Landlord and tenant rights: what to do with a rental nightmare

Video: A Calgary landlord’s saga with “freemen” is not yet over. Francis Silvaggio has the story.

TORONTO – An Alberta renter who declared the landlord’s property an embassy, changed the locks and charged for renovations is an extreme example of when tenancy goes awry, but a rental rights advocate says he encounters scores of similar problems each month.

“The fact tenants change locks, don’t pay rent, do damage–those are regular, common occurrences…they are not unusual,” said Calgary Residential Rental Association Executive Director Gerry Baxter.

Baxter receives up to 20 calls each week with landlords asking for help with such problems, and chalked it up to the need for more understanding of the regulated industry.

“Unfortunately, many of the smaller unit-holding landlords, moms and pops, just see it as way to make few extra dollars,” he said. “Or they ignore the fact there are laws and don’t realize that they’re getting into a business.”

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Changing locks

Under Alberta legislation, Baxter notes that it’s an offence for a renter to change the locks without permission from their landlord. He said a landlord should first contact a tenant and tell them the locks need to be changed back immediately.

“If not, landlords can bring in a locksmith, change it back to where it was, make sure the tenant’s got a key and give the bill to the tenant,” he said. “Or because it’s a breach of the legislation, landlords could also take steps to terminate the tenancy.”

Alberta lawyer Shaun Cody, who has professional experience with eviction orders and personal experience as a landlord, said it might be better to get a court order directing a locksmith to change the locks, or to remove the tenant completely.

“I would suggest to get a court order in the face of that kind of conduct…to either terminate the lease or some sort of order against the tenant,” said Cody, chair of the Civil Litigation Section of the Alberta branch of the Canadian Bar Association.

To terminate the tenancy and force the renter to vacate, Cody explains you’ll need evidence in an affidavit.

“So you’ll need sworn testimony detailing either they haven’t paid the rent or they’ve harassed and bothered other tenants or engaged in something illegal,” he said. “And with that kind of evidence, the court is likely going to say you’ve got until x date to pay the rent or you’re out.”

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Refusing to leave

Baxter said if a landlord issues a notice to terminate a tenancy and the tenant doesn’t leave, the landlord must go to court to have the courts “uphold and confirm the termination.”

“In those cases, you’re typically looking for an order of possession from courts, plus judgments for any outstanding expenses or financial liabilities the tenants owes,” said Baxter, which applied in the case of the Freeman-on-the-Land renter that recently caught the public’s attention.

Cody said a “worst-case scenario” when removing a tenant involves hiring a bailiff through a court order—someone licensed by the province under the civil enforcement act to remove a renter.

“If a person shows up and says, ‘I’m not leaving, I don’t care,’ then there’s the ability to seek police assistance and enforce the court order for vacant possession,” said Cody.

Baxter noted once judgments are filed, credit bureaus will pick up that information and it will affect the likelihood that future landlords will rent to such tenants.

Alternatives to lawyers

While lawyers can be expensive, alternatives include making applications to provincial court, or using an Alberta program called the Residential Tenancy Dispute Resolution Service (RTDRS). Baxter said the RTDRS has exactly the same powers and authorities as courts under the residential tenancy legislation, but in a less intimidating boardroom-type setting. For people outside Edmonton and Calgary, the service even offers hearings by phone.

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“It was launched in 2006, ran for a year as a pilot project, and was extremely successful,” he said, noting it’s also cheaper. He says there’s a $75 filing fee at RTDRS as opposed to $100 at provincial court and $200 at the Court of Queen’s Bench in Alberta.

There is no federal service overseeing residential tenancy, so the laws are different provincially and sometimes municipally. Other provinces also have resources for landlords and tenants, including links to print legislation, a list of common concerns accompanied by forms and instructions on how to complete them, tips on how to prepare for hearings and how to follow up on files online. Click to check out the resources for landlords and tenants in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia.

An ounce of prevention…

While it’s useful to know what to do in messy situations, many problems can be avoided if you familiarize yourself with legislation early.

The Calgary Residential Rental Association offers a two-day course for landlords holding residential tenancies in Alberta who become members. The course helps people understand the sometimes confusing residential tenancy legislation and how to apply it.

Information includes getting into the business of being a landlord, things you need to know during the tenancy (changing locks, entering the unit, rental increases, tenant records and maintenance), and the process needed to terminate tenancies, plus any problems.

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Baxter’s advice includes:

“The difficulty with handshakes…if it ends up in the courts it becomes a ‘he said, she said’ scenario, and difficult to get at the truth. If committed to writing, it’s right there in front of you,” he said.

  • Thoroughly screen tenants by collecting and verifying personal information, confirming employment information, contacting current and previous landlords, and conducting a credit check.
  • Take immediate steps to resolve tenancy problems, and touch base with your province’s rental association or speak with a lawyer before making big decisions.

If the situation escalates to a point where a landlord fears for their own safety, Baxter emphasizes the need to contact police.

“Sometimes landlords become very fearful of their tenants,” he said. “We always advise landlords to contact police, ask them to standby to prevent a breach of the peace…just make sure nobody gets assaulted.”

Baxter notes that despite police involvement such as an arrest, in order for a landlord to reclaim their property or terminate a tenancy, they still have to either issue notice or go directly to the courts.

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