Yellowknife is seen from the air in May 2020. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
A Yellowknife 82-year-old can be evicted at the end of March if she does not rectify the extraordinary state of her home, the NWT’s rental officer has ruled.
The woman, identified only by her initials in the rental office ruling, must ensure the property is thoroughly cleaned by March 31 or face termination of her tenancy and eviction.
Rental officer Adelle Guigon said the ruling “gives me no pleasure” but was a last resort after various attempts to resolve the situation.
The Yellowknife Housing Authority filed an application in December asserting the unit’s condition represented a health and safety hazard to both the tenant and others in the same building.
“The level of uncleanliness at the rental premises is overwhelming,” Guigon wrote in a decision delivered in February and published this month.
“The degree of uncleanliness is preventing the building owner from entering the premises to conduct necessary maintenance and repairs.”
Kimberly Doyle, executive director of the Yellowknife Seniors’ Society, learned of the case on Wednesday. Doyle said she feared for the woman’s well-being.
“If she doesn’t have somebody advocating for her, it’s going to get serious,” Doyle told Cabin Radio. “Or it’s going to get scary.”
Photographs taken in October 2021, Guigon wrote, show “garbage, debris, boxes, bags, food, and dirty dishes cluttered throughout the rental premises and effectively burying any furniture that is present.” The building is not identified in the ruling.
Guigon continued: “Food boxes and other items are piled on top of the stove and in the oven, creating to my mind a significant fire hazard. The fridge shelves are dirty and filled with poorly packaged food items.”
The rental officer set out a pattern that stretches back years.
In 2018, she said, the unit was so unclean that maintenance workers couldn’t get in to fix a water leak.
Yellowknife’s integrated case management team – at the time a pilot project connecting people directly with help across government departments – stepped in and helped the woman clean her home. Afterward, Guigon wrote, the woman accused the integrated case management team of stealing from her.
In October last year, another water leak was reported.
“Again, the maintenance personnel refused to enter in the rental premises to effect the necessary repairs due to the overwhelming uncleanliness and odours creating a health and safety hazard,” Guigon wrote.
“The respondent has refused to clean the premises despite repeated notices from the applicant to do so.”
This time, Guigon wrote citing the housing authority’s evidence, integrated case management declined to help “given the respondent’s behaviour with them the last time ICM helped her.” The housing authority couldn’t persuade any cleaning businesses to take the job, either. (After this article was first published, though the territorial government did not comment, a former employee with knowledge of the case contested this description of integrated case management’s involvement. The former employee suggested ICM had earlier stepped in to help where it would not ordinarily do so, and ultimately other agencies bore responsibility.)
An application to the territory’s home care program stalled, Guigon wrote, when the woman refused to give consent for home care to share information with the housing authority.
In late November, the authority sent the woman a last-chance agreement asking for the premises to be cleaned by January 10. The woman (who did not appear at the rental office hearing and who was not represented by anyone) refused to sign that agreement, the rental officer said, quoting evidence supplied by the authority. By January 13, there was no change in the unit’s condition.
“While it gives me no pleasure to consider the termination of an elder’s tenancy, given the respondent’s continuous and wilful disregard for her own, other tenants’, the landlord’s, and the building owner’s health and safety, as well as her disregard for the damages being caused to the rental premises as a result of the level of uncleanliness, I am satisfied termination of the tenancy and eviction are justified,” Guigon concluded.
Ageing in place with dignity
The 82-year-old’s case raises questions about the point at which someone ought to have intervened on the woman’s behalf, the point at which someone is considered to have the capacity to make decisions critical to their quality of life, and whether any social safety net should prevent eviction in these circumstances.
“The respondent’s behaviour suggests to me there is a mental health component – the hoarding, the chaotic disorder in their place. But I don’t have a sense that the respondent was fully assessed and I don’t know that the respondent can clean up their apartment,” said Suzette Montreuil, executive director of the NWT Seniors’ Society.
“Those serious deviations in behaviour don’t just happen. There’s usually a cause. Something is going on.”
Montreuil questioned why no real assessment of the woman’s mental health, and her ability to carry out the rental office’s order, appeared to have taken place.
“This is a serious issue,” she said. “There’s no assessment of the individual’s ability to take care of themselves, to do housework, to manage the task. You don’t want to see someone being possibly evicted if they’re incapable of doing what is being asked of them. I find it troublesome.”
The Department of Health and Social Services and the territory’s health minister, Julie Green, were approached for comment for this article and various interviews were requested. The ability to “age in place with dignity” is a cornerstone of the current territorial government’s mandate and has been personally championed by Green for years, even before her tenure as health minister began.
Jeremy Gibson Bird, responding on behalf of the department, made no reference to the interview requests but provided a written statement that in part read: “It would be inappropriate for us to speak directly to any individual situation.”
Bird instead outlined how home care services are supposed to work in the NWT (a response that can be read in full here) when individuals “are no longer able to perform … activities on their own.”
That outline set out various points at which referrals to home care can happen, but shed no light on the means by which the present situation might have developed.
Guigon, the rental officer, told Cabin Radio by email that a formal assessment of a person’s mental capacity is not within her jurisdiction or authority “but is information that could be provided by parties to an application for consideration, in context with the circumstances of the alleged breach.”
She continued: “Those assessments would need to have been completed by a qualified mental health professional to be given any significant weight at a hearing under the Residential Tenancies Act.”
The Department of Justice holds responsibility for integrated case management, a relatively new system praised in Yellowknife for navigating people through the GNWT’s bureaucracy and ensuring they receive straightforward help.
Department spokesperson Ngan Trinh said by email that the rental office was an independent office and the department “does not have a role in matters that are before a rental officer, nor does it have access to information about any case.”
The apparent ability of integrated case management to decline assistance to a woman in her eighties on the grounds of her previous behaviour “disturbs me,” Montreuil said.
No further safety net
The woman’s eviction may yet be avoided.
The housing authority has agreed, Guigon said, that the tenancy will not be terminated if the unit is restored to “an ordinary state of cleanliness” by the end of March.
Whether any developments had taken place since the February decision was not clear as of Friday morning. Guigon said the rental office is not necessarily made aware of what happens after an order is issued.
On Thursday, Doyle said the city’s fire division had approached the housing authority’s maintenance team. As a last resort, it is theoretically possible for the fire division – acting to address a clear fire and safety hazard – to intervene and help the woman move many of her belongings to a storage unit (rented at the woman’s cost) while removing any garbage. But that course of action relies on cooperation from the individual concerned.
Generally, evictions during Yellowknife’s winter months are rare. Should the March 31 deadline pass without any improvement in the unit’s cleanliness, the housing authority may nevertheless choose not to immediately enforce an eviction order.
The only legal restriction on winter evictions in the Northwest Territories is a narrow one, applying to notices of early termination at “rental premises on which a mobile home is situated” during the months of December, January and February.
In the past, the NWT Housing Corporation has granted a blanket moratorium on winter evictions. The Yellowknife Housing Authority operates as an agency of the housing corporation.
If the 82-year-old eventually has her tenancy terminated, Montreuil said there are no further safety nets in place to help seniors in that position.
“There’s nothing specific for seniors,” she said.
“If that person becomes homeless, they’ll be like every other homeless person.”