Stand up to your landlord: new student rights group

This house hunting season, students are organizing to target tenancy issues

Mary Nettle’s former landlord didn’t give her house keys for nearly a month after she moved in, despite Nettle’s requests. (Photo: Laurel Walsh)

When Caroline Mercer’s landlord arrived at her apartment unannounced, one of her housemates was in the shower.

Mercer and the three other King’s students living with her had already spoken to this landlord about honouring his contractual obligations, like giving his tenants notice 24 hours before stopping by.

But there he was, shouting from the staircase leading to their second-floor apartment, asking if he could come in.

Mercer remembers the landlord saying “24 hours [notice] just wasn’t going to work for his schedule.” She says on a separate occasion he “texted to tell us he was coming by when he was already in our house.”

Mercer says she and her housemates have felt vulnerable to this landlord’s unpredictable behaviour.

A new student-run group, tentatively dubbed the Student’s Rights Initiative, is organizing to help tenants like Mercer get information and support.

King’s student Omri Haiven is one of the group’s organizers. He says the initiative is meant to “train students to educate one another” about their rights as students, workers and tenants.

Haiven says students accept sub-par living and working conditions too often. He wants to show students that those problems are both “legitimate and political.”

Common problems include bedbug infestations, landlords keeping security deposits without due cause, failing to give proper notice before showing rooms to potential renters, and leaving student housing in perpetual disrepair.

Halifax has a student population greater than 30,000. Most campuses accommodate a percentage of their student body in residences, while upperclassmen typically rent rooms or apartments in the HRM. NSCAD University has no residence buildings, so NSCAD’s approximately 1000 students must all find their own off-campus housing.

The Student’s Rights Initiative will host a series of workshops with guest speakers aiming to educate students about their legal tenancy rights.

Katie Toth, a don in King’s residence, is organizing a tenant rights workshop with Nova Scotia Legal Aid in an effort to educate students about what they can expect from off-campus living.

May and September are key tenant turnover times. In January, many students are finalizing their housing choices as landlords try to fill their last available spots.

As well as organizing her own workshop, Toth attended a preliminary planning meeting of the Student Rights Initiative.

“Even if you don’t pay for anything ever and you don’t have a job, you could live in an apartment with bedbugs,” Toth said.

Third-year Dalhousie psychology student Mary Nettle agrees students need to be better prepared. She remembers one former housemate who thought her rent cost $500 for a whole season, instead of $500 per month. She said that led to an awkward situation.

“Most students haven’t rented before, so they have no frame of reference,” Nettle said.

Nettle has also had problems with neglectful landlords in the past, saying one landlord refused to do repairs, gave house tours with no warning and didn’t retrieve house keys from former tenants when they moved out. Because he never changed the locks, Nettle feared that dozens of local strangers still had access to her apartment. She has since moved out and found a landlord she considers to be “a lot more responsible.”

Haiven says the Student’s Rights Initiative hopes to bring its knowledge “from campus to campus.” It currently has an organizing team of about 10 NSCAD, King’s, Dalhousie, SMU, and MSVU students.

Organizers say the future of the Initiative may include a webpage where students post complaints or compliments about their housing situations, a list of frequently criticized landlords and a database of local tenancy rights allies in the community.

The first Student’s Rights Initiative event on student tenancy is set to occur in early February.