'Dear Harry, please give us our half-month’s rent back'

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A Yellowknife lawyer says the landlord of the Hay River highrise may owe his displaced tenants money – not the other way around – contrary to a newspaper advertisement he placed this week.

The building’s residents have been unable to go home since March 15, when a fire broke out on the 11th floor.

In his first public communication since the fire, landlord Harry Satdeo asked tenants to "please square up on their dues" and provide written notice if they planned to terminate their lease.

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But Caroline Wawzonek, of law firm Dragon Toner in Yellowknife, told Cabin Radio the provisions of the Northwest Territories’ Residential Tenancies Act bear little resemblance to Satdeo's ad.

“Technically what happens is, once there's a fire, the contract between the landlord and the renter or tenant is what we call frustrated … meaning it can't be performed," said Wawzonek.

"The person can't live there and the landlord can't provide the home, so the agreement that they had between them is now essentially deemed to be done."

Wawzonek said if people had prior obligations to pay rent up then those still exist – but Satdeo owes his tenants their security deposits and half a month’s rent for the last two weeks in March, when "he could no longer provide them the home that he promised to provide."

“The ad makes it sound as though tenants have some obligations, one-sidedly, towards the landlord,” she said.

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“But what’s striking to me is there's actually obligation going in the other direction as well.

“Maybe the tenants need to take out an ad and say, 'Dear Harry, please give us our half month’s [rent] back.'"

Satdeo did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Cabin Radio.

Wawzonek explained that in normal circumstances, when a tenant’s lease ends, the onus would be the landlord to inspect the apartment, give notice if they planned to hold on to the security deposit, and prove why they had made that decision.

As Satdeo cannot fulfil his obligations, Wawzonek's immediate reaction is that the tenants stand a pretty good chance of getting their security deposit back.

Satdeo's advertisement suggested he hoped the building would be once again inhabitable within two months.

However, because the fire's impact essentially means the leases have been automatically terminated, Wawzonek says tenants wishing to remain in their apartment would need to enter new lease agreements – and may not get their same apartment back if they choose to live in the highrise again.

She suggested if tenants want their half-month’s rent and security deposit back, they should inform Satdeo as soon as possible.

Why was the building not insured?

Satdeo reportedly did not have insurance for the highrise, and Wawzonek said there is nothing in the Residential Tenancies Act that requires it.

“My jaw was on the floor too,” she said.

“That just seems like an incredible risk for a building of that size with people living in it.

“There are so many risks that can accrue in that kind of rental environment.”

She added she could not think of any other act or legislation that would require the landlord to have their apartment insured.

Moving forward, she suggested tenants ask that a provision in their lease requires their landlord to provide proof of insurance.
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In the advertisement, Satdeo provided his email address – satdeoinc@yahoo.ca – but no other contact information.

But according to the act, Satdeo should have also provided his tenants with a phone number and address.

“I have a hunch there may be a number of verbal agreements, in which case the Residential Tenancies Act actually fills in the blanks," explained Wawzonek.

“And in that tenancy agreement … it requires the full legal name of the landlord, landlord’s phone number, so I would think they should have a phone number for contact."

She also suggested that tenants call the NWT’s rental office if they need help resolving any disputes.

'Deplorable state'

Mark Lundbek is the manager of CKHR, Hay River’s community radio station.

Lundbek said he has little faith in Satdeo, who has had virtually no communication with the community since the fire, to manage the situation.

CKHR had studios located in the highrise and its transmitter sits atop the building. If the highrise were to be torn down, CKHR's broadcasting would be significantly impacted as high ground is required for the FM signal to be effective.

“The building has been a complete trash heap,” said Lundbek. "It was in a deplorable state. It's terrifying.

“The type of stuff you'd see there: blatant crime. People accosting you.

“My first day back in the station [three years ago] I was basically locked in there till 2am, not by choice but waiting for the cops to come and clear out what was happening in the hallway. It's a bad building."

Lundbek said some of the building's former tenants are “terrified” as they attempt to arrange alternative, long-term accommodation.

“They have no clue where their life is going … they're not getting any answers from this guy who's not here," said Lundbek.

“He's had full knowledge of everything that's been going on in that building for years, because people complained. I know. I'm one of them.”

“Get him [Satdeo] out of the community. Fix that godawful eyesore in the middle of Hay River that is nothing but a magnet for crime and is falling apart.

“Get something in there that can house the people that have been displaced.”