Posted April 16, 2021
Cindy Fowler has lived in Highfield Park in a two-bedroom apartment with her five-year-old son for just about four years. After years of dealing with issues in her apartment in the building at 76 Highfield Park Drive and hearing about problems from other tenants, Fowler decided to get everyone together to ask for improvements in the buildings and community of Highfield Park.
On March 18, Fowler started the Facebook group Hope for Highfield. Members of the private group share stories and photos of leaking faucets, old cupboards that need to be replaced, bugs in their apartments, rats around the properties, non-working washers and dryers, overflowing dumpsters in parking lots, and holes left in walls after water pipes ruptured.
“I was happy here for about the first year and things started to malfunction and then there were pest problems,” Fowler says. “At first I thought I was on my own with this, but then I started talking with other members of the community and I realized I’m not alone. I decided I needed something that bring us all together somehow as a community and provide an opportunity to start a conversation. I figured the best way was to start Hope for Highfield.”
Fowler says she’s talked with the building maintenance and building’s owner Westdale Properties several times about her concerns. She says she had multiple treatments for pests. The first infestation was of fleas and Fowler doesn’t have any pets. She says that infestation was fixed, but within the same time, she says she discovered a cockroach infestation, which continues to this day despite ongoing treatment.
She says she was advised to write a letter detailing those treatments and asking the management to inspect and treat the other apartments in the building.
“Basically, that letter was received and nothing came of it,” Fowler says. “I’m still having ongoing concerns.”
Fowler says she also had an issue with her smoke detector randomly going off when there was no fire. She says her detector was changed multiple times and she says maintenance staff blamed her for showering and cooking for the frequency of the detectors sounding off. She says she currently has no smoke detector in her apartment and was told to rely on the alarm system in the building.
Fowler say she’s put in multiple maintenance requests and contacted the HRM about that issue, but she hasn’t heard back yet.
Brenda Shaw is another member of the Hope for Highfield Facebook group. She moved into Highfield Park in January 2008 into a two-bedroom apartment at 32 Joseph Young Avenue with her autistic daughter, who is now 29.
“For the first nine years after I moved in here, I had no issues with our property manager. He was excellent. Anything that needed to get done, there was no hesitation in getting it done,” Shaw says. “However, since Westdale Properties took it over, I contacted HRM three times on three different issues. Our property manager refuses to do anything. She’s more than willing to say if you have a concern you can go to the tenancy board or the HRM, we will be glad to speak to them about your concerns.”
Like Fowler, Shaw says she’s dealt with fleas in her apartment and she doesn’t have pets. She’s shared photos of garbage around the building on the Facebook group. She says there’s been dog feces on her patio and she’s seen rats running nearby. She says an inspector from HRM came by in 2019 to check out a leak in a bathroom and a cabinet was replaced.
Shaw says she’s been dealing with pharaoh ants in her kitchen and has to keep food in Ziploc bags. She says there are gaps in the cupboards, which have not been replaced since she moved in 13 years ago. Shaw says she washes dishes before every use.
While maintenance has put bait to stop the ants, Shaw says she’d like her kitchen cupboards to be replaced to prevent the ants from coming in. She shared videos of the insects on the Hope for Highfield Facebook page. Like Fowler, she’s put in multiple requests with the property manager in the Dartmouth office and has sent photos to Mitchell Cohen, the chief operating officer of Westdale Properties.
“I am hoping we can get this property cleaned up and to make sure the office follows up on anything that needs to be done,” Shaw says. “Whether they will do that is another thing.”
The buildings where Fowler and Shaw live are two of 20 buildings under Highfield Park Apartments, which is owned by Toronto-based Westdale Properties. Westdale Construction Limited and Urbanfund Corp. Purchased the 20 buildings in Highfield for $113 million from Oxford Properties back in 2017.
Besides the properties in Highfield Park, Westdale also owns the 145-unit Bellbrook and Regal Luxury Apartments in Dartmouth, as well as properties in Quebec and Ontario and in 11 U.S. States.
The Examiner reached out to Mitchell Cohen with Westdale in Toronto. Cohen says Westdale just learned about the Hope for Highfield group and he says the company is willing to meet with members to talk about their concerns, including pests, overflowing dumpsters, and smoke detectors.
“Our tenants, sometimes, have really good ideas, things we haven’t thought about,” Cohen says. “Unless I am aware of this or the individual tenants come and we work with them, there’s nothing I can really say about dumpsters overflowing. We have regular dumpster pickup and at times they are crystal clear of debris. There are other times when tenants or the wind or whatever blows it around.”
“We deal with tenant concerns on an ongoing basis, but we’d be happy to meet with the tenant group are and hear their suggestions for improvements.”
Beldam A. (who asked that we not use her last name) has lived in North Dartmouth for the past three years and is a representative with the newly formed Dartmouth chapter of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which will be supporting Hope for Highfield and tenants in the group. Beldam heard about Hope for Highfield through Halifax Tenants Facebook group.
She’s been hearing issues about buildings in Highfield, including garbage, overflowing dumpsters, laundry rooms not being serviced, issues with pests, and most recently issues with rats. Concerns about increasing rents are also an issue in North Dartmouth.
“Tenants have been largely left to deal with these problems how they can,” Beldam says. “This is traditionally a low-income neighborhood, so it’s difficult for most people to have the money that goes into fixing these problems. As well, it’s just a lot of institutional neglect like with regards to garbage collection. There’s really not much tenants can do other than find another dumpster that’s open.”
“What we’re trying to do now is organize the community so we can demand a larger response to this and demand accountability from these landlords. When you’re focusing on individual cases there’s only so much you can do. When tenants get together and actually combine all of these issues so they can address them and make their voices heard, that’s really the best way to take action.”
Susan Leblanc, MLA for Dartmouth North, learned about the Hope for Highfield group last week. Leblanc says her office often hears from residents in Highfield Park and the surrounding area.
“We hear about folks not getting their needs met in terms of repairs and at the same time rents are going up in spite of units not being taken care of,” Leblanc says.
Leblanc says her office tells tenants to continue to pay rent, so they won’t be evicted, although tenants can apply for a rental abatement commonly known as a Form J if they can prove through documentation that they’ve been asking for repairs to happen and they haven’t received a response from the landlord.
“We’ve coached a few people through those Form Js, but to my knowledge, I don’t know if anyone has been successful,” Leblanc says.
Leblanc says they also point tenants to the M-200 bylaw, which is the minimum standard to which residential buildings in the HRM must be maintained. If the issues have to do with health or safety, such as mould or leaking windows, tenants can call 311 and request an inspection. An inspector from the HRM visits the apartment and checks out the issues and writes a list for the landlord on work that needs to be done. The landlord can be fined if work isn’t completed.
“That has proven to be pretty effective in some cases,” Leblanc says. “But with that one, tenants have been fearful in making those calls and fearful of retribution from the landlords.”
“I think in some cases, big, multinational investment REITs count on the fact there will be a number of people who don’t know their rights and don’t come forward to exercise them,” Leblanc says.
Shaw says this is an issue she understands. She says she’s heard from other tenants about work that needs to be done in their apartments, too, but she says they’re scared of retaliation if they speak up.
“I look at these people and say you can’t be evicted, you have a right to speak up about your community, you have right to speak up about your apartment,” Shaw says. “If they’re not going to do anything then someone needs to step up and make them aware of what’s going on.”
On the Facebook page, Shaw and Fowler have asked tenants from other buildings in Highfield owned by other companies to come forward with the issues they’re facing. Beyond the issues in the building, Fowler says she and other members are organizing a community cleanup for Saturday, May 8 at 10:30 a.m.
“I love the community, I love the people, I could love my apartment, but it will take all of us coming together in the hope we can clean up the community together,” Fowler says. “I want our concerns to be heard and listened to and I want them to do their part to make the building better, the living standards better, and the community better as well.”
Article by Suzanne Rent for the Halifax Examiner