A New Brunswick government investigator visited a Fredericton apartment building at the centre of a rent increase controversy Wednesday, and the province promised action if it finds fault with the way tenants there are being treated by a new landlord.
The dramatic move may help show whether current New Brunswick rental rules are as useful to tenants in a crisis, as government insists, or too weak to help, as critics suspect.
"The Deputy Chief Residential Tenancies Officer visited the apartment building today to meet with the tenants referenced in your story," wrote Service New Brunswick's director of communications Jennifer Vienneau.
"They were pleased to be offered assistance and departmental officials will investigate this matter. There are protections in place for tenants that are facing unreasonable rent increases."
Earlier in the day, CBC News reported a number of tenants in a building at 36 Shore Street had received rent increase notices from a new landlord of between 40 and 67 per cent
Included in that group were Pauline and Charles Tramble, who received notice of a $675 per month increase in their rent starting in April. The two, who are 67 and 84 years old respectively. have lived in the building for 33 years.
They can't afford to pay that much more, but have no idea where else they might go.
"We were devastated," said Pauline, "This is home to us.'
The seven unit building was bought and sold twice this fall by different investors. The current owner is DNV Properties Inc. It sent out rent increase notices two weeks ago but has not returned messages to explain why the increases are so high.
Other tenants receiving significant rate hikes include 83 year old Tayfun Orkus. He has lived there 14 years and was told to expect to pay 55 per cent ($475) more each month.
He too says it is more than he can afford.
"I cannot live here anymore because it is too expensive," he said.
The story triggered a strong reaction among housing advocates, who point to it as proof New Brunswick needs some kind of rent control to protect vulnerable tenants and limit excessive rent increases.
"It's devastating. It's shocking. It's enraging and it just really speaks to some massive failures," said Julia Woodhall-Melnik, about the treatment of the Trambles and others in their building.
Woodhall-Melnik, an associate professor and director of the laboratory for housing and mental health at the University of New Brunswick, said seniors are particularly vulnerable in the private rental market and need special help from government to cope with escalating rents.
"There's not enough protections. Housing is a human right. When we allow the market to dictate what that human right looks like, things like this are going to happen," she said.
"People are starting to see that there's faces and names behind these stories. These are real people, older adults and this is their health, their well being, and their happiness and I think people are starting to realize this."
New Brunswick has attracted significant interest among real estate investors over the last two years as more and more Canadians move east in search of affordable housing and a less hectic life. That has been driving up the cost of housing.
More than 1,000 rental properties in Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton changed hands this year alone, according to data compiled by the website propertize.ca.
The province's population is up 14,000 since 2019 and that has put pressure on both the price and availability of places to live. In some cases it has forced those without the financial ability to keep up with sudden jumps in rent to move out of their apartments.
Included in that group are people like William Morrissette. He received a 62 per cent rent increase notice in Moncton in August 2020 after the building he lived in was sold.
Later that year in Lincoln, Bernadette McGregor and others were hit with a 50 per cent rent hike after their building changed hands. And back in Moncton, a number of tenants in two buildings on High Street suffered increases of close to 40 per cent when the properties they lived in got new owners.
Most landlords do not treat tenants that way, but when it happens there is not a lot renters can do in opposition, according to Fredericton lawyer Jael Duarte.
"There is an imbalance of power between landlords and tenants," said Duarte, who serves as a tenant advocate for the N.B. Coalition for Tenants' Rights.
"Our Acts don't protect them."
The solution that Duarte and others like Woodhall-Melnik believe would serve tenants best is rent control. But it's an option the Higgs government opposes, arguing it would discourage the construction of needed new units by developers.
"We know that rent control does not solve the problem of affordable housing and available housing," Service New Brunswick Minister Mary Wilson told the legislature last month.
Wilson's department is the one handling the investigation into the rent increases on Shore Street and it may become a test case of government claims that vulnerable renters are adequately protected by existing government rules.
According to Vienneau, landlords are entitled to raise rents to a level charged by "comparable units in the same geographical area" and anything above that can be struck down.
Tenant advocates are critical of that kind of evaluation because it provides little defence against low and modest income renters being pushed out of their own neighbourhoods when motivated landlords and affluent renters around them begin driving up prices.
"Rental units that are that are affordable at market rents are disappearing faster than we can replace them,' said Matthew Hayes, a professor of sociology at St. Thomas University and a member of the NB Coalition for Tenants' Rights
"This is the real threat to the public in New Brunswick."
But the province insists protections for renters are in place and will be effective in the absence of rent control.
It's a belief the Trambles and Tayfun Orkus have suddenly put to a major test.