An association is coming to help the NWT’s ‘fed up’ tenants
Annie Thrasher has been living with a broken window in Yellowknife’s Lanky Court apartment complex for more than six months.
Try as she might to keep out the cold with plywood and blankets, the apartment is frigid. Thrasher has resorted to keeping the oven on to help add heat, she said.
Over the years, Thrasher says she has struggled with asthma and pneumonia, and was recently diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – a condition often exacerbated by cold, dry air.
“I’ve contacted Northview and Yellowknife public housing multiple times and they just say that they’re aware of it, that there’s a work order in place, but it won’t be fixed until the spring,” she said.
“By then it will have been broken for 11 months.”
Northview did not return a request for comment. Lanky Court is home to 24 townhomes and 50 apartments owned by the company on the edge of downtown Yellowknife, tucked away in a cul-de-sac above the city’s main street, Franklin Avenue.
The NWT’s housing minister, Paulie Chinna, “cannot comment on specific client files,” spokesperson Agata Gutkowska said by email.
Despite laws in place requiring that vital services like heat to be fixed within 10 days, Thrasher has no choice but to try to survive in a freezing unit.
She receives financial assistance as she is disabled but is also supporting her son, she said. The money doesn’t go very far. As she spoke on the phone, she said she was making bannock doughnuts to sell that afternoon, money to cover other expenses.
“Shoot,” she said. “I think the oven just broke. The burner isn’t turning on… it’s just one thing after another in this place.”
A missing voice
Thrasher’s story is not new. But now, a resource is coming that aims to help renters like Thrasher navigate the legal and political difficulties that often come with tenancy in the Northwest Territories.
In theory, renters (and landlords) can contact the NWT Rental Office for unbiased information on their rights, and even file an application against their landlord for failure to comply with section 30 of the Residential Tenancies Act, which concerns repairs.
However, in practice, from April 2021 to March 2022 – despite reports indicating that NWT’s housing stock is crumbling – not a single tenant successfully obtained an order against their landlord relating to maintenance.
“I would note that while the rental office receives many inquiries from tenants regarding the landlord’s obligations under section 30 of the act, very few tenants follow through with making an application to a rental officer regarding those issues,” wrote Adelle Guigon, the NWT’s chief rental officer, in the office’s 2021-22 annual report.
“This is likely due to the amount of work the tenant would be required to do to provide reasonable evidence to support their claim.”
Northwest Territories landlords are 16 times more likely to file an application with the rental office against a tenant than vice versa, and three times more likely to be awarded a legal remedy.
Advocates in other provinces have concluded that simply providing information to tenants and landlords about the law is not enough.
“In Ontario, there is a hotline that people can call to hear about the law that’s run by the province, and that’s the landlord and tenant board general line,” said Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations or FMTA, a Toronto-based tenants’ rights group.
“Unfortunately,” Dent continued, “that line can only tell you what the law says. It can’t tell you any interpretations around that, it can’t tell you what tenants normally face, it can’t tell you the most common ways that landlords try to egregiously steal from you or force you out.”
Dent says organizations like his own, that expressly advocate for tenants, provide clearer advice and are better positioned to empower callers.
“Tenants don’t have money, they don’t have property, they don’t have assets, they don’t have lawyers, they don’t have lobby groups. Landlords have all of that,” said Dent.
“That’s why it’s so important that tenants have their own direct line to help them. When you don’t have services like this, you see rampant illegality, rampant disrespect for tenants, stealing, illegal evictions. And in my experience, that’s what tenants in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon are facing right now.”
Introducing an NWT association
Dent has been advising Lisa Thurber, who is working to create a similar service in the NWT.
“There is no tenant association, like there is in any other province across Canada, and we need one,” said Thurber.
Because NWT landlords can refuse to renew a lease without providing a reason, she said, renters are scared to cause too much trouble.
“Tenants in the Northwest Territories pay a huge amount of rent,” she said. “They’re living with the threat of eviction for requesting that landlords address the mould in their apartment, or the heat.
“So many seniors and those with disabilities can’t get in and out of their buildings, because they aren’t accessible… these are just basic human rights things.”
Earlier this year, Thurber began researching the concept of a tenants’ group. She says her NWT organization will take cues from southern groups like the FMTA but also adapt to the specific needs of the territory’s tenants. A virtual office and a phone line are set to be available by March 2023.
For Thurber, because most rental accommodation available in the territory is provided by either Northview or the territorial government, a third party is needed to properly address tenant concerns.
While Housing NWT is responsible for the territory’s public housing, she believes housing issues are often passed from department to department.
In a territory where all but one of the 19 elected MLAs owns a home or is a landlord (according to information provided by territorial politicians to Cabin Radio), Thurber says it’s easy to understand why tenants’ concerns can appear to be someone else’s problem.
“They have the ability to change the laws, they have the ability to enforce bylaws and laws,” she said. “And until one of them steps up and says, ‘Hey, Northview … we are literally shutting this building down and relocating tenants at your expense if you can’t fix these things,’ then nothing is going to change.”
‘Take pictures, send emails’
Thurber says Thrasher’s concerns are just one example of the dangers facing tenants at Lanky Court.
She has documentation relating to claims of cockroach infestations, mould, broken windows, and allegations that some residents were exposed to a toxic pesticide.
In the NWT’s legislature, multiple MLAs have sought answers about conditions in Lanky Court homes.
Richard Edjericon, the Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA, described a “deplorable infestation” of cockroaches and problems with mould in October.
At the start of November, Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby tabled a sample of Thurber’s emails regarding Lanky Court and questioned Chinna, the housing minister.
“We have a liability, as a government, to make sure that the housing that we’re putting public housing clients into is safe. From what I’m hearing, I don’t think Lanky is,” said Nokleby, asking Chinna if Lanky Court was passing relevant inspections and whether health officials had examined the buildings.
“Housing has been working very closely, I want to say, with Northview,” Chinna responded, “and I want to be very clear on the leases that we do hold with this third party and also holding them accountable. But not only that, Housing NWT is actually responding and we are working with these lease agreements that we do have and we are providing fair, adequate housing to our tenants here and throughout the Northwest Territories.”
Chinna promised to provide Nokleby with updates by email. As of Friday last week, none were understood to have arrived.
Thurber says she is starting a campaign for tenants’ collective bargaining rights, following a model known as Rent Strike Bargain in British Columbia.
“Tenants are fed up,” she said.
“They just want a safe place to raise their children and go to bed, and everybody has that right. We need collective action by tenants both against government and against their landlords.”
In the meantime, she urged tenants to document the problems they face.
“Take pictures. Send emails. File that application with the rental office. This will give us the data we need to advocate for you,” Thurber said.
“To landlords and agencies: we have rights, and we’re going to start to stand up for them. So try being a little more attentive to your tenants.”