Halifax regional council has passed the first reading of a bylaw that would implement a registry of all rental properties in the municipality.
Under the proposed bylaw, all rental housing properties would need to be registered and owners and operators would need to create a maintenance plan and keep it current.
Council also voted in favour of amendments to strengthen the existing bylaw respecting standards for residential occupancies.
According to a municipal staff report, having a comprehensive list of all rental properties throughout HRM will provide a clearer picture of the municipality’s rental landscape.
It will also mean that the municipality can inspect units proactively, and not only after a complaint is received, “to ensure all rental units are held to the same minimum occupancy and building and fire safety standards.”
Those not in compliance with the bylaw could face fines ranging from $150 to $10,000, “depending on the type and recurrence of the offence,” the report said.
Minimum fines start at $150 for a first offence, $250 for the second offence and $450 for the third offence.
There will be no fee to register properties and owners and operators would be given a “grace period” to register until April 1, 2024.
“However after that time, rental housing that is not registered will be considered in violation and those property owners will be subject to a fine,” the report said.
The bylaw would apply to all residential rental units, including large and small apartments, income properties, single-room occupancies, secondary and backyard suites, and short-term rentals.
Homes licensed by the province under the Homes for Special Care Act, as well as owner-occupied dwelling units within a land-leased community such as a mobile home park, would not need to be registered.
10 years in the works
During a council meeting Tuesday, Coun. Waye Mason said the rental registry discussion has been in the works for a long time. It was first discussed in 2013 and council approved a framework for the registry in 2019.
Mason said he has concerns about “illegal apartments” and said buildings that don’t meet appropriate safety and fire standards can have life-threatening consequences.
“We’ve had people jacking up buildings without a permit, putting in an illegal basement suite, not putting fire-rated drywall, not being worried about having a secondary egress so that if the place is on fire people can get out,” said Mason.
“One of those, one of my former students from NSCC lived in. Barely escaped with his life with his girlfriend.”
Currently, staff do not plan to share a full list of rental properties included in the registry. They will only report violations rather than inspections on the city’s open data portal.
After Mason questioned why, Peter Duncan, director of infrastructure planning for HRM, said “we’d like to get there at some point,” but there is an “element of risk” if the registry is published without a good baseline for compliance data.
Coun. Tony Mancini raised concerns about “good landlords” and how they would be affected by the registry.
“Look, we’ve got some bad landlords in this municipality. But we have a whole bunch of really good landlords,” he said.
“How do we make sure they are represented properly and not on the ‘bad boys’ list?”
Dawson Patterson, the municipality’s acting manager of building standards, said if landlords are found to be in violation of the bylaw, they will be given a notice to comply.
“It’s only when they fail to comply in a reasonable amount of time that it progresses to an order,” he said. “And that order … will be published openly.”
Coun. Pam Lovelace said having the registry would help address the “power imbalance” between landlords and tenants.
“I have seen horrific images … of people living in quite substandard conditions, and afraid – afraid to complain because then they’re on the street,” she said.
“The system that we currently have relies on people to stand up and be brave and speak out against the landlord.”
Lovelace said the lack of data around illegal apartments is “frightening.”
“We can’t stand up here and state that we’re a world-class city, and yet not have any understanding of how many unstable or unsafe rental units are in this city,” she said.
Coun. Paul Russell, the sole councillor who voted against the rental registry, said he was concerned about its financial impact. The staff report estimated it would cost nearly $1.2 million over the next four years, but noted the full impact is “difficult to assess.”
“We know who the bad landlords and the good landlords are, generally speaking, and we’re simply looking to build a list of them,” he said.
“I just don’t see the justification for spending the money for this.”
In the end, council voted 15-1 in favour of the rental registry.
Council also voted unanimously to amend the bylaw respecting minimum standards for residential occupancies, and to request a staff report to gauge the success of the registry two years after it’s implemented.
‘Something has to be done’
Hannah Wood, chair of the Halifax peninsula chapter of ACORN, said the organization has been fighting for a landlord registry since 2014.
Wood said having a registry would make it easier for landlords and owners to be held accountable when they are in violation of residential occupancy standards.
She said ACORN has worked with tenants in the past who have made “endless 311 complaints” about living conditions without having them rectified.
Having a more proactive enforcement model would help the city enforce its standards, she said.
Lisa Hayhurst, the chair of the Dartmouth chapter of ACORN, said she deals with multiple issues in her building in the Highfield area, such as mould, sagging balconies and bird poop.
She said the city has not taken action on those issues and is hopeful that a registry will force the city to enforce its bylaws.
“Something has to be done, it’s definitely needed,” said Hayhurst.
Landlord association pushing back
The association representing landlords in the province is pushing back against the proposed registry, calling it a “gimmick” that will worsen the city’s housing crisis.
In a release, the Investment Property Owners Association said the registry “further punishes rental housing providers who must be part of the solution.”
“Private rental housing providers, especially those who are small owner/operators, are sick and tired of governments attacking them with more red tape and higher costs,” said IPOANS executive director Kevin Russell.
He said high inflation and interest rates, combined with the provincial rent cap, are “forcing people to sell their properties at an unprecedented rate, reducing the available housing supply.”
The IPOANS release also lamented that implementing the registry would cost taxpayers an estimated nearly $1.2 million over the next four years, which would include hiring four assistant building officials.
The city staff report said two of the four staff could be added to the 2023-24 budget at the cost of about $170,000. The impact to the average residential tax bill for that year would be approximately 60 cents.
The cost of the registry, including the hiring of two more assistant building officials, would then be $340,000 per year for the next three years.
Ursula Prossegger, a landlord quoted in the IPOANS release, suggested the money should instead be used to help the “community’s most vulnerable,” such as unhoused people.
But ACORN’s Wood said the concerns raised by IPOANS are “short-sighted.”
“Tenants who are living in apartments that have bedbugs, that have mould, that have unsafe conditions, are also vulnerable people,” she said.
Wood also argued that further enforcement of safety and maintenance standards would prevent buildings from getting demolished, which would also prevent renovictions.
“Every type of business and industry fights regulation,” she said. “It’s always a hard adjustment, but they will adjust.”
Registry not ‘radical’: mayor
Mason also addressed IPOAN’s concerns Tuesday, saying they were not the only stakeholders consulted.
“Yes, it’s true that IPOANS was not in favour of rental registry, but we talked to a broad swath of people in the public – including other property owners – who have said to me … ‘I’m tired of competing with people who aren’t meeting the minimum standards,'” said Mason.
Mayor Mike Savage said he doesn’t think the registry will be “onerous” for landlords, noting that a registry is different from licensing and they will not have to pay a fee.
What’s being proposed is not a “radical approach,” he said.
“I don’t think this is a threat to most of the landlords in HRM, but I do think there are some that need to have a bit of an eye kept on,” Savage said.
“We need to be partners with our development and with our landlord communities in lots of ways, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have responsibilities to the tenants.”