CBC Hamilton is investigating the living conditions renters 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 be published in the coming weeks.
Cockroach and bedbug infestations at Tammy Brown’s Hamilton apartment have nearly destroyed her life, she says.
Cockroaches have taken over her refrigerator 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 of his clothing and furniture in an effort to rid his home of pests.
“We have nothing left,” he said.
Brown has called the city four times in less than a year, begging it to order the owner of 221 Melvin Ave. to fix the pest problems.
She said that neither public health nor statutes have ever responded.
“Nobody in town gives a shit,” he said. “Excuse my French, but the job isn’t getting done.”
There’s a reason you haven’t received a response. The city of Hamilton is not enforcing its own pest control rules, and hasn’t for more than four years, staff told CBC Hamilton.
That means landlords who fail to keep buildings free of roaches, bedbugs or rats, as required by the city’s property standards statute, have not faced statute warrants or charges.
The app stopped when the pandemic started
Kevin McDonald, the city’s public health director who oversees the healthy environments division, said in an interview that the decision to pause pest control was made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, when redeployed personnel to respond to the emergency.
Pest control was determined to be a low priority at the time, McDonald said. The public was notified of the change via a report prepared for the Board of Health and the previous mayor in June 2020.
In that report, it does not list services, such as pest control enforcement, that were suspended, but rather services that would continue. Pest control was not on the list.
Public Health lifted its state of emergency related to COVID-19 more than a year ago.
“We appreciate and are not trying to minimize the presence of pests in someone’s home which can be extremely stressful, frustrating and concerning,” McDonald said. “And depending on the type of pests, that can have a mental and physical impact on people.”
However, according to public health manager Matthew Lawson, there is little evidence to suggest that rats, cockroaches and bedbugs transmit pathological diseases, and the idea that residents could experience negative mental health impacts is a “novel notion.” developing” that began in 2008 when bed bugs began making a resurgence in Hamilton.
“I couldn’t agree more with you that no one wants to live with pests,” Lawson said. “But pests in their modern form don’t necessarily present a health hazard.”
The Hamilton public health department received 1,365 pest complaints from 2019 through this month, as shared with CBC Hamilton. There were fewer than five warrants issued by the city at that time. A corporate landlord found guilty of violating the city’s pest control rules can face fines of up to $100,000.
McDonald’s said enforcement will start again in mid-August after a bylaws officer is reassigned and trained.
The statutory officer will respond to pest control complaints, which residents can file by calling the city’s customer service center, he said.
Everyone deserves a safe place to live. And I really want to stress that pest control is absolutely a health issue in many ways.– Laura Pin, Assistant Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University
In a call with CBC Hamilton, 221 Melvin Ave. General Manager Breed Singh denied there were any infestations in Brown’s unit or anywhere else in the building. However, the property manager, Family Properties, has contracted with a pest control company to do preventative treatment in the common areas, he said. Singh said that if they get a pest complaint from a tenant, they spray that unit and the ones around it.
The city’s charter department has received nine complaints about the building in the past year and a half, administrator Dan Smith said. In three of the complaints, all related to property standards issues, the city ordered the landlord to make repairs, which he did.
‘People are not being heard’
Brown said she is facing eviction this week for not paying her rent. However, he said that he planned to leave as soon as possible, since the plague situation is untenable.
He’s still looking for another place, but expects his monthly rent to rise from $1,600 to more than $2,000 as the cost of housing has skyrocketed in recent years.
“I’m very angry with Hamilton’s services,” she said. “That’s why they have housing problems. They don’t listen to the people and they can’t take it anymore.”
Laura Pin, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies housing policy, said this lack of enforcement of property standards disproportionately affects low-income residents, including people like Brown who receive welfare.
They are more likely to rent and be “stuck” financially in units that are deteriorating and with the “enormous” psychological impact of living with pests, Pin said.
“It’s a really serious problem. Everyone deserves a safe place to live. And I really want to stress that pest control is absolutely a health issue in many ways.”
The physical and mental health of Brown and his family have been greatly affected, he said. They can’t sleep at night because of the bed bugs, and their bites itch and hurt. They feel bad about cockroaches, both from allergies and bacteria, and from the debris left behind by the insects.
The city faces a backlog of complaints
Pin said he can understand why the city halted its app in the initial months of the pandemic.
“But the thought that there has been no enforcement for years makes me wonder if someone who is a tenant really sits at the table and makes these kinds of decisions.”
City law enforcement is also important right now because of backlogs at the Landlord-Tenant Board (LTB), Pin said.
Tenants can request that the LTB order the landlord to perform maintenance and repairs if they have not done them correctly or fast enough. The board can also order the landlord to compensate the tenant.
However, it takes up to two years to schedule a hearing for tenant complaints, the Ontario Ombudsman found in May.
Lawson, the public health administrator, said the city is working to get back on track, acknowledging that there will be a backlog of complaints.
“The concern is the perception that not enough work is being done fast enough,” Lawson said. “There are a number of problems in Hamilton that you can attribute that to. Everyone wants to get things done now.”