Samantha Barnes, a single mother with two young twins, said her stay in a cold and drafty apartment in Lethbridge, Alta. was “horrible” — she and her children shivered through the winter months without adequate heat and windows that didn’t stop the cool wind from blowing in.
Barnes said after repeated requests to get the problems fixed, her landlord tried to end the tenancy, refused her rent payment, changed the lock on her door, and then accused her of failing to pay the rent.
Avenue Living filed a complaint with the Residential Tenancy Dispute Resolution Service (RTDRS) accusing Barnes of not paying the rent. Barnes filed a lawsuit seeking thousands of dollars in damages.
Now, the two sides have agreed to settle the dispute — with Barnes receiving a cheque for $20,000 and Avenue Living insisting it did nothing wrong during the tenancy.
Avenue Living — one of the biggest landlords in western Canada with 10,000 apartments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — decided to settle the matter before it went to trial. The agreement — a mutual release and indemnity — does not include a confidentiality agreement, leaving Barnes free to speak about her time at Westwood apartments.
“Avenue Living needs to change the way they’re conducting business and treating people,” Barnes said from her home in Lethbridge.
Avenue Living said in a statement to CBC News that it did nothing wrong during Barnes’ tenancy.
“We are a responsible property manager and take the needs of our residents seriously,” said Louise Elsey, the company’s chief operating officer.
Elsey said the company oversees “comprehensive operations and maintenance plans” at each of its properties and takes swift action to address complaints and maintenance issues that are brought to their attention.
Avenue Living denies any wrongdoing
“During her lease, our team responded to each of her concerns and was able to remedy the heat-related issues she was experiencing,” said Elsey.
“We believe our team was responsive and acted accordingly to handle Ms. Barnes tenancy with us.
“After a lengthy legal process, we determined the best course of action was to enter a Release of Indemnity [sic] with Ms. Barnes in order for all parties to move forward,” read the statement.
A clause in the agreement says the release is a “compromise of disputed claims and cannot be construed as any admission of liability.”
Elsey said the company has made changes to the way it responds to maintenance issues, pledging to resolve them within 72 hours. She said the change was not a response to Barnes’ tenancy.
Heating system not working properly, drafty windows
Barnes said the heating in her apartment did not work properly — and a health inspection completed after she moved in ordered that the single-pane, drafty bedroom windows either be repaired or replaced.
Barnes, who receives income support for a disability, moved into Westwood apartments on Algonquin Road on September 1, 2017. She says within a few weeks she noticed the heating system wasn’t working properly and contacted the landlord to report the problem.
She said nothing was done so she contacted the environmental public health division of Alberta Health Services which sent an inspector.
‘The wind blows straight through the window’
The Oct. 24 inspection stated that all of the bedroom windows in the unit were “single paned.”
“They are also missing the second set of sliding windows. The seal between these windows is in disrepair and the wind blows straight through the window,” it reads.
Barnes’ affidavit filed in support of her lawsuit against Avenue Living said the company repaired only one of the windows.
Speaking to CBC News, she said the baseboard heaters never worked properly and would often need urgent repairs, which Barnes says didn’t last.
“They would come in, fix it, or flush out the lines, and then I’d have to call back again.”
She said on some nights she and her two toddler-aged twins would have to wear winter jackets to bed to stay warm. On some nights, they would snuggle together in her bed under several blankets.
Barnes said the space heaters she brought in didn’t help.
She said the temperature inside the apartment would hover around 15 degrees Celsius for several days at a time and was even colder at night.
Barnes, who received legal help from Lethbridge Legal Guidance, said she obtained work orders that show Avenue Living received complaints from tenants in three different units about the heating system not working properly before she moved in.
Son injured after touching frosty patio door
Barnes said the icy windows inside proved to be dangerous for one of her children.
She said her son, who was about 18 months old at the time, got his tongue stuck on a section of the sliding patio door.
She said she heard a blood curdling scream and ran to help.
“And when trying to get his tongue off of it, there was a piece of his tongue stuck on the patio window. And there was blood splatter,” she said.
Barnes said she felt like a terrible mother and blamed herself for putting her children in unsafe living conditions.
“I felt like a failure because he got hurt,” she said.
It happened four months after the health inspection.
A lawyer, formerly with Lethbridge Legal Guidance, who assisted Barnes, said Avenue Living failed to comply with minimal housing and health standards and then treated Barnes unfairly after she complained about the problems.
“The response mainly seemed to be just ignoring her,” said Andrew Robb.
Robb said Avenue Living made the decision not to renew Barnes’ lease, which he said appears to have been in retaliation for her complaints related to the heating system.
Barnes’ lease expired at the end of February 2018. She paid the rent for March, however Avenue Living refused to accept her payment for April and then sought an eviction order for non-payment.
In early May, the company changed the lock on the door, which Robb said left Barnes and her children temporarily homeless.
“In the end, they evicted her by simply changing the locks on her front door, without any court order, without any legal authority. And without even any advance notice to her.”
“And, of course, landlords are not allowed to resort to self help remedies like that,” said Robb.
Barnes said her tenancy was also marked by repeated inspections of her apartment — five during the first four months of her lease — which she said caused stress and anxiety for her and her children.
Barnes went to the Avenue Living office in Lethbridge to complain about an inspection that was planned for two days after Christmas. An employee swore at her and asked her what she was hiding in the apartment.
Barnes recorded the conversation and provided a copy to CBC News.
The employee also told Barnes that if she didn’t like the way the company operates as a landlord she could move out.
Barnes, 35, signed a six-month lease and said she couldn’t afford to move out and face the costs of breaking the agreement.
Message for landlords
Robb said while the settlement acknowledges Avenue Living does not accept any liability for what occurred during Barnes’ tenancy, he said the settlement sends a strong message to property owners and managers.
“It says to landlords, especially big corporate landlords like Avenue Living, that there are real consequences for not following the rules about maintenance standards and treating tenants fairly,” he said.
It’s an allegation that Avenue Living denies.
Barnes said the lawsuit was not about the money. She said she wanted to stand up for her rights as a tenant who thought she had moved into a safe and secure place to live for herself and her children.
She said she has since moved into a new apartment.
“I found a place that we can actually call our forever home, it has just enough space for all of us,” she said.
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.