Sheltered, a CBC Investigates series, examines the housing crisis in Newfoundland and Labrador — telling the stories of the people living it, while scrutinizing the policies and politics behind it.
Allan Kitonsa says he didn’t know where to turn when his landlord and two men arrived at his rental home unannounced one day in August and began packing up his things in garbage bags, putting them in a truck, and driving them away.
Kitonsa, who arrived in Canada in 2022, was paying his rent for a room on William Street near downtown St. John’s. He had a written rental agreement with the landlord, Mike O’Dea, of Newfound Rentals.
Despite that, Kitonsa was moved without notice to another rental property that he would later describe at a residential tenancies tribunal as “so bad he wouldn’t let a dog stay there.”
His personal belongings were brought to a third address — on the other side of town.
“The truth is some landlords are abusing their powers,” Kitonsa said in an interview with CBC News.
“That’s a fact. I am a witness to this.”
The adjudicator who heard the case sided with Kitonsa, finding that O’Dea “acted with complete disregard to the rules and regulations under [the provincial Residential Tenancies Act] and with absolute disregard for the tenant’s rights.”
Lack of remorse
In that decision, adjudicator Jacqueline Williams criticized the landlord’s lack of remorse for his actions.
“It is distressing that any reasonable person would believe that it is OK to take everything a person owns, move those belongings twice and dictate that this is where they will live, without any input or permission from that person,” Williams wrote.
The adjudicator ordered O’Dea to pay his former tenant more than $2,000 for rent, damages, missing possessions, security deposit, and the cost of emergency accommodations, groceries and transportation around the city to retrieve his belongings.
Kitonsa’s representative at the hearing called the case “an egregious contravention of the act,” and asked for fines to be imposed on top of that.
But the adjudicator said the tribunal does not have the authority to levy the fines outlined in the legislation.
Williams wrote that “any party seeking to have the offence provisions applied” would be required to file documents at provincial court to move that process forward.
However, a CBC News investigation has found that it’s not entirely clear who — if anyone — is responsible for shepherding those cases through the system.
In fact, there do not appear to have been any fines dished out since the law was beefed up five years ago to encourage compliance, by increasing potential penalties.
And housing advocates say that’s a glaring gap in the system — one that should be fixed.
Meanwhile, the minister in charge of the law says “anyone” can lay an information at court to try to have fines enforced.
Act changed to increase fines 5 years ago
The provincial Liberals introduced amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act in 2018.
Among those changes: increasing fines from a maximum of $400 to a maximum of $10,000 for corporations and $3,000 for individuals.
“Many of those we heard from voiced their concerns about particular violations of the act, including violations by some landlords who change the locks on their tenant’s doors and would remove their possessions without properly terminating the lease,” then-Service N.L. Minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh said during debate in the House of Assembly on May 17, 2018.
“It was suggested that some of these violations could be curtailed if the maximum fine allowed in this section was increased.”
Asked in the legislature a few days later about the expected likelihood of being able to actually collect these fines, Gambin-Walsh replied: “Very likely.”
That doesn’t seem to have turned out to be the case.
WATCH | A law to deter landlords and tenants from breaking the law doesn’t appear to be used:
The department said in a recent statement to CBC News that the court is responsible for enforcing penalty provisions.
But there does not appear to be anyone dedicated to bringing those cases to court for that to happen.
The RCMP told CBC News it “typically does not get involved in these matters as they are civil in nature.”
The Mounties have no record of laying charges under this legislation in the last two years — which is how long such records are retained.
The RCMP say they can get involved when police officers are required to keep the peace or enforce a court order.
The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, meanwhile, also has “no record of action” with the section of the Residential Tenancies Act relating to offences and fines, according to Const. James Cadigan.
Similarly, the RNC advised that they have received calls for service related to tenancy matters, with officers often acting as a mediator “to promote safety of all involved and the security of property.”
The province’s director of public prosecutions, Lisa Stead, noted that her office would receive a file once a charge is laid — either by an information or summary offence ticket filed at court.
They would then prosecute as they determine to be appropriate, following their normal policies and procedures.
Stead stressed that Crown attorneys never lay charges.
‘No teeth’ in current legislation, advocate says
Sherwin Flight is administrator of the Newfoundland Tenant and Landlord Support Group on Facebook, which has more than 26,000 members.
Its aim, he notes, is primarily to help landlords and tenants with information and advice under the Residential Tenancies Act, while also dealing with some issues related to privacy and human rights.
When the changes to the law were rolled out five years ago, Flight’s group was one of those publicly acknowledged by the then-minister for providing valuable feedback.
Fast forward to today, and Flight says things have not gone as expected.
“So as far as I’m aware, no one has ever actually been fined under the Residential Tenancies Act in this province,” he said.
Is that an effective way for this legislation to work?
“No. And we see the repercussions of that on both sides,” Flight said.
“There are landlords that have made breaking the law part of their business model, and they do it regularly and they do it often. And there are some tenants that know the rules and how to play around them.”
Flight thinks the solution is for the government to take the enforcement of the Residential Tenancies Act seriously.
“There’s no teeth. Every other law that’s been passed, there’s some sort of enforcement mechanism built in and it’s usually a government agency or officer that would enforce that,” he said.
“So [the department] should really be looking at doing the same, and having people there to make sure that the rules are being followed.”
In Nova Scotia, no fines have been imposed in decades.
A consultant’s report there recommended the creation of a residential tenancy compliance and enforcement unit, although timelines for that to potentially happen have been pushed back.
Why isn’t there some kind of enforcement unit like that in Newfoundland and Labrador?
“That’s a good question,” Flight said. “I will leave that one for the government to answer.”
Minister says ‘anyone’ can go to court
Digital Government and Service N.L. Minister Sarah Stoodley said Wednesday “anyone” can lay an information that would work its way through the court system.
“The court process would decide any fines levied,” Stoodley said in an interview.
But the minister said she doesn’t know if anyone has been fined under those penalty provisions of the Residential Tenancies Act.
“We have laws, and I’m responsible for 176 piece of legislation and regulations, and I would imagine most if not all of those have fines built in,” Stoodley said.
“The principle of having the law is, just because no fines have been levied — and I can’t speak in this case if fines have been levied or not, because that would be up to the court system — and so having a law and having a fine, not having ever administered the fine doesn’t defeat the purpose of having the law.”
CBC News had asked the Department of Justice, which oversees fines administration, how much in Residential Tenancies Act fines have been processed, billed, and/or collected over the past five years.
Officials there steered that request to Service N.L., which provided a statement that gives the impression that none have been collected.
“Under the Residential Tenancies Act, the court is responsible for enforcing penalty provisions,” that statement advised. “To date, dispute resolution applications received by the Residential Tenancies Office have been addressed without the need to bring the matter to the court seeking a conviction of non-compliance under the Act.”
‘Still trying to look for the answers’
Allan Kitonsa has first-hand experience about what happens under the current system.
“If the law says that as a landlord, you don’t just show up and storm into your tenant’s house without a notice — prior notice — you should do that because this is the law,” he said.
Kitonsa, who works in the medical field, said he didn’t miss rent and was shocked when O’Dea booted him from the property.
During last month’s landlord-tenant hearing, O’Dea said he moved Kitonsa because he was wearing a towel in a common area of the house and upset fellow female tenants. Kitonsa denies that.
O’Dea told the adjudicator that he believed Kitonsa was in agreement with being moved.
O’Dea acknowledged that there was no written documentation of these changes.
He declined to comment when contacted by CBC News via email and in person.
The experience has left Kitonsa questioning the amount of power the board has to deal with landlords who break the rules.
“What I noticed at the landlord and tenancy board seems like it’s more of a dialogue thing. They don’t have enforcement. They cannot force whoever is wrong to cooperate,” Kitonsa said.
“I’m still trying to look for the answers as to why I was treated the way I was treated.”
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