Huddle: Westdale COO Says Improvements Coming To Highfield Following Protest

Posted February 14, 2022

HALIFAX–The chief operating office of Westdale Properties says tenants in the company's Highfield Park apartments can expect some improvements, following a tenant protest earlier this week.

But the COO, Mitchell Cohen, also defended the overall performance and professionalism of his building staff following critiques by the protestors.

Westdale Properties, based out of Toronto, owns 55,000 rental units throughout North America. In the Dartmouth area of Highfield, the company owns 1,350.

On a Tuesday beset by downpouring rain and heavy winds, a handful of Highfield tenants gathered outside to express their frustrations with Westdale. Many told Huddle there are constant problems with delayed repairs, pest control, and garbage collection.

“The [drafty] windows are in desperate need of being fixed…and you see rats running around,” said Lisa Hayhurst, who has been a Highfield resident since 2015.

“There’s mice and rats; I’ve seen a rat on the third floor. I’ve asked for a rat trap a year ago and I’m still waiting for that.”

Hayhurst is also a member of Nova Scotia ACORN, the advocacy group that helped organize the protest. The tenants’ rights organization is calling for landlords to be licensed like other businesses.

Another longtime resident, Brenda Shaw, sent pictures and videos to Huddle documenting some of the issues she’s dealing with.

One shows a fire alarm taped up with a bag over it. Another shows outdoor garbage containers with garbage strewn about. One video shows a rat running about the filth.

After being made aware of the taped-up fire alarm, Cohen made some inquiries. He later told Huddle the measure is temporary

“Our mechanical engineers are soldering close to the smoke detector, and we didn’t want it set off,” he explained.

Shaw admitted that, over the past few years, Westdale has made improvements to her apartment unit. But she claims it often happens only after a lot of pestering.

“They do not answer questions–I have to reach out. The first nine years [under different ownership] I didn’t have to,” said Shaw. “I have [had work done] but only because I told them I was getting a lawyer, and I did have papers from the tenancy board filled out.”

Shaw added the situation with garbage and the rat is an example of an issue that doesn’t get resolved quickly enough.

“Went out this morning to look, it’s still the same out there. They don’t respond to me.”

Improvements Will Be Made, But Staff Are Professional, COO Claims

Cohen, who is based out of Toronto, says he didn’t know about many of the specific complaints until contacted by Huddle. One issue he was aware of is the garbage complaints. He said more can be done to help with that.

“It is a community of over 2,500 people and we all have to respect each other,” said Cohen. “I have responsibilities as a landlord and tenants have responsibilities also.”

“But the garbage is a continuing problem and we’re trying to address that on a daily basis.”

During the protest one tenant even came to the staff’s defense, saying it’s certain tenants who are making the mess.

“That’s why we have rats, it’s up to the people to take it to the dumpster,” she said. “You can’t blame the office because of them.”

Other damage, such as blown-off siding, is known to the company. But Cohen said the supply-chain issues across North America have slowed down repairs.

Another common complaint from tenants is the condition of some of the concrete balconies. Huddle reporters have observed evidence that one walkway was considerably sloped and An ACORN spokesperson has photos of a large crack on a piece of concrete.

Cohen said engineers have looked at two concrete balconies and quotes are out to get repairs done.

In terms of pest control, Cohen said Westdale is aware of the complaints. The company, he said, fumigated one building recently.

“We’ve had some outbreaks of cockroaches and pharaoh ants in those buildings. And, immediately, we contact the exterminator,” he said.

“Infestations are not uncommon at Highfield or other places around North America. Like a good landlord, we’re on top of it. Once people put in a ticket, or have a concern, it’s looked at.”

Tenants have argued that communication from Westdale is a big part of the issue. But Cohen fiercely defended his Dartmouth staff.

“That is not correct. That is not correct and I am happy to hop on a plane and come out and meet with you and our staff,” said Cohen. “My staff are trained to be responsive. We have a legal responsibility to respond back to our tenants.”

“It is, without a shadow of a doubt, incorrect–you can quote me on that–for anyone to say that their requests are not responded to. If the requests are put in through the regular channels, they are actioned.”

Nonetheless, Cohen says he wants to do what he can to make the protestors feel at home in the Highfield apartments. He points to activities Westdale puts on, like Halloween parties and tenant barbeques, as evidence the company cares about tenants.

“For a few people to be upset, I will make sure they’re happy,” promised Cohen.

ACORN Calls For Landlord Licensing

Since 2020, ACORN has been calling for the Halifax Regional Municipality to have a licensing system for city landlords. This way, inspections can be carried out, standards can be enforced, and fines levied if necessary.

“Because we don’t have any enforcement of our minimum standards and bylaws, if a landlord wants to neglect their properties, there’s not a ton a tenant can do,” said Sam Hall, an ACORN member who was present at the Highfield protest.

“Businesses and occupations that take people’s health and safety and lives into their hands need to have some kind of regulation because it’s obvious people are being forced to live in unsafe conditions.”

The advocacy for landlord licenses has gained some steam. Towards the end of 2020, Halifax Regional Council debated amending the residential occupancy bylaw. According to an article written at the time by The Signal, part of the debated amendments includes fines for landlords not in compliance.

Hall says ACORN has been working with certain councilors, like Waye Mason, on these types of changes, but Covid has put a lot of work on hold. She believes there needs to be penalties for landlords who don’t keep their apartments up to a minimal standard.

“There need to be real penalties for breaking the laws we currently have but aren’t enforced. And there need to be ways that tenants can ask for that to happen without fear of retaliation.”

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Article by Derek Montague for Huddle

 

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