CBC Nova Scotia: Halifax landlord licensing studied to prevent 'ongoing safety issues'

Posted September 28, 2016

Two municipal council candidates in downtown Halifax are pushing to create a bylaw requiring landlords to be licensed because of a "proliferation of illegal basement apartments."
Waye Mason, the incumbent for Halifax South Downtown, said some houses in the city have been converted into flats illegally, have balconies and decks that have collapsed, lack emergency exits, or are crammed to over-capacity with students.
"We know there's ongoing safety issues in some of those and we want to regularly inspect to make sure that those are kept to that [minimum] standard," said Mason, who is also the owner of a set of flats.
Mason and Dominick Desjardins, both candidates for District 7, are supporting landlord licensing. It's a bylaw that would require rental unit property owners to obtain a licence for their property and have their apartments inspected for safety issues by city staff.
Penalties already increased
Mason says the city is already "setting the table" to introduce a rental licensing system with a recently introduced bylaw that sets out the minimum standard for residential buildings to be maintained.
Mason says the bylaw created more stringent rules around minimum safety and increased penalties to $10,000.
But it's a complaint-driven process — meaning without a complaint, there's no inspection of properties. Landlords are expected to maintain their property to a safe standard.
Licensing would keep landlords on their toes by requiring them to purchase a licence and open their property to inspections.
'You can't just inspect the one guy'
Mason said licensing would address the "repeat offenders who just don't feel like the rules should apply to them, who barely meet or don't meet the minimum standards, who are constantly being investigated."
"You can't just inspect the one guy, you have to kind of come up with a process that means you're inspecting everybody," he said.
Mason admits the regime could cost the city money because additional inspectors may be required. He says inspections would be prioritized, with dwellings that have "more of a chance of risk" such as student rentals and converted properties being monitored more frequently.
The idea is also promoted by ACORN, a national anti-poverty group, and it's supported by the Dalhousie Student Union as well as Desjardins. 
'This is not an attack on landlords'
"With 30,000 students coming into Halifax each year, I think some can be taken advantage of by landlords," said the recent graduate from Saint Mary's University. "This is not an attack on landlords."
But another rival is against the idea. Former councillor Sue Uteck, who lost to Mason in the municipal election four years ago, is running again on Oct. 15.
Uteck says inspections are best left to insurance companies. Because property owners are already required to maintain their heating oil and hot water tanks to obtain insurance coverage, she said inspections would be adding a step to an existing process.
'Impossible for the city to run'
Uteck says adding a layer of city inspection bureaucracy is unnecessary because there aren't enough staff and house occupancies change.
"It would be impossible for the city to run," she said. "It would be very, very difficult to regulate."
Besides, she says, it's the insurance company that assumes the risk in the event of an accident.
The idea of landlord licensing is not new. The Ontario university towns of Waterloo and London have already introduced residential rental licensing. The city of Toronto is looking into it.
London's landlord licensing system
In London, it's estimated that among 8,000 small rental buildings, approximately half have been licensed in the last three to four years. Those licences have to be posted somewhere visible in the property. London has mapped rental properties on its website so tenants can see if an address is approved, or whether it should be reported to bylaw enforcement.
Heather Chapman, London's manager of municipal law enforcement, says the bylaw was controversial when it was introduced but has withstood two appeals. About 50 to 75 charges have been laid against landlords for failing to get licensed, she said.
Mason says Halifax city staff are now in consultation with the Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia and major landlords. A report is expected next spring or summer, said Mason.
There are 60,000 rental units in Halifax, according to IPOANS. The association was unable to comment on the story.
Article by Elizabeth Chiu for CBC Nova Scotia