The Northwest Territories ombud says the territorial housing corporation “acted unjustly and oppressively” when it sued a woman’s estate after her death, having failed to register her mortgage.
Colette Langlois, the ombud, released her first special report – titled A Shortfall in CARE: Fairness in Homeowner Assistance Programs – on Wednesday.
Langlois investigated a complaint from a woman who said the housing corporation did not give her the information she needed as executor of her mother’s estate, did not register her mother’s mortgage, and needlessly sued her and her brother over the outstanding balance of that mortgage.
According to the report, the woman’s mother purchased the mobile home she lived in with assistance from the housing corporation in 2011. As part of an agreement with the corporation, she signed a $90,000 mortgage to be forgiven in yearly instalments of $18,000 beginning in 2017.
While the agreement stated the mortgage would be registered with the Land Titles Office by the mother’s lawyer on the corporation’s behalf, when she passed away in April 2018, it was still unregistered. The report says it’s unclear if she had a lawyer at the time.
The daughter and her brother did not learn about the mortgage, and that there was $72,000 still owing on it, until their mother’s estate was transferred to them in May 2018.
The lawyer for the estate then asked the housing corporation for the history of work on the property to determine whether any issues or damages could be offset against money outstanding on the mortgage. Despite repeated requests, the corporation did not provide that information until March 2019 – and only after the daughter filed an access to information request.
Before that point, in December 2018, the housing corporation filed a suit against the estate, claiming the transfer of the home to the woman and her brother was done to take the property “beyond the reach” of the corporation, and that the pair were “wrongfully withholding payment of a just debt.”
According to the complainant, the suit cost the woman and her brother more than $33,000 in legal fees and was “extremely upsetting,” as it amounted to publicly accusing them of fraud. Without the information they had requested from the corporation, she said, the estate couldn’t determine if it should file a counterclaim for damages and deficiencies.
“All we were doing was asking questions to try and get answers about what happened to our late mother,” the woman was quoted as saying.
The two parties eventually reached a settlement and the suit was dropped in July 2019.
Negligence in not registering mortgage
Langlois concluded that while the housing corporation was justified in wanting to recover the balance owing on the mortgage, a suit could have been avoided if it had registered the mortgage – and it was negligent in not doing so.
She added that if the housing corporation had provided the information the estate requested in a more timely manner, it could have recovered the debt much more quickly.
Email exchanges from housing corporation officials between 2016 and 2018, reviewed by Langlois, show the corporation knew the mortgage was not registered. The corporation had made efforts to register the mortgage since at least 2014, with no expectation that the woman or her lawyer would do so. Langlois noted it was in the housing corporation’s interest to ensure the mortgage was registered, as doing so would protect the corporation’s interests in the property.
Langlois determined the issue was the result of confusion between staff at the housing corporation’s headquarters and South Slave district office over who was responsible, along with a lack of knowledge about the technical requirements for mortgage documents. She said the housing corporation has since made changes to avoid similar issues.
In addition to not registering the mortgage, Langlois found the housing corporation fell short in not making reasonable efforts to help the woman’s mother apply for homeowner assistance, follow up with her concerns, or keep her up to date about work on her home.
Langlois found that while housing corporation staff wanted to help the woman, they were trying to juggle a heavy workload and “found it challenging and sometimes upsetting to deal with her and did not always know how to handle that.” The daughter noted her mother had hearing challenges and was a residential school survivor, which made it difficult for her to communicate at times, especially regarding issues that brought up strong emotions.
“Clients who have trouble explaining their needs, being calm and respectful when upset, remembering or understanding information and/or keeping appointments are often the clients who are the most vulnerable and most need NWTHC’s help,” Langlois wrote.
She said providing that help required consistency, reliability, and skill from staff to manage their emotions and make sure clients have the information they need.
“Not being kept up to date about delays in work, and long periods when there was no follow-up on her concerns would have contributed to [the woman’s] frustration with the district office staff and the tone of some of her conversations with them,” Langlois wrote.
Ombud recommends more client-centred service
Langlois recommended the housing corporation review all mortgages to make sure they are registered, apologize to the daughter, review staffing levels in the South Slave district office, provide training to front-line staff on client-centred and trauma-informed service delivery, and put reasonable and proactive service delivery standards in place.
“My hope is that the recommendations will help foster a culture of fair and people-centred service, and prevent future clients and families from having similar experiences,” she said in a statement.
In a letter to Langlois, Paulie Chinna, the territorial minister responsible for the housing corporation, accepted all of the report’s recommendations and said she has directed the corporation to “begin addressing these matters immediately.”
A spokesperson for the housing corporation said staff were still reviewing the report and would not be available for comment until next week.
Langlois took on the role as the territory’s first ombud in April 2018. The ombud is an independent watchdog that takes and investigates complaints from people who feel unfairly treated by the territorial government or its agencies.