CBC News Calgary : When your rental has dirty secrets — renters share tips on calling the health inspector
Posted October 27, 2022
Braden Crane was stuck in a catch-22.
The roof of his Whitehorn rental in Calgary had been leaking for more than a year and then the hot water heater quit. The father of one didn’t want his family living like that, but he was worried calling a health inspector would see them forced out.
He was right to worry.
“After I told [my landlords] that I called the health inspector, they weren’t happy. They pretty much said that they’re no longer going to rent to me, and that as soon as my lease is up, I have to be out,” said Crane.
Crane shared his story with CBC during a CBC Calgary outreach event on understanding housing issues, urging us to document the process to help other renters know what to expect.
In his case, the health inspector found mould from the leaking ceiling, confirmed the dysfunctional hot water tank, recorded a broken smoke detector and more. The smoke detector was replaced, but it took eight days to get the hot water back. By the time he left, the ceiling was still leaking.
It took Crane six months to find a new place in the current rental market; he was nearly forced to move to Edmonton for help from family when the search came right down to the wire.
So CBC Calgary dug into this. It turns out thousands of people call Alberta Health Services (AHS) each year with complaints or requests for a home health inspection, but in Alberta, there’s minimal information available online about the process or risks of calling.
Other renters weigh in
When CBC Calgary asked other residents about their experience through our text messaging community, several people said they’ve simply left rental units that had mould rather than call for help and deal with an angry landlord.
Of those who did call, some were disappointed the health inspector didn’t take a more active role to get things fixed, while others expected little action and simply wanted the report to document that they had good reason to break a lease early.
Lorne Rice, one of CBC Calgary’s community photographers for this fall’s photo exhibit on renting, said he called the health inspector three times over 10 months to try to get the mould problem in his Marlborough home dealt with.
But repairs dragged on for months and the landlord asked for $500 more per month to stay when his lease came due this fall.
“I’m really disappointed in the fact that it’s been taking so long,” Rice said.
“Well, we’ll do the move again. It’s better than what we’re putting up with here,” added his wife, Beryl.
They’re now hoping to recover the cost of moving by bringing the inspector’s report as evidence to a provincial dispute tribunal.
When you call that health inspector
AHS declined our interview request but went back and forth by email to figure things out.
AHS spokesperson James Wood provided data that says since the beginning of last year, 8,007 Albertans have called AHS to complain about their rental home or request a health inspection.
They take complaints online or if people call 1-833-476-4743.
AHS says once the home is inspected, the landlord automatically receives a written inspection report and the tenant gets one if requested. The report will outline any defects found, repairs needed and target dates the landlord should finish the repairs by.
At that point, it is the homeowner’s responsibility to make those changes. According to the AHS statement, the initial report is usually all that’s needed.
But, if the tenant sees the issue continue, the public health inspector will re-inspect the home to ensure repairs are being made on time.
If the tenant who made the complaint leaves the home before necessary repairs are made, AHS says the owner must still fix the issues outlined in the inspection report. Violations are tied to the property — not to the tenant — to make sure the next tenant doesn’t face the same issues.
In extreme cases, the inspector may declare a home “unfit for human habitation” or “closed for tenant accommodation.” Then it can’t be rented or lived in. At that point, health inspectors are supposed to re-inspect the home every six months, and if someone is living there, they could take the landlord to court.
Not enough public information, says advocacy organization
Fable Dowling, member of Alberta ACORN, met up with CBC News in downtown Calgary, where the advocacy organization was gathering signatures for rent control.
A renter himself, Dowling says even if repairs are slow to come, health inspections are important to formally document issues in the home.
“It gives you a much better chance of being able to fight in court — to be able to get your landlords to actually take care of the place,” said Dowling. But “a lot of the time [renters[ don’t even know where to get that contact information. It’s not very widely known.”
Also the wait times can be long, he said. Some people have told him they waited hours to get an inspector on the phone, and others struggled to get in touch with an actual person to get the information they needed.
More commonly, Dowling says people are afraid to contact a health inspector at all because they’re afraid they’ll be evicted. But it’s illegal for landlords to evict someone just for calling a health inspector.
Documents in hand
Jeremy Gignoux, a musician in Calgary, said a health inspection is exactly what he needed to get out of a bad rental in 2017.
He says the problems in his Crescent Heights apartment seemed never-ending — heat from the vents wouldn’t reach the bedrooms, a leak in the shower was creating mould in the bedroom and the smell of his upstairs neighbour’s dryer would waft into his unit.
As per the process, the inspector found a number of issues and provided a written report with repairs to be made. Gignoux says their landlord didn’t fix the issues by the given deadline.
So Gignoux was able to terminate the lease early with no penalty.
“Which, in a way, was what we wanted because there were so many issues and the fact that we had to contact the health inspector — we just really didn’t trust this landlord anymore at this point,” said Gignoux.
How to settle a dispute
Rice, a retired carpenter and air force technician, says he hopes the health inspector’s report will be a key piece of evidence when he takes his landlord to the Residential Tenancy Dispute Resolution Service, a quasi-judicial tribunal run by the province.
For those hearings, both sides submit evidence and argue their case over the phone.
Gerry Baxter, executive director of the Calgary Residential Rental Association, which supports landlords, says the tribunal is seen as a pretty fair process that functions like a court.
“I hear periodically from people who complain that they lost their case, but when you get in and take a look at it, they weren’t that prepared. They didn’t present their case properly.”
Most professional landlords he hears from find the health inspectors are not difficult to work with either, and echoed what Dowling said — that tenants can’t legally be evicted for calling.
Rice is hoping to recover the cost of moving yet again through the tribunal, and be compensated for things like living without water in the kitchen for two months. But he’s still preparing to submit evidence and get a hearing date.
He says when the mould was first discovered, he warned the landlord he wasn’t going to ignore it.
“I told him, ‘If you think you’re just going to wait out my lease here, think different. I’m going to make sure before I leave here that the hazards aren’t getting passed on to anyone else.”