Students in Halifax face hit-or-miss housing market

Somed Shahadu and Michelle Legassicke both rented tiny, mouse-infested rooms in an overcrowded, “horrifying” house for an entire year. They only realized they had been living at the same property after meeting at work.

Born and raised in Ghana, with no family in Halifax, University of King’s College student Somed Shahadu was reliant on Kijiji postings to find a place to live.

Little did he know he would soon find himself sharing a dark, cramped and mouldy basement with five strangers.

Legassicke was working in Tanzania when she found the Kijiji listing for the house.

“The website looked really professional, and the floor plans and photos were promising.”

Things soon turned sour as she realized she had to share a bathroom with five strangers, and couldn’t lock the door to her room.

When Shahadu found an available apartment at The Flats at Pepperell St. just off Quinpool, he was thrilled. The rent was $500 a month, and best of all, everything was included, from furniture to heat to toilet paper.

While Shahadu did view the apartment before signing the lease, he “wasn’t concerned… I thought there was gonna be sufficient facilities to be able to take care of the number of people. I only realized well into my lease that it was a rip-off.”

Shahadu soon found himself sharing the main floor and basement of a “tattered” house on Pepperell Street with 10 other people. There were three bathrooms, only two with showers. They all shared a single kitchen.

“More than half of us were international students. I had no idea what I was getting into.”

Snow removal was supposed to be included, but no one ever came to shovel anything, “even though the landlord said it was part of what we were paying for.”

The heat wasn’t turned on until November, by which time Shahadu’s tiny basement room was freezing, infested with mice and spotted with mould. The Internet was dead slow: “there was one router for the whole house!”

Three people own the property, and when Shahadu contacted them to try to resolve his issues, he was given the runaround.

“One would say, ‘I’m just in charge of collecting money, talk to the others.’ It was endless, and nothing was ever fixed.”

When Shahadu left to move back to King’s as a university don, he was not given back his security deposit, despite not having damaged anything.

“They didn’t inform me if I had damaged anything. I know I didn’t damage anything; I sent them an email and called them, until they stopped answering. It was horrifying.”

While working at King’s, Shahadu became friends with fellow don Michelle Legassicke, who is currently pursuing her PhD.

“We were talking about how terrible our places were before we moved to King’s, as dons, and then we happened to be talking about the same place. I had no idea we had been living in the same house for entire year!”

Despite the property being subdivided into two units, all tenants shared one laundry room in the basement and could move freely between floors.

“They were sold as two separate houses, but it was the same place.”

Legassicke was attracted to the property for the same reasons as Shahadu: the good location, the inexpensive rent, and the promise of an “in-house manager that cleaned twice a week.”

Although the cleaning did take place, Legassicke still had serious problems with the house.

“If you go on the Internet site, it’s nice, it’s clean, it’s bright. When they showed it to you, they made it seem like you were walking into this decent sized hallway, but the hallway was maybe three feet. One of my bigger roommates couldn’t really fit through it!”

Legassicke shared one bathroom with the five other people on her floor, and one kitchen with the same five and the additional two people who lived on the next floor up. Altogether there were eight of them, plus the house manager’s live-in boyfriend.

“Between all four floors, there could be as many as 40 people in the house at any given time,” she said. “I would get up and leave by eight or nine in the morning, and come back in the evening to eat and sleep. I had no desire to stick around for any longer than that.”

Two months into her lease, the locks allowing tenants to lock their doors from the outside were removed, “because it was illegal, according to the city, to have indoor locks on individual doors.”

“We signed contracts saying we could have locks on our doors, but out of nowhere, and there was nothing we could do, they took off all of our locks.”

As a compromise, the landlords had chain locks installed, but this didn’t work for Legassicke.

“The comfort they gave me, basically, was that I wouldn’t be attacked in my sleep.”

Billy Sparks, the lawyer who supervises the tenants’ rights project and works for the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, said situations like this are common in Halifax. The Dalhousie Legal aid service is popular among students seeking advice about their rights as tenants since it provides legal advice and representation free of charge.

“We get about 20-25 tenancy calls from students per week. Our goal is to help them remedy their situations, as we realize there’s a serious lack of affordable housing in Halifax.”

Most students call with questions regarding leases, and pests like rats, cockroaches and bed bugs.

“Bed bugs are an increasing problem, everyone gets those now, especially with student housing.”

Legally, dealing with pests falls under the landlord’s responsibilities.

Sparks says more students have been reporting landlords who refuse to give them back their damage deposit, like Shahadu. He also thinks there are more cases out there that aren’t being reported because students aren’t aware of their rights.

“We’ve even had cases where some landlords try to charge more than half the first month’s rent, which is the legal maximum. In one case, they were charging tenants three and half months rent.”

The landlords of The Flats at Pepperell were contacted, but declined to comment on their property.