CBC Hamilton is investigating the living conditions that tenants face and what responsibility the city has to uphold property standards. This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Parts 2 and 3 will run in the coming weeks.
The cockroach and bedbug infestations in Tammy Brown’s Hamilton apartment have all but destroyed her life, she says.
Roaches have taken over her fridge and stove, contaminating her food and making it impossible to cook for her two adult daughters, one of whom lives with a disability, and her four-year-old grandson.
Brown has thrown out nearly all their clothes and furniture in an effort to rid her home of the pests.
“We have nothing left,” she said.
Brown has called the city four times in under a year, begging for it to order the landlord at 221 Melvin Ave. to fix the pest problems.
She said neither public health nor bylaw has ever responded.
“Nobody from the city gives a shit,” she said. “Pardon my French, but the job is not being done.”
There’s a reason she hasn’t heard back. The City of Hamilton isn’t enforcing its own pest control rules — and hasn’t for over four years, staff told CBC Hamilton.
That means landlords who fail to keep buildings free of cockroaches, bedbugs or rats, as required under the city’s property standards bylaw, haven’t faced bylaw orders or fees.
Enforcement paused when pandemic began
Kevin McDonald, a city public health director who oversees the healthy environments division, said in an interview the decision to pause pest control happened in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, when staff were reassigned to respond to the emergency.
Pest control was determined to be a low priority at that time, McDonald said. The public was notified of the change through a report prepared for the Board of Health and the previous mayor in June 2020.
In that report, it does not list services — like pest control enforcement — that were put on hold, but rather services that would continue. Pest control was not on the list.
Public health lifted its state of emergency related to COVID-19 over a year ago.
“We appreciate and are not trying to minimize the presence of pests in someone’s home can be extremely stressful, frustrating and concerning,” said McDonald. “And depending on the type of pests, that can have a mental and physical impact on individuals.”
However, according to public health manager Matthew Lawson, there’s little evidence to suggest rats, cockroaches and bedbugs carry pathological diseases, and the idea that residents could experience negative mental health impacts is a “novel, developing notion” that began in 2008 when bedbugs started making a resurgence in Hamilton.
“I couldn’t agree with you more that nobody wants to live with pests,” said Lawson. “But pests in the modern form aren’t necessarily presenting a health hazard.”
Hamilton public health received 1,365 pest complaints from 2019 to this month, as shared with CBC Hamilton. There were fewer than five orders issued by the city in that time. A corporate landlord found guilty of violating the city’s pest control rules may face fines of up to $100,000.
McDonald said enforcement will begin again by mid-August, after one bylaw officer is reassigned and trained.
The bylaw officer will respond to pest control complaints, which residents can file by calling the city’s customer contact centre, he said.
Everyone deserves a safe place to live. And I really want to emphasize that pest control is absolutely a health issue in so many ways.– Laura Pin, Wilfrid Laurier University assistant professor
In a call with CBC Hamilton, the general manager of 221 Melvin Ave., Breed Singh, denied there were infestations in Brown’s unit or anywhere else in the building. However, the property manager, Family Properties, has hired a pest control company to do preventive treatment in common areas, he said. Singh said if they receive a pest complaint from a tenant, they spray that unit and the ones surrounding it.
The city’s bylaw department received nine complaints about the building in the last year and a half, said manager Dan Smith. In three of the complaints, all related to property standards issues, the city ordered the landlord to make repairs, which it did.
‘People are not being heard’
Brown said she faces eviction this week over unpaid rent. However, she said she was planning to leave as soon as possible regardless, as the pest situation is untenable.
She’s still looking for another place, but expects her monthly rent to jump from $1,600 to over $2,000 as the cost of housing has soared in recent years.
“I am very ticked off with the services of Hamilton,” she said. “This is why they have housing problems. People are not being heard and they can’t take it anymore.”
Laura Pin, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies housing policy, said this lack of property standards enforcement disproportionately impacts low-income residents, including people like Brown who are receiving social assistance.
They’re more likely to rent and be financially “stuck” in units that are falling into disrepair and with the “huge” psychological impact of living with pests, said Pin.
“It is a really serious problem. Everyone deserves a safe place to live. And I really want to emphasize that pest control is absolutely a health issue in so many ways.”
Brown and her family’s physical and mental health have been greatly impacted, she said. They can’t sleep at night because of the bedbugs, and their bites are itchy and sore. They feel unwell from the cockroaches, both from allergies and the bacteria, and the waste the insects leave behind.
City faces complaint backlog
Pin said she can understand why the city paused its enforcement in the initial months of the pandemic.
“But the idea that there’s been no enforcement for years, it makes me wonder if anyone who is a tenant is actually sitting at the table and making these sorts of decisions.”
City enforcement is also important right now because of the delays at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB), said Pin.
Tenants can request that the LTB order a landlord to do maintenance and repairs if they haven’t done so properly or quickly enough. The board can also order the landlord to compensate the tenant.
However, it takes up to two years for tenant complaints to be scheduled for a hearing, the Ontario Ombudsman found in May.
Lawson, the public health manager, said the city is working to get back on track, recognizing there will be a backlog of complaints.
“The concern is the perception there’s not enough work being done quick enough,” said Lawson. “There’s a number of issues in Hamilton you can attribute that to. Everyone wants stuff done now.”
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