipping public consultation and council approval. Under the Centre Plan, much of Robie Street is zoned as “COR” or corridor, meaning George Tsimiklis or any other property owner along the corridor is permitted to build an 11-metre structure (about three storeys) with a 1.5-metre setback from the street.
Even though their lease was set to last until January 2022, when Steve called in August, Ben and his wife were offered free rent until mid-November if they agreed to leave by then. The offer was made on a Tuesday, and Ben was told he needed to give an answer by Thursday.
“There was clearly an intention by the person we were dealing with to use high-pressure scare tactics to get people to forego their rights and move quickly without appropriate advice,” he says. “He was very specific that I shouldn’t talk to the other neighbours to tell them about whatever offer we had, and it was a way of controlling the narrative.”
It’s not the first time George Tsimiklis, or his company GT Holdings, has been involved in controversy. In 2016, the company’s Evans Avenue buildings were shut down by the city for “unsafe living conditions” including bed bug and cockroach infestations. That same year, Steve Tsimiklis also began the demolition of a south end home while a tenant was still living in it.
But in terms of the Robie Street houses, Steve Tsimiklis says he didn’t do anything wrong because the tenants accepted his offers. “We negotiated with them basically to end [their leases] earlier for compensation,” he said. “There’s no renoviction.”
But according to Halifax law firm Stewart McKelvey and Nova Scotia's new policy on renovictions issued this spring, a renoviction still includes when "landlord and tenant come to a mutual agreement to end the lease due to a renovation."
Vanessa tried to fight for her right to stay in the apartment she’d had for more than two years. “This is a huge thing for us to move right now,” she remembers telling Tsimiklis in August. “It’s short notice and everything is more expensive.”
But she says it didn’t take long to realize that her new landlord had more power than her. “That’s when he started throwing in money, offering us money to leave,” she says. “He was like, ‘as long as you’re out by this day you won’t have to pay rent for September.’”
Vanessa says she went to the tenancy board, which confirmed her lease was valid, and she even approached a lawyer. “We could’ve stuck it out and stayed there, we could’ve fought him through the tenancy board,” she says. “But the way that he was talking to us, we were really concerned about being harassed while we were staying there.”
With few options left, Vanessa and her partner began looking for a new place to live in early September. “It was too stressful to deal with,” she says. They negotiated staying in their old apartment until October 15, moving out five months before their lease ended.
“It was really hard to find a place on such short notice,” she says. Eventually, the couple settled in the Hydrostone neighbourhood, but the rent is $2,000—a full $400 more than the Robie Street apartment. “It’s a big financial adjustment, but at least it’s something,” Vanessa says.
Ben and his wife also decided not to fight the renoviction. They took the offer for free rent until November, and eventually left Robie Street, moving to an apartment further downtown off Spring Garden Road. “It’s just not worth the stress,” he says. “If we did put up any kind of resistance, the offer would be completely off the table and we’d have nothing.”
As of March 20, 2022, renovictions are permitted again, but come with some new protections for tenants. The tenant must be given at least three months notice, be compensated between one and three months rent, and a DR5 form should be filled out and signed by both parties.
The empty houses along Robie Street came down in early April. Downtown Halifax councillor Waye Mason did not respond to a request for comment from The Coast, but in a March 31 newsletter to constituents, Mason said: “While development staff have been in conversation with the owner of the Robie and Bliss properties there are no plans or applications to date.”
Steve Tsimiklis says Mason’s right, there’s nothing planned for the site yet, but any eventual construction will follow the Centre Plan. “We’re going to meet all the rules, all the criteria of the land use bylaw,” he said. “We’re not asking for any development agreements, they’re not permitted.”
Vanessa said it was sad to see her old apartment come down. After all, its history was one of the things that drew her to rent it in the first place. “It was so nice and open; all those little alcoves; the old house feel; it had so much character,” she says. “I think that’s the reason most of us were living there, the aesthetic and the atmosphere in those houses is just really, really special.”