In a fix

Erica Butler turns on a home improvement show.

Angela Weal has been trying for five months to get her front and back doors fixed. Despite repeated promises, her landlord simply wouldn’t do the repairs. So Weal went to the city and the province for help. After months of phone calls, a hearing, and three separate orders to repair (all of which expired, with no follow-up action taken), city staff let her know this month that they would fix her doors and make her landlord pay later — but not until next spring. “We’re into November now and it’s supposed to be snowing so they can’t change the doors,” says Weal, exasperated. “You can see daylight through them.”

Housing standards enforcement in the SuperCity is handled by a mess of departments and agencies whose various powers and jurisdictions would stump even the most bureaucratically minded SuperCitizen. There is the director of Residential Tenancies, who oversees the provincial act by the same name. At the city level are fire services and bylaw enforcement, each responsible for enforcing various bylaws pertaining to housing conditions. None of them have been able to get Weal a solid door for the winter.

“I jumped through all of the hoops,” says Weal, “and now the city has the right to come in and make all the repairs. But not until April 30, 2006, due to inclement weather conditions.”

“That’s not really helpful for a tenant in her situation,” say Eva Curry of the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty. “We need things dealt with a little sooner than that. There are people in apartments in worse repair than hers.”

Last week, Weal and Curry asked city councillors to take a look at fixing the system. At the crux of their proposal is the idea of rent in trust, in which income from a property under an order to repair goes to a trust account managed by the Residential Tenancies office. Once a landlord completes the repairs in question, they get their money back.

It’s a solution that makes a lot of intuitive sense. “Not getting their rent is a huge incentive to get landlords to do something,” says Curry. “To be honest,” says Weal, “when I entered this process I thought that’s where it was headed. I just couldn’t believe this is not how it works.”

The funny thing is, it is how it works. The Residential Tenancies director has the power to order payment of rent in trust, but they just don’t seem to do it. Tenants need to apply specifically to pay their rent in trust, and prove their case at a hearing. Gerald Hashey, director of Residential Tenancies for Nova Scotia, says people just don’t apply. “I could go through a thousand applications and not see a single one for payment of rent in trust.”

That could be because tenants are being discouraged to apply, says Eva Curry. When Angela Weal tried to apply to pay her rent in trust, she was told she was wasting her time and money, and her application was not accepted. According to Hashey, that’s not how it should work. “When we accept an application we try to give some information, but we can’t deny an application,” says Hashey.

Curry would like to see mechanisms like rent in trust kick in more automatically, “rather than see it dependent on someone’s goodwill. If a landlord fails to respond to orders to repair, we’d like to see some penalties go into effect. We’re hoping council will take the lead in working with the province to make these changes.”

As for her rusting doors, Weal is not hopeful. “I don’t seriously expect anything to ever happen to this place,” says Weal, “but if I can make change somewhere else then that’s great.”

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