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Cape Breton University international students share rental nightmare stories

Tahlil Akter, left, and M.D. Abdul Halim Himel, stand in a hallway at Cape Breton University where they are first-year students. The men are from Bangladesh and had trouble finding a suitable rental unit when they first arrived for the 2019-2020 school year. They feel some international students are being taken advantage of by local landlords and hope telling their story will assist other newcomers to Canada.
Tahlil Akter, left, and M.D. Abdul Halim Himel, stand in a hallway at Cape Breton University where they are first-year students. The men are from Bangladesh and had trouble finding a suitable rental unit when they first arrived for the 2019-2020 school year. They feel some international students are being taken advantage of by local landlords and hope telling their story will assist other newcomers to Canada. - Nikki Sullivan
SYDNEY, N.S. —

Third time was a charm for two university students from Bangladesh who were desperate to find acceptable accommodations in Sydney.

M.D. Abdul Halim Himel, 25, and Tahlil Akter, 28, weren’t looking for anything fancy — just an inexpensive place where they could study, live and sleep comfortably in separate rooms.

But this isn’t what they got with the first two rental units they moved into.

Himel and Akter met on Facebook after learning they both were going to Cape Breton University in September. Deciding it would be nice to have a roommate from their home country, the two found a rental unit advertised on a Facebook group for CBU students from India. Their landlord rented it to them for $350 each, for a total of $700.

Himel arrived a few days before Akter on Sept. 1, and it was his first time traveling outside of Bangladesh. When he arrived at his new apartment, Himel wasn’t exactly sure what to think.

NOT AS ADVERTISED

This is the first rental unit Cape Breton University students Tahlil Akter and M.D. Abdul Halim Himel attempted to live in when they arrived in Sydney in September. The unit is the detached garage, which the two international students from Bangladesh said had no bathroom or kitchen. They were told to use the facilities in the main house and that two more students would be moving in with them, into the one-room unit.
This is the first rental unit Cape Breton University students Tahlil Akter and M.D. Abdul Halim Himel attempted to live in when they arrived in Sydney in September. The unit is the detached garage, which the two international students from Bangladesh said had no bathroom or kitchen. They were told to use the facilities in the main house and that two more students would be moving in with them, into the one-room unit.

There was no bathroom, no kitchen and he’s not sure if it was insulated or had heat. In the corner, there were tools and it was one open room. It was a detached garage.

“This is the first country I’ve been to. I thought maybe this is the way some people in Canada live,” said Himel, who is studying business management.

“I have never been to a winter country so I thought maybe this place would be OK.”

They were both expected to use the bathroom and the kitchen in the main house, which looks to be about six to 10 feet away from the garage.

Akter, who has spent time in other countries, arrived a few days later and immediately realized the detached garage was an accommodation that was "not up to our standards.”

“We were told (by the landlords) we would have to take two more people in the garage to live with us,” said Akter, a supply management student.

“Because then our rent could drop from $350 to $300 for each of us… People are exploiting people, exploiting international students (with rental properties like this.)”

COMPLAINTS ON THE RISE

The Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s manager of building, planning and licensing laws, Paul Burt, said his department has had complaints regarding the condition of living units for many years. However, there has been an increase in this since the influx of international student enrollment at CBU began over the past couple of years.

“It’s allowed people to exploit the market and try to cram 20 people into a single family unit, to make more money,” he said. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but some people don’t understand the laws and the liabilities (associated with providing rental units).”

Under the municipality’s minimum standards bylaw, landlords are expected to provide basic necessities, which include having a bathroom and kitchen in the rental unit or home, not in another building.

“That is absolutely illegal,” Burt said. “It should be reported (to us) and investigated.”

NEW ACCOMMODATIONS

Akter and Himel decided very quickly to move from the garage on Castle Drive and found a new rental unit advertised on the CBU housing board, an online resource for students. They found the number of a man who has a basement rental unit in his Whitney Pier home.

The 73-year-old man, who has some health issues, lives upstairs and told the Cape Breton Post he has rented some of the bedrooms in his residence to international students over the past year and a half, usually for three-month periods.

Desperate for a place to stay, Akter and Himel said they agreed to rent the master bedroom from the man, who was using the two smaller rooms in the home (one for his clothing and one as his bedroom). The man, who spoke to the Cape Breton Post on the condition of not being named, charged Akter and Himel $310 each for the room.

Happy to have a place, they moved in as soon as they could and they signed a lease. They were not given any rules and said they never received a copy of the lease with the landlord's signature on it.

After moving in, Akter and Himel quickly started having problems with their living situation.

Their first issue was sleeping arrangements — Himel and Akter said they asked the landlord if they could move the large bed in the room to put in two smaller ones. They said the landlord wouldn't allow them to and were expected to share the bed.

Not wanting to share a bed, the two said they offered the landlord $350 if they could move into the two smaller rooms, but he refused.

HOUSE RULES TOO STRICT SAY STUDENTS

Himel and Akter also said they were given a number of other house rules after they moved in, many of which they felt were too restrictive.

These included only being allowed to use the kitchen for one hour during suppertime and never later at night. They also were forbidden from using the kitchen or bathroom in the morning from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. in writing. Akter and Himel said this timeframe was extended verbally to two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, however, the landlord said the limited time was only what was included in the written house rules.

One of the signs with rules made by the landlord, posted throughout the second rental unit Akter and Himel lived in.
One of the signs with rules made by the landlord, posted throughout the second rental unit Akter and Himel lived in.

If the students wanted to use the laundry in the house, they had to ask permission and the landlord had to turn on the washing machine and dryer himself.

Over the weeks the two men lived their, the landlord put signs up throughout the house, reminding Himel and Akter to clean up after themselves, not to spit in the sink and to clean the toilet and bathtub after every use.

“Even if he had given the house rules ahead of time, I could have changed my mind,” said Akter who admits he stopped talking to the landlord shortly after moving in, due to the rules.

Himel said he tried his best to follow the landlord's rules, often cleaned up for both himself and Akter, trying to make the living situation less stressful than it was.

“I did whatever he asked but I couldn’t make him happy,” admitted Himel. “We are grateful it is over. It was a bit like mental torture while we were there.”

The landlord said use of laundry facilities wasn't included in rent, something listed in the written rules he gave Akter and Himel after they moved in. The landlord also said he made the list of rules and added to them because his tenants weren’t cleaning up after themselves to his standards. He also explained the one hour a day they couldn’t use the bathroom or kitchen was for his daily homecare visit, which he needs because he is disabled.

The senior, who also has a basement apartment he rents out, said he let his tenants use the laundry facilities on the condition he turned them on and off because Akter and Himel didn’t load it the washing machine evenly, so it would clank. His fear was they would over pack the appliances and break them.

With regards to use of the kitchen, the landlord said he asked each of them to pick an hour to cook because he felt this gave everyone their own time in the kitchen so no one would be in anyone's way. The senior also wanted his tenants using the kitchen during early evening hours and set the scheduled times for then.

“They’d come home at eight or nine at night and they’d cook at 10 or 11. That’s too late to be cooking in the kitchen. One night, the guy was cooking at 12 a.m.,” he said. "They’d cook when they felt like it… No reason why they couldn’t cook at seven when they got home.”

LANDLORDS CAN CREATE RULES WITHIN REASON

According to the Residential Tenancies Act, a landlord is entitled to create any rule they deem necessary, within reason.

“The landlord’s rules must be reasonable and applicable to all tenants,” said provincial government spokesman Gary Andrea in a written statement.

“The landlord cannot dictate sharing the same bed but rules might address what furniture is provided. If a tenant feels that the rules are not reasonable or not being applied to everyone, they can file an application for a residential tenancies hearing.”

Himel and Akter have applied for a hearing because the second landlord is refusing to return their $300 security deposit.

The 73-year-old landlord said he is withholding the security deposit because Himel lost the house key, had a replacement key made and never told him it was misplaced. He also said the tenants left the room in such a mess he needed to hire a cleaner, another reason he's refusing to return their deposit.

Andrea said a landlord must apply to keep a tenant's security deposit. The landlord said he did this sometime between Nov. 2 and Nov. 7 however, Aktel and Himel said they haven't recieved any notification from officials of this application.

According to the Residential Tenancies Act, a landlord can't withhold a deposit without approval from a program official. Grounds for withholding a security deposit don't include cleaning services or unpaid rent. Usually, deposits are withheld for damage done to property.

VETTING PROCESS 'INFORMAL'

CBU Director of Housing and Ancillary Services, Doug Connors, said their vetting process for landlords is "informal" and recommends students to report issues they've had with rentals that were found on the housing directory so the university can follow up.

Himel and Akter have both found rooms in different rental units where they are happy and find it less stressful that their previous arrangements. However, they hope by telling their story more international students will learn what are acceptable living conditions in Canada and will hopefully not get tricked into living somewhere they aren’t comfortable.

FINALLY HAVE HAPPY HOMES

Akter and Himel were unable to find another rental to move into together but said they are both very happy with their current living situations. Himel found a place in Sydney with other international CBU students. One of them is the lease holder and there is a flat fee for the whole unit. Himel and the other roommates pay the lease holder their share of rent and he plays the landlord.

Akter was able to rent a room in a house he said was renovated by a Pakistani man for the purpose of housing international students. The man lives downstairs and rents the upstairs rooms individually to students, however, it's not overcrowded and Akter has his own space and bed.

"His mom even cooks me food," he said. "I wasn't expecting that. At our last place we couldn't cook after nine."


What landlords need to know before they rent:

  • You are protected under the N.S. Residential Tenancies Act
  • Withholding a security deposit after a tenant leaves can only be done after approval from Residential Tenancies. This must be applied for within 10 days of tenant moving out.
  • Landlords can make rules for tenants to follow and renters should abide by these. These rules must be within reason and not infringe on a tenants rights.
  • A tenant cannot be evicted by a landlord. Only an official with the Residential Tenancy Program can do this. Landlords must apply for the renter's eviction through the program.
  • Valid reasons for eviction include: non-payment of rent, breach of lease, property is being sold, property is no longer inhabitable.
  • Landlords must abide by the CBRM's minimum standard bylaw which details what a property must have to be liveable (both residential and rental units).
  • Landlords must give tenants notice of rent increases - four months for yearly and month to month leases, eight weeks for weekly leases.
  • Utilities can never be cut off by a landlord for any reason while the tenant is in the rental unit.
  • Rental units must be kept "fit for living standards" and safe for tenants.
  • Landlords can only enter rented units in emergencies, when they provide written notice to tenant or a notice to quit has been issued.
  • Notice to enter requests must state time and day the landlord will go into the unit. These must be given at least 24 hours in advance.
  • Landlords can only enter rented units during daylight hours.
  • Any disputes with tenants that can't be resolved should be referred to Residential Tenancies.

*Source: Province of Nova Scotia "Residential Tenancies Rental Guide"


What renters need to know before they move in:

  • You are protected under the N.S. Residential Tenancies Act.
  • You have responsibilities as a tenant including not bothering neighbours, reporting repairs needed to landlord, keeping your rental unit clean of excessive filth of clutter.
  • Heat must be kept at a temperature that won't cause damage, such as broken pipes, to the unit during the winter.
  • Payments in cash for security deposits, rent are not recommended. If payments need to be made this way, always get a receipt of payment signed by landlord.
  • You should keep paper documentation of all payments, lease agreements, rules, reports of repairs needed.
  • Read the landlord rules and lease before signing or moving in.
  • Rental application fees in Nova Scotia are illegal.
  • Signing a lease before seeing a rental unit is not recommended.
  • Your landlord must give a signed copy of the lease within 10-days of tenant signing. Both parties have to have signed the lease within this time.
  • A landlord can request a co-signer on a lease if they have valid reason to believe the tenant cannot afford the rental unit.
  • A landlord can state in rules or lease tenant insurance is responsibility of renter. This doesn't mean the tenant has to puchase this insurance and not having it isn't grounds for eviction.
  • If there is no tenant insurance, the renter is responsible for cost of damages caused during time living there. This can include fire, flood and liability.
  • Rent can only be raised once a year and notification must be recieved in written notice in accordance to the Residential Tenancies Act.
  • If a utility was included in rent and is removed but rent stays the same, this is considered a rental increase by law.
  • A landlord can only keep a security deposit for damages not for unpaid rent or cleaning services. An application to keep the deposit must be filed with Residential Tenancies within 10 days of tenant moving out.
  • The Residential Tenancies Act and the Cape Breton Regional Municipality are resources for tenants. The municipality deals with the physical rental unit itself while Residential Tenancies deals with landlord - tenant agreements.
  • If you have a lease, you must have valid reasons to break it, which are detailed in the Residential Tenancies Act. If you don't have a lease, your rental agreement is considered month to month and 30 days notice is needed.

*Source: Dalhousie Legal Aid Service "Tenant Rights Guide"

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