Outdated legislation protects slumlords

Mary-Sue is handed an eviction notice while I visit the trailer she leases in the Takhini trailer park in Whitehorse.

Mary-Sue is handed an eviction notice while I visit the trailer she leases in the Takhini trailer park in Whitehorse.

She hasn’t been paying rent because social assistance has messed up her monthly cheques, she explains. That’s why she’s being evicted.

The handwritten eviction note gives her 14 days to get out and find a new place to live.

Considering her squalid surroundings — dozens of books are piled in discordant stacks, ashtrays and the smell of tobacco ashes linger everywhere — the order is somewhat of a blessing.

But like many others searching for cheap apartments in Whitehorse, Mary-Sue worries she won’t find a place, and that whatever she does find will be a hole.

In the summer, Mary-Sue was forced to live at Robert Service Campground, she says.

She was relieved to find the two-bedroom trailer in Takhini.

But after she moved in, she started getting sick and discovered the trailer was unhealthy and unsafe.

The trailer, which rents for $750 a month, was flooded in the spring before she moved in, she says.

The result is an infestation of mold, the smell of which permeates the dwelling. Within minutes of entering the trailer my eyes and nose start to sting.

When I leave 20 minutes later, my sinuses are clogged and my eyes are on fire — as if I have been chopping onions: mold has a powerful effect in large quantities.

Mary-Sue says she’s on medication because of the mold; she has noticeably congested sinuses and red eyes.

She complained to the landlord about the mold, but he refused to do anything about it, she says.

During our visit, she shows us a broken kitchen window sitting in a flimsy frame. Cold air flows in. She’s responsible for the heating oil.

She complained about that, but got the same response, she says.

Then she shows us the biggest concern — her washroom floor.

A few days before my visit, her friend was in the washroom and literally fell through the floor, which has been weakened from mold, she explains.

She has pictures on her laptop computer and cellphone displaying the hole — about the size of a shoebox.

She complained about the floor to the landlord.

He fixed it — by nailing two pieces of plywood to the floor on top of the still-weakened floor.

And then he evicted her for not paying her rent.

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Not everyone in Whitehorse is living the good life during the apparent economic boom.

Those barely scraping by, working low-paying service jobs or eking out an existence on social assistance have little protection when it comes to the bottom-rate apartments they can afford.

Unlike some other Canadian jurisdictions, the Yukon’s environmental health services branch has little power to help people who live in unsafe apartments, thanks to antiquated legislation.

It goes without saying that the dirtiest and most dangerous apartments tend to be the cheapest, inhabited by the forgotten ones who live below the poverty line.

The Yukon has a Landlord and Tenant Act.

But there is little in the law that speaks to sanitary conditions, and especially to safety.

Instead, the act defers to the Yukon’s Public Health and Safety Act’s general provisions for sanitary conditions.

The provisions were written in 1958.

Enforcing them requires a complaint from a resident, and the regulations have limitations, explained Lynn Richards, manager of environmental health services.

“These regulations are dated and they do only deal with insanitary conditions in dwellings,” said Richards.

“They don’t have a safety component to them. If there’s a broken window or a hole in the floor — safety type issues — it doesn’t address those,” she said.

Three paragraphs in the act explicitly deal with dwellings.

The act gives health officers power to serve landlords notice when conditions are “insanitary,” and placard it closed and “unfit for human habitation” if no action is taken.

But the language is vague and outdated.

Black mold, a scourge increasingly cited as a health concern in Yukon dwellings, just wasn’t on the radar in 1958.

And there is little the department can do about it, said Richards.

“Mold is awkward. It is not necessarily an insanitary condition. There may be insanitary reasons for it to happen — leaking toilets and other things like that,” she said.

“Insanitary, as it’s described in dictionaries, is around filth, garbage.

“Mold’s hard,” she added. “In itself, is it insanitary?”

Upon receiving a complaint from a tenant about an apartment, the branch asks the tenant if they have made the health or safety problems known to their landlord.

“If they say, ‘Yes,’ we do a courtesy call to the landlord to make sure they have information … make sure they understand the issues, and try to give them advice,” said Richards.

“If it is something that can be regulated, then we go that route as well.”

At least one dwelling has been ordered shut and was fixed by its owner recently, said Richards.

However, when it comes to mold, the department can usually only provide education, she said.

Environmental health has three district health officers, several back-up officers in program areas, and six appointed officers who can do inspections, said Richards.

But with no specific housing regulations, “not a lot” of the department’s time is spent inspecting dwellings, she said.

The department also inspects restaurants, sewage systems, and drinking water.

“We really don’t have a housing program; we don’t have a strong regulatory provisions,” said Richards.

 “I don’t have an opinion about what the government does or doesn’t do as far as legislation,” she said.

“But I can honestly say it does not adequately address safety issues.”

A health officer recently visited a trailer matching the description of Mary-Sue’s, said Richards.

But Mary-Sue and Health department officials could not be reached to confirm what has happened as a result.

People living on the poverty line are forced to live in difficult conditions, but those people also have a personal responsibility to keep their dwellings clean, said one man, who withdrew his name after an interview for fear of being evicted.

He lives at a complex of low-rent housing near the Takhini Arena in Whitehorse, in which many residents live in dirty conditions, he said.

“I live in the same place as them. If you went into some rooms, you’d want the place to be condemned,” he said.

“But I like to think I got the same room as everybody else, and I keep it clean.

“My area is not unsafe.”