Who is Accountable for Bad Housing

Continuing our series of blogs written by folks in Edmonton with lived experience, meet, Nadine Chalifoux. Nadine is an independent advocate for housing, homelessness, health, Indigenous affairs, human rights, social injustice and women’s rights.

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I recently listened to a podcast by Elizabeth Hames for CBC Radio. The podcast series is called ‘Slumtown’ and it consists of five episodes, the first title is ‘The Neighbours.’ I thought the episode would depict not only the not in my backyard’ (NIMBY) point of view but also the homeless, addicted and mental health folks who reside in those neighbourhoods. It did not. In fact, it blamed problem housing on ‘slumlords who have bought up properties for low cost only to rent them out to drug addicts and homeless people. The episode continued by blaming the homeless, the mentally ill and people who are dealing with addictions. That was the first episode of the podcast. Upon listening to the last four episodes titled, ‘The Landlords,’ ‘The Tenants,’ ‘The Fighters’ and ‘The Questions,’ my eyes and ears perked up. It turns out an exhaustive documentary still left the reporter unresolved with housing in this city. In fact, she quotes several times throughout all five podcasts that she was constantly being avoided and lied to by landlords, home/property owners, accountants, lawyers, police, and the City of Edmonton. To me, she now knows a bit about what life has been like for advocates, the marginalized, and the home owners in those respective neighbourhoods. I’ll even include the NIMBY'ers. 

Let's just say this podcast series has some very legitimate insights. For instance, highlighting derelict landlords as ‘slumlords.’ I was impressed that her digging turned up some fascinating information. She found that not only is there a particular group of owners/landlords, but also the slippery slope that defines what an owner is. No wonder neighbours cannot eradicate slums and problem housing. The system is rigged to keep marginalized citizens suffering in these available and affordable, but far from appropriate, housing. It also puts neighbours at risk - seeing as they are left dealing with these homes and the people associated with them, the ever elusive landlords. Partial blame can be put on the tenants for not getting appropriate services - however these are people experiencing homelessness, suffering from addictions, afflicted harshly with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, PTSD or other disorders affecting cognitive behaviours. Drug dealers, runners and makers know they can use these properties as their own with almost zero to little consequence, all because the system states no one person or group can be held accountable. If the "slumlord" rents, he is supposed to vet his tenants. The tenants are supposed to be considerate and responsible of any unlawful actions in and around their home. The neighbours are not supposed to clean up garbage, needles, and vandalism on their own  - yet they are to be vigilant in reporting these situations. Instead, everyone seems to be passing the buck. 

Officials, whether it be police or government, although frustrated they appear to not hold anyone accountable. The Landlord/Tenant Act states the landlord must keep his/her properties in good conditions and keep the upper hand on derelict or unlawful tenants. But most of these properties are bought, sold, bought again by nefarious owners who aren’t doing their due diligence. The properties are left run down and run over by criminals and inappropriate tenants. In fact, most of these landlords are somewhat fraudulently owning these properties. Many associates are sharing and trading these properties like they are mere paper. Hundreds of derelict and problem properties are owned and run by a few owners or one larger owner with a few associates so they can interchange responsibility of the very issues disabling the entire community. 

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The podcast host, Elizabeth, gets the run around when she tries to get a definite answer on just what "owner" means. According to a lawyer for the property owner/landlord, he changes what he describes as owner and title several times and then denies he ever gave the already complex definition. He was recorded with his different statements and still denies his own words. Can we say cop-out lawyer? Another lawyer for the accused landlord, as well as the landlord himself, both refused to make comments. The landlord has, however, been on the news many times and usually he paints himself as a humanitarian by giving housing to those who cannot get housing in our complex system. Trust me, I've heard it many times myself - “No, we can't allow you to rent. Your income is just too low.” Or If you can't come up with first (or two) month's rent and a damage deposit, then you’re kicked to the curb. If a landlord wanted to give me a break, I'd probably be willing to overlook my drug dealing, prostitution peddling, addict neighbours too because that would mean somewhere to ‘safely’ lay my head. Likely I would end up leaving because it would be too much retrauma for me to handle living there. I totally sympathize. So, who is to blame? If you are supposed to call 911 or 311/211 for help with criminal activity, graffiti, vandalism and problem properties, then why are those officials not doing something to get accountability and take action to change the way properties are run? Why? Instead they tell you their hands are tied and there is no law to interfere. Tragic! If you don't feel safe living in a property or as a neighbour, wouldn’t you call the police? Firemen? EMTs? Can't the city stop an already less than habitable property from moving into the hands of the known problem property owners. The landlords who repeatedly somehow find funding for these properties and "fix" them to code, only to continue contributing to this troubled situation in Edmonton’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods. If you are aware of who runs these organizations who have no regard for human life - why wouldn’t we stop them in their tracks? They should be made an example of -their behaviour and business practices are completely unacceptable. If we are reporting crime, danger and illness - why does it seem no one is hearing the calls or helping change the dynamics?

During the podcast, the reporter showcases an individual who started a group to start buying up the neighbouring properties to avoid them from falling into the slumlords’ hands.  She's been advocating hard for over a decade hoping for change in the problem properties scene. This issue of finding appropriate, affordable, accessible healthy homes is troublesome even for us advocates working the system and in housing agencies. We try and help our clients to access good homes. We warn them of repeat abusive landlords and to not rent from them in hopes we lessen the pool of available renters for the offenders and putting them out of real estate forever. It’s a pipedream it seems. Renters unable to afford better homes are left with only one choice. Face everlasting homelessness or live in a run down apartment with drug dealing or other criminals as neighbours. Neighbours who push their life onto yours. Come on Edmonton. Are we that displaced we cannot stop the cycle dead in its tracks? 

These landlords are not all a small group around one man - he's small potatoes. In the chance of threat to my own housing, I see needles around my building, drug dealers on every floor, fatal fighting in my social housing financed by the Government of Alberta. I see it with major housing corporations. They claim affordable rents and their company signs are everywhere. You can't stop the cycle unless you stop all unacceptable behaviours and work hard on permanent supportive housing for those harder to house. I'd like to see the day I personally can live without fear of my neighbours - both criminal and judgemental. I think is a NIMBY'ers dream to clump all marginalized, vulnerable people with criminals and drug dealers. Let's change the conversation and put work into action. Then we can feel safe in our communities, our apartments or houses…..our homes. I've added the podcast link because everyone should take a listen and hear what's really being said. Make your own mind up about how we can change the reality. 

Hiy Hiy

cbcnews.ca/slumtown