Mr. Speaker, this Government loves to subsidize housing. The Housing Corporation provides social housing, EC&E pays individuals rents through the Income Assistance program – even the Department of Justice provides subsidized housing by forcing private landlords to house delinquent tenants for months on end.
Let me explain: let’s say a tenant falls into arrears for the month January and an application to evict is filed with the Rental Officer in February. There likely wouldn’t be a hearing until May or June. If the tenant continues to skip out on rent during this time there’s nothing the landlord can do, except sit idly by as potentially unrecoverable arrears grow, and a revenue stream worth thousands runs dry.
Mr. Speaker, I understand we have to protect tenants’ rights, but there are tenants who are aware of this and who work the system.
In the NWT there is one company that controls around 85% of the rental market. I’m not concerned about that company, it can absorb the costs. My concern is for all the other landlords in the Territory that contribute to their local economies, are trying to make a living or earn some extra income, or who count on a few rental properties for their retirement income.
In Hay River it is tough to find a place to rent, and when you do, it’s not cheap. A big part of the reason for this is that it’s hard to convince individuals or businesses to invest in constructing new apartments or rental units because everyone knows the hassles that landlords have to go through in the Territory.
The system doesn’t just hurt landlords, it hinders the growth of our economy. This lack of rental housing makes it extremely difficult to attract and retain employees that we need to address our labour gap and help grow the economy. It could also make all the difference to someone considering leaving town with their family.
There’s tweaks to the Residential Tenancies Act that can help remedy some of the problems, but the immediate issue is the understaffing of the Rental Office.
Two years ago the office hired a Deputy Rental Officer. That brought the total number of Rental Officers up to two. Unfortunately, half the staff recently retired and now we’re back down to one. Nowadays, nearly half of all applications take over two months to be heard. And Mr. Speaker, the Rental Office doesn’t just deal with private landlords, it also used by the Housing Corporation to collect arrears, and aggressive attempts by the Corporation at collecting arrears have further disadvantaged small landlords.
The Minister is aware of these issues – I’ve discussed them with him before. I was assured that the Rental Office was taking steps to tackle its workload problem, and hopefully that means hiring another officer.
I will have questions for the Minister of Justice at the appropriate time. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
MR. SIMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Speaker, earlier I spoke of the understaffing at the rental office and the negative effects that it has on landlords, who are essentially small-business owners. I am sure the Minister of Justice, in his former life as a small town lawyer, has fielded questions from landlords on how they can evict a delinquent tenant or how they can collect on arrears, so I am sure he is very familiar with this issue. I would like to ask the Minister: what steps will the Department of Justice take to reduce the wait times and restore landlords’ confidence in the rental office? Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
MR. SPEAKER: Masi. Minister of Justice.
HON. LOUIS SEBERT: Mr. Speaker, the average time between the filing of an application and the actual hearing in the Northwest Territories is two to three months, and that is consistent or about the same as you would find in other jurisdictions. We have been trying to make the system more efficient by, for example, using three way teleconferencing and scheduling face to face hearings outside Yellowknife. I know, in 2015 16, 61 per cent of the applications were heard within 60 days and, the prior year to that, only 55 per cent were herd within 60 days. If the load continues to increase, certainly, I think an option we could consider is the appointment of a second rental officer. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
MR. SIMPSON: The Minister mentioned that it is consistent with other jurisdictions. It seems like it is convenient to be uniquely Northern and have a unique situation in the North when it benefits us, but it is okay to be consistent with other jurisdictions when it benefits the government, as well.
There have been significant efforts across departments to collect arrears tied to public housing, and these hearings have been partially responsible for the long wait times to the rental office. It is private landlords who really bolster the availability of rental housing in the communities and really add to the economy, and they have just as much right to be paid by tenants as the Housing Corporation, so is the department going to take any steps to support private landlords in collecting arrears instead of focusing their efforts on the government itself?
HON. LOUIS SEBERT: All applicants are treated equally, whether landlord or tenant, and there is no special preference given to the government in its applications before the rental officer.
MR. SIMPSON: I suppose when the biggest client is the government, it seems like that is a little unfair when it is a government office and the biggest client is the government. It is not the public, really, being served.
I think that, if the department formally assessed the business case for increasing the complement at the rental office to at least two permanent, full time rental officers, it would see that this is a net benefit for the territory. Those thousands of dollars of revenue that landlords miss out on when tenants can’t be evicted in a timely manner and the lowering of rates when there are more rental units available, I think it would pay dividends to have another rental officer there. Will the department formally assess the business case for adding another rental officer to the rental office?
HON. LOUIS SEBERT: Yes.
MR. SPEAKER: Masi. I am not sure what other kinds of questions there will be. Oral questions. Member for Hay River North.
MR. SIMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. That might be the first commitment from the Minister this Assembly. Thank you. Thank you to the Minister.
I am sure the Minister is aware of this. There are problems collecting costs for damages. A tenant might leave, causing more damages than the damage deposit covers, and it is very difficult for the small landlords to collect on these. Is the department doing anything to help out small landlords collect on these damages? Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
HON. LOUIS SEBERT: Mr. Speaker, the issue raised by the Member opposite is a problem generated with civil judgments that collection is always difficult, whether it is a judgment for arrears or on a contract. I don’t think the problems are any greater in this situation as they are in any other civil cases, so I don’t think we are contemplating change of legislation.
The whole point of the Residential Tenancies Act was to establish a balance between landlord and tenant. I do appreciate that that balance, when it comes to residences as opposed to commercial tenancies, is somewhat weighted in favour of the tenant, but the legislation is consistent with other jurisdictions.