Op-Ed: the silent housing crisis in Saint John

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This article was written in collaboration with UNBSJ student, Cassandra Evans-Ketch. The Baron was given permission to publish names and addresses by the interviewee.

Housing has been a hot topic in Canada, particularly in New Brunswick, for as long as I can remember.

ACORN NB/Website

It has recently become an even more acute issue for Canadians and will likely be a key campaign point come election time, both federally and provincially.

Generally, and quite rightly, the conversation centres around affordable housing. However, here, we will discuss a different, albeit intimately related, issue: the quality and maintenance of rental properties.

While these issues may seem vastly different, you cannot talk about affordable housing without including rented housing in the conversation.

As I am sure many are aware, renting can be an arduous process with many considerations. Housing affordability is at the top of the list, but safety, security and comfort are also usually considered priorities. So, let’s discuss the people, specifically the companies that have undertaken the provision of rental properties. 

Let’s reflect

Now, dear reader, I have a task for you. Stifle your groans and stay with me, for it is a simple task; ask anyone you know if they have had a bad experience with rental housing. Next, ask if a property management company managed that apartment, and ask which company.

Now, dear reader, did you hear horror stories of pest control issues and health and safety hazards?

I, personally, would bet that you did. These are rhetorical questions, and I am making some assumptions here, but I am basing them on the account I was supplied with for this article.

The story of Cassandra Evans-Ketch

Speaking of, from here on out, we will be exploring the experience of my colleague who inspired this piece, Cassandra Evans-Ketch. Cassandra had a troubling encounter with a local property management company in New Brunswick, Canada Homes For Rent.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I have personally had a bad experience with this company, so my own opinions of them do have a bias.

The short version of my story is that I rented an apartment across the hall from one with bedbugs; I was never informed and only found out when management placed notices on all the tenant’s doors a week after I moved in.

I ended up getting another apartment and did not have much pushback on getting my damage deposit back. However, Cassandra has a horror story that mine does not compare to. 

Background

Cassandra and her partner were looking for a place for this month, September 2022. They found a three-bedroom place in the North End of Saint John. It was close to work and school, had the space they needed, and, crucially, was within budget.

The apartment is at 12 Kennedy Place in the old North End, sometimes known as Indiantown.

12 Kennedy Place advertisment. Zumper/Website

The couple viewed the apartment on August 25 with the president of Canada Homes for Rent, Jeff Murray. However, they were required to complete a post-dated pre-occupancy inspection form before inspecting the unit thoroughly.

They were also required to pay the damage deposit and the first month prior to inspecting the place.

Cassandra and her partner felt uneasy about this process but ultimately decided to go ahead and look at the unit because they required housing and didn’t have the luxury of time.

On August 25, the day of their first viewing, the previous tenant was still occupying the unit, which limited Cassandra and her partner’s ability to adequately inspect the property.

Cassandra noted that with the tenant still living in the building, it was difficult and awkward to look around, so they did not “dig around too much.” She also commented that all the unit doors were left open upon their arrival. After getting the keys, she discovered that the doors did not close adequately because the building had shifted so much over the years.

At this point, it is essential to note that Jeff did not mention any pest issue and certainly nothing about rats. 

On September 1, Cassandra got the keys to the apartment and went in to do a proper, thorough inspection and a deep cleaning of the property before moving in.

At no point did anyone from Canada Homes for Rent offer to walk through the apartment with them. During this cleaning, she noted the telltale signs of a rodent infestation which eventually led her to a shelf in the bathroom.

Initial concerns

(Cassandra Evans-Ketch/Signs of a rodent infestation)

Upon closer inspection, she realized that the bottom shelf could be moved, and when she lifted it, she found an active rat nest. Cassandra has asthma, and as a fellow person with asthma (however mild) myself, I can’t imagine the reaction it would have caused.

According to Cassandra and her partner, upon removing that shelf, she immediately had to vacate the premises because of an impending asthma attack.

Upon closer inspection, the couple found that rats had infested the property. They also found evidence of furnace fumes finding their way into the living space and an ant infestation.

Termination of lease

Cassandra and her partner immediately called and emailed the Canada Homes for Rent team, who, while being pleasant, were unhelpful in resolving their issues. The couple decided that this apartment was no longer an option and immediately gave notice to terminate the newly signed lease without ever spending a night in their apartment.

Canada Homes for Rent has yet to return the couple’s damage deposit, stating that they could not rent the unit for September and are therefore entitled to keep the deposit. This issue is currently under review.

However, Cassandra believes, and I agree, that the issues they encountered with the apartment were outside of their control and immediate danger to their health and safety, especially for Cassandra.

Moreover, we can prove that Canada Homes for Rent was aware of the issue for months with previous tenants complaining and even vacating the premises for exactly the same issue that Cassandra and her partner did. 

Previous tenants

The Baron has obtained email exchanges with a previous tenant, including their termination of the lease stating a rodent infestation, an unreliable refrigerator, and the sewage smell as key reasons for the termination.

Interestingly though, when Cassandra emailed Jeff and others about these issues, she was told that they were unaware and “would have the issues resolved immediately”. This statement becomes laughable though when one reads through the previous tenant’s termination email and see that Canada Homes for Rent appears to have an issue with making sure necessary repairs and maintenance are made.

The termination letter from the previous tenant. Cassandra Evans-Ketch

The termination letter of the previous tenant, who we are not naming because of a fear of retaliation, highlights the lack of communication and a pattern of maintenance requests being filed, a preliminary inspection taking place, and then no further action on said issue occurs.

This pattern shows at the very least, a lack of responsibility for important repairs and maintenance on behalf of Canada Homes for Rent, but more importantly it points to a lack of honesty and integrity because the company had this letter outlining all of the issues with the unit weeks before showing the same apartment to Cassandra and her partner.

Speaking up against Canada Homes for Rent

So, the question is: why did they show a unit with an ongoing rat and ant infestation, with a fridge that was unreliable, costing previous tenants hundreds of dollars a month? Now at this point, we must note that Canada Homes for Rent has denied all allegations of wrongdoing and insists that they take these matters seriously and address them in a timely manner, however there are more accounts of poor management relating to this company and it does not take much sleuthing to find them. 

Canada Homes for Rent/Website

Canada Homes for Rent has a 1.8-star rating on google reviews from 55 reviews, and many of those reviews echo the same kind of lax maintenance, even when it is an issue of health and safety, as well as similar stories of deceit and omitted details. On Facebook, the company has a better score of 3.3 stars, but we still find similar accounts of mismanagement there as well.

All of these accounts highlight behaviour that borders on negligence, stories of pest issues that have serious health consequences to simpler things such as failing to provide sand or salt for walkways during the winter. So now, dear reader, I want to ask, why does this happen?

What is the core issue?

This isn’t a simple question, but I will try to provide some insight into the situation. The fact of the matter is that this is not an isolated issue. Cassandra’s story is echoed by many others that have problems with Canada Homes for Rent. However, this issue is more significant still than one bad company: this issue is systemic.

The question is, what incentive do companies have to keep apartments in good condition for tenants?

In my view, there are a few reasons: to ensure tenants are happy and to avoid tenant turnover, to ensure the building will remain a profit-generating tool for as long as possible, and to prevent public relations issues.

Rentals.ca/Website

I believe that a property management company like Canada Homes for Rent, which does not own many buildings, manages them for their owners, so as long as they are keeping them rented most months and owners are seeing a healthy profit, they have no real incentive to want to keep tenants in place, especially as their pricing model entitles them to half of the first month’s rent for every tenant they bring in.

This business also means that they do not need to worry about the longevity of the buildings because they do not own them and can therefore shift blame for maintenance issues to the owners.

What can we do about this?

For those who deal with homelessness and subpar housing, sometimes it isn’t an issue of tightening budgets or cutting out luxuries: it’s “a question of food or rent?” Cassandra and her Partner are out nearly $2,500, a sum that likely means nothing to Canada Homes for Rent but is months’ worth of food and clothes for this young couple. 

I think Cassandra and her contemporaries have the right idea: landlord licensing could be a systemic intervention that will likely benefit all tenants in Saint John while minimally cutting back on profit for the companies involved.

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

I highlight this issue to point out how deeply intertwined. This is with the world we know today. If we want to make changes, they need to be systemic and targeted at changing the broader, global economic system that prioritizes profit over people.

Keep an eye out for our article about the upcoming protest. Try to help do your part to create better, more equitable, and fair housing conditions for everyone. This issue will likely affect us all, if not personally like Cassandra, through a loved one or friend.