Repeated landlord abuses, but few complaints, detailed in N.W.T. Rental Officer's report

When dealing with a difficult landlord, the N.W.T.'s most enterprising tenants might pull up their copy of the Residential Tenancies Act, the territory's rulebook for renters and their landlords.

If things get really bad, they might place a call to the Rental Officer, who adjudicates disputes between landlords and their tenants.

But if the latest numbers from the Rental Office's annual report are any indication, it would seem most tenants stop there.

In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, just 21 tenants sought any kind of remedy through the Rental Office — and only nine were successful.

Compare that with 421 applications made by landlords — the most in five years. They're also far more likely to see those applications end in success.

"Most of the time, it is landlords who have an issue and are willing to pursue resolution," explains Adelle Guigon, the territory's chief rental officer. "A lot of tenants … [are] maybe just not quite aware that they have an avenue to pursue resolution and remedies."

Tenants also may be less likely to see a complaint through because they "don't quite realize how much evidence they need to have in place," Guigon said.

While many tenants called the office about maintenance issues, for example, the report says "very few tenants follow through with an application to a rental officer."

"This is likely due to the amount of work the tenant would be required to do to provide reasonable evidence to support their claim," says the report.

In 2018-19, just one tenant successfully proved their landlord wasn't maintaining the property.

In contrast, landlords used to the Rental Office to extract almost $2 million from tenants in unpaid rent and damages, and evicted tenants in record numbers — more than 200 in 2018-19 alone.

Intentionally breaking the act

Most of the 21 tenant complaints were about landlords wrongfully withholding security deposits. The report details how landlords sometimes "intentionally" break this part of the act, knowing that most tenants are ill-informed of their rights.

"These landlords … seem to accept that should the tenant choose to make an application the landlord will likely be ordered to return it to the tenant," the report reads.

But under the act, the Rental Office can't enforce its decisions — that's done by the territorial court.

That means sometimes, after being ordered by the Rental Office to return a deposit, landlords still refuse, knowing tenants are unlikely to chase them in court.

Landlords who "repeatedly and purposely" steal security deposits can be fined by the court for violating the act. But the report says the fines are "unusually difficult to apply … largely ineffective, and … of such little value that it fails to serve as a deterrent."

There's also "no enforcement officer or established procedure" to pursue the charges that lead to a fine, the report notes, indicating it's not a path usually taken.

Randall McKenzie/CBC

Abuses by public landlords

The report highlights other issues with the act that make abuses possible, often involving the territory's most vulnerable renters.

In one "regularly recurring scenario," public housing tenants see a temporary increase in income that means they have to pay a higher rent.

If they don't immediately report it, landlords can ask the Rental Office to order the tenants to pay the higher amount and any difference in rent they missed.

But when their income drops again, the Rental Office isn't allowed to modify the payment plan it's put the tenants on, except to ask them to pay in a lump sum.

The issue was flagged in previous Rental Office reports, and the Department of Justice is said to be considering a solution.

In another example from the report, public landlords use 31-day leases, which do not automatically renew, to keep tenants in line with the threat of eviction.

If they are evicted, tenants have no chance to appeal — a clause the report calls "unnecessary, redundant, and excessive, providing an unreasonable amount of power to subsidized public housing landlords."

Public housing tenants aren't alone — in many cases, the report notes, tenants who have been suddenly evicted "under duress" have no recourse after they've moved out.

Similarly, landlords who withhold property to extract late rent payments can be ordered to return it, but can't be fined. 

Guignon outlines one 2018 case where a landlord withheld a tenant's car until they provided thousands of dollars in rent and security deposits, took over utilities contracts, and offered proof of tenant insurance.

The rental office found the landlord in violation of the act, but had "no authority to grant the tenant compensation."

Guignon said these kinds of cases are uncommon, but acknowledged many abuses don't make it to the Rental Office at all.

"If the tenant doesn't make an application seeking remedy ... then there's nothing brought to me to hear or consider," she said.

Guignon said she expects the Department of Justice will be looking to close the gaps she's identified.

"The department and I have a very good relationship," she said. "They've taken my recommendations seriously."