Neena Brostowski says she’s been waiting four years for Michael Lawen to return her security deposit.
The Dartmouth-based wedding photographer was a tenant of Lawen’s between 2017 and 2018, while she and her then-roommate were students at Dalhousie and NSCC’s Akerley campus. For Brostowski at the time, the location was great: One house in from the corner of South and Robie Streets, it was close to downtown, a jaunt from the Halifax Public Gardens and down the road from the Seaport Farmers’ Market. But the apartment—and her experience with Lawen—left Brostowski with a sour taste.
“It was a weird experience,” she says.
Brostowski is one of at least a dozen former tenants of Lawen’s who say he’s withheld payment, dodged phone calls, broken tenancy promises and—in one alleged instance—become violent when confronted about returning money. (Most of these claims have not been tested in court. Lawen is not facing any active criminal charges, nor, to The Coast’s knowledge, is he involved in any current civil claims against him in relation to tenancy disputes.)
And while Brostowski has given up on getting her $700 security deposit back, she hopes her story can serve as a warning to others.
“No matter how desperate you are to live there, it’s not worth it,” she tells The Coast.
Mould and mixed messages
In hindsight, Brostowski says, the move-in day should have been the first indication of what she and her roommate were getting into.
“The toilet had mould in it,” she says. “There was a bunch of hair all around the floor… like, wipe your finger, and it was dirty.”
Brostowski brushed it off, but it didn’t take long for things to escalate. One day, within the first few months of their tenancy, she came home to a letter from Halifax Water. It was a warning: The utility was shutting off water service to the building.
Panicked, she called Halifax Water.
“I was like, ‘That doesn't make any sense. I've been paying my rent on time.’ And they said that the landlord hadn't been paying the water bill.”
Brostowski phoned Lawen, who resolved the issue, but it stuck in her mind as a “little bit of a red flag.”
Before long, that was the least of her problems.
Overcharges and online horror stories
Ryder was another Lawen tenant, who rented a one-bedroom apartment near the Emera Oval for a year. (At their request, we’ve changed their name to protect their identity.) They say they always paid their rent on time and kept the place clean. But irregularities started after they moved in: On Ryder’s first rent billing, which they paid by pre-authorized deposit, they say Lawen overcharged them by $25. They called him about it, and Lawen sent them $25 back. According to Ryder, Lawen blamed the error on the bank and promised it wouldn’t happen again.
“And it continued for about four months,” Ryder tells The Coast.
Frustrated by their experience with Lawen, Ryder turned to Reddit to see if anyone else had shared similar experiences with him. Stories poured in with claims of faulty appliances, unmaintained fire systems and prolonged battles to retrieve unreturned money. One Reddit user replied that Lawen had bought their building around 2014 and had promised they wouldn’t get evicted, only to change his mind and give two weeks notice. (“I was homeless for two months,” they wrote.) Another claimed Lawen threw a chair at them after they confronted him about their unreturned deposit. (“I had a feeling he'd escalate things so I had my phone recording in my pocket. He did cave and wrote my [cheque] after telling him I had recorded our little interaction,” they wrote.)
Most of the above allegations against Lawen have neither been tested in court nor with the Residential Tenancies Program’s dispute resolution process. But numerous former tenants of Lawen’s spoke with The Coast, both on- and off-record, to share their experiences of having him as a landlord—and attested to unsafe living conditions, difficulties reaching Lawen when they voiced concerns and issues with receiving their security deposits.
“I was like, ‘That doesn't make any sense. I've been paying my rent on time.’ And they said that the landlord hadn't been paying the water bill.” - Neena Brostowski, former tenant
We reached out to Lawen by phone and email several times over the course of three weeks for comment on whether he hadn’t repaid any former tenants—and if so, why.
Lawen told us by phone that if any of his former tenants didn’t receive their deposit, “there would have been a reason why,” and that tenants can always appeal to Residential Tenancies if they have a complaint. (Per Nova Scotia’s Residential Tenancies Act, a landlord can keep part or all of a security deposit as compensation for “outstanding rent” or expenses incurred from tenants causing “damage to residential premises”—but a landlord has to have the tenant’s permission in writing. Otherwise, they have to return the full deposit within 10 days of the lease’s end.)
When pressed about other claims tenants have made against him, Lawen told The Coast, “I’ve got nothing to say,” and “you’re just following bullshit talk.
“Don’t call me anymore,” he said. Then he hung up.
Tenants went without water for nine days
Brostowski isn’t the only one of Lawen’s tenants to face water issues. In 2020, residents of a five-unit apartment building at 85 Evans Avenue went without water for nine days in the middle of July after being informed their water would be shut off because of an apparent “electrical leak,” according to a CBC News story from the time. The Fairview apartment residents had already been served eviction notices earlier in the month, resident Stephen Cluett told CBC reporter Cassidy Chisholm.
“I cried myself to sleep last night because I couldn't wash my floors because they're all sticky [from the heat],” Cluett said at the time. “That's how my life is. It's miserable.”
The CBC story doesn’t list Lawen—or any landlord—by name. But The Coast obtained provincial land registration records that list the Evans Avenue address as belonging to 3335629 Nova Scotia Limited: a company that, according to Nova Scotia’s joint stock registry, is directed by Lawen. The company bought the Fairview property in April 2020, records show—three months before tenants were told they had to leave by August 1.
The Coast emailed and left a voicemail with Lawen to ask if the CBC story was accurate—and if so, why the water had been shut off, and why tenants had been served an eviction notice. Lawen has not responded to either of The Coast’s inquiries.
‘He was really careless’
“As soon as you guys are out, I’m jacking the rent up on this place.”
Those are the words Emily recalls Lawen telling her boyfriend when they were getting ready to move out of a two-bedroom apartment Lawen owned on St. Margarets Bay Road.
Emily, who asked that her last name not be used, tells The Coast she was a tenant of Lawen’s from 2017 to 2019 while she was an undergraduate at Dalhousie. She, too, says she had trouble getting her security deposit back—and says it took two weeks of “calling him incessantly” and eventually threatening to go to the Residential Tenancies director before it was returned.
Emily remembers Lawen as a “careless” landlord. Twice, she says, her unit’s propane-supplied heat shut off in the middle of winter, even though it was meant to be included in their rent. The temperature in the unit dropped to 10 degrees.
“Either Michael or [his] employee, whoever was responsible for contacting the propane company to refill the tanks, like, he just didn't do it,” she tells The Coast. (We asked Lawen by email what happened with Emily’s heat. He hasn’t responded.)
A similar scenario happened to Brostowski. She and her roommate had been promised heating was included as part of their $1,250/month rent. But as she recalls, “there wasn’t any actual heat source.”
She asked Lawen about it, who replied the apartment had hot water baseboard heating.
“But when we looked, it looked like there was just a plastic hot water tube running through a pre-existing electric baseboard.”
That proved pesky come winter. Brostowski says she and her partner bought two space heaters to keep the place warm, but they couldn’t run them both in the same room, “because the power would trip.”
They slept in their socks and piled five blankets atop the regular bed sheets. They tried reporting the issue to Lawen on at least two separate occasions, but “nothing was ever done,” Brostowski says. Emails to Lawen inquiring about heat went unanswered. (So, too, did The Coast’s email asking for Lawen’s recollection of what happened with Brostowski’s heating.)
“We were constantly cold,” Brostowski says. “You could not walk around [the apartment] without being fully clothed.”
Complex business structure
It is unclear how many rental units Lawen operates within the Halifax Regional Municipality. The Coast asked Lawen by email, but he hasn’t replied. (There are several real estate groups bearing the Lawen name in Halifax; Michael Lawen’s businesses are not affiliated with the Lawen Group, nor with Dexel or Paramount Management.)
Land records obtained by The Coast list 16 properties, assessed at a combined $9.95 million, as tied to Lawen or one of his three businesses. Seven of those properties are tied up in an estate battle between Lawen and his sisters. Two of those businesses have no public name beyond their company number. A third, Cornerstone Developments Ltd., claims on LinkedIn to provide “client-focused residential construction solutions.”
Several of Lawen’s former tenants—Ryder included—say they largely dealt with Lawen through a third-party property management company, Essence Property Management and Consulting.
When The Coast reached out to Essence Property, a person identifying themselves as Jack answered and replied there was “no affiliation with Michael Lawen.”
Public joint stock company records show, however, that Essence Property is helmed by Jack Lawen—who, according to several tenants The Coast spoke to, is Michael’s son. (A public Facebook profile photo of Jack Lawen’s shows him posing with Michael at a high school football game.) Essence Property shares a registered address with two of Michael’s businesses. Its website also lists two businesses operated by Michael as its “biggest clients” and boasts of managing 200 residential units across the HRM. Jack Lawen’s LinkedIn also lists him as a property manager with Cornerstone—the same company where Michael serves as director and president.
Michael Lawen has been found owing in residential tenancy disputes before.
Theresa Plumb took her issues with Lawen to the director of Nova Scotia’s Residential Tenancies Program—and won—while she was a tenant of his from 2018 to 2020.
“He’s the worst landlord I’ve ever had,” Plumb tells The Coast.
A naval warfare officer with the Royal Canadian Navy, Plumb was stationed at CFB Halifax and was looking for a place to live nearby. She found a unit at 2213 Brunswick Street—only, in her initial viewing, she noticed what looked like water damage on the living room ceiling. She brought it up with Lawen, who, she says, told her not to worry about it. (The Coast emailed and asked Lawen about Plumb’s claims, but he didn’t respond.)
She mentioned the damage again in late November the following year, when water began to leak from the ceiling after a rainstorm. Lawen promised he would have it fixed “early the following week,” but Plumb says weeks passed without progress—during which time, plaster from the ceiling had begun crumbling and falling onto her couch.
Lawen sent a maintenance worker on Dec. 11, 2019, but Plumb says “nothing was done.” According to testimony from the residential tenancy officer’s ruling, Lawen promised the leak would be fixed by Dec. 16. But the ceiling wasn’t fixed until Jan. 9, 2020—47 days after Plumb had reported the leak.
“He basically didn't fix anything or do anything for about two months, until I had building [code inspectors] come into my apartment, and they threatened to fine him if he didn't do anything,” she tells The Coast.
Plumb asked Lawen if he would reimburse her for part of her rent—“because I didn’t have a third of my unit to use, and my couch got ruined,” she says. Plumb recalls Lawen offered $100 off the next month’s rent, but nothing more. So, she applied to the Residential Tenancies Program’s director and asked for compensation for lost vacation days, and time and money spent cleaning the unit. The director agreed and ruled Lawen owed Plumb $531.15.
That hearing was in March 2020, eight months before Nova Scotia introduced a temporary 2% rent cap to limit the amount landlords could raise rents between terms. Lawen finally paid Plumb in May 2020, she says. According to Plumb, he also informed her that her rent would increase from $1,200/month to $1,450/month.
Potential legislation change could impact landlord-tenant disputes
Hannah Wood has seen scores of tenants face issues with getting their security deposits back from landlords. As co-chair of ACORN’s Halifax Peninsula chapter, an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income people facing housing, pay and disability concerns, she has lobbied for more rigorous tenant protections within Nova Scotia’s legislation—and was part of the push for the province’s temporary 2% rent cap.
She tells renters to document every interaction with their landlords, large and small.
“In relationships with landlords, you are at a rights disadvantage. And you need to treat the situation that way from the beginning,” she tells The Coast. That’s because, as she argues, the onus is “entirely on tenants to fight to get their security deposits back,” whereas there is “next to no onus on landlords to prove, track or provide receipts for the supposed costs they've incurred.”
Tenancy disputes in Nova Scotia, when they can’t be mutually resolved, are settled through the Residential Tenancies Program’s director. That process can be overburdensome for claimants, Wood argues: Not only does it require time and funds (it costs $31.15 to file a claim with the tenancy board), it also requires that applicants are able to serve a notice of the dispute to the other party in-person—an immediate problem for student renters who might only be in Halifax for eight months of the year.
Even if a claimant wins their dispute, they aren’t guaranteed reimbursement. That’s because, as Bedford South MLA Braedon Clark tells The Coast, any rulings the Residential Tenancies Program’s director makes are difficult to enforce. There are no provincial landlord registries that prevent unscrupulous landlords from renting to other tenants. (There are no registries for tenants either, it should be noted.) Even small claims court rulings can be appealed. Claimants can ask the Sheriff’s Office to get involved, but that comes with additional costs. And if a debtor can’t pay at all, there’s not much else a claimant can do.
“What we’ve found is that over the past few decades—really 25 to 30 years—there’s really been no enforcement [in tenancy disputes],” Clark says. “The police aren’t really in charge, the Residential Tenancies [Program] isn’t really in charge, small claims court isn’t really in charge.”
That could change, if Clark gets his way. Last week, the Nova Scotia Liberal Party’s shadow housing minister introduced a private member’s bill to amend the Tenancies Act by creating a so-called “Enforcement and Compliance Unit” to handle matters where landlords or tenants break the rules.
Clark envisions a system akin to Ontario’s where, if one party is found guilty of wrongdoing, the enforcement unit can levy fines and garnish wages “to actually enforce an order… so if your landlord is withholding $700 illegally, you can actually get that money back.”
That bill still faces an uphill battle. Before it would become law, it would need to pass a second and third reading—a process which could take days, weeks, upwards of a month or never pass at all—but Clark says he’s heard support for the idea from both tenants and landlords.
“When you find a situation where people who are often on separate sides of an issue actually agree, that's usually a sign that something needs to be done.”
‘So many horror stories’
Brostowski doesn’t hold much hope of getting her $700 back. She figures she sent “about 14 emails” and tried calling Lawen “multiple times” in the months after her tenancy ended, but she couldn’t get a hold of him.
“He just turned into a ghost,” she says.
Emily counts herself as one of the lucky ones. She’s moved to a new unit where the landlords are “really nice people.” They look after the place, she says, and the rent is “pretty good.” But she wants to see change within the HRM.
“I’ve heard so many horror stories from so many people about so many different landlords, and someone has to do something about this—like, this is just not sustainable. And it's not fair,” she tells The Coast. “It’s really frustrating, and it’s really upsetting.”
Ryder, too, has moved on—but they also want to warn other tenants to look out for themselves.
“Be aware that it can happen.”Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story noted that tenancy dispute hearings in Nova Scotia were settled in-person. Telephone hearings have been available since 2018. The Coast regrets the error.