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ACORN Canada Aims to Tackle Dartmouth Slums

New developer snaps up low-rise apartment buildings, "scares away" undesirable tenants

by Miles Howe

Be thankful you don't have to breathe it: black mold everywhere. [Photo: Miles Howe]
Be thankful you don't have to breathe it: black mold everywhere. [Photo: Miles Howe]

Dartmouth, NS — Jessica Bastarache greets Evan Coole, organizer for ACORN Canada, at the back door of a Jackson Road low-rise in Dartmouth. There's no lock on the door of the building, and as we descend the stairs towards the basement level, signs of destruction and disrepair are everywhere.

Gaping holes have been punched and kicked in the drywall, pieces of which are ground into the hallway carpet. People have been playing tic-tac-toe on the walls with indelible markers. There are no fire extinguishers, some parts of the hallway are not lit, and exposed wires hang from the ceiling. The air is humid and stale, thick with moisture and mold.

“There's some splatter of something,” says Bastarache, pointing to a sticky smear dripping down the hallway wall. “God only knows what that is.”

We crunch our way through the dimly lit hallway and stop at the apartment adjacent to Bastarache's. The lock on the door is broken, and the apartment is vacant. The smell from outside the door is one that suggests an absence of breathable oxygen, and we all reflexively recoil a half-step.

“This one here is the bad apartment. I don't know if you want to go in here,” says Bastarache as she opens the door.

The waft from the inner room is instinctively recognized by all of us as toxic, and in unison we draw scarves over our mouths and noses. There is black mold everywhere, in such a profusion that it appears to be literally consuming the walls around us. Deathly psychedelic patterns, almost floral in nature, stream from ceiling to floor. The carpet is thick with flame retardant, as someone has emptied the hallway fire extinguishers of their contents.

“This is the bedroom that's connected to me,” says Bastarache, as we walk farther into the apartment, into a bedroom whose walls are blackened with mold, and which gives off its own muggy heat. Breaths become gasps, and the general impression is that human life could only exist in this environment for a very brief and temporary moment. “This bedroom is connected to my bedroom.”

We flee back towards the relatively breathable environs of the hallway, and then into Bastarache's apartment, where the acrid stench of mold is lessened, though still overwhelming.

Bastarache's bedroom is now the living room, because her bedroom is covered in black mold, and she is afraid to sleep there. There is also a hole in the floor of her bedroom, where a family of rats has been nesting.

The bathroom is literally in a process of disintegration, quickened no doubt by a bathtub tap that does not turn off, and continues to stream out scalding hot water.

“The floor tiles rotted away, so I had to replace them myself. But these ones are rotting away too,” says Bastarache, picking up a piece of loose tiling at our feet. “Behind here, up here, where the electrical unit is, I had to take out two of the light bulbs because there's water inside of the wall."

Bastarache says that she has put in maintenance requests for her rotting apartment, but that the building no longer has a superintendent, so they have gone unanswered.

“I feel like I'm trapped in a poison box. I'm stuck in my living room all day long. I can't get any peace and quiet because I can't go into my bedroom, lay down, read a book. My roommate has to walk across my bed every night to go to the bathroom.”

Bastarache, 24, has recently received a notice of eviction. She suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and is on a regimen of inhaled steroids to keep her lungs functioning. COPD is most often found in aged individuals after a lifetime of smoking or asthma.

Three low-rises on Jackson Road, as well as a sizable number of North Dartmouth's notorious low-rise apartment buildings, are being bought up at a frantic pace by Atlantic Living Property Management. The upstart company, with holdings across New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, has noted that it wants an “investment footprint” of 5,000 units in five years. According to its website, Atlantic Living has already acquired over 2,000 units.

Company president Patrick Johnston, who did not return requests for an interview, has so far gone completely unchallenged in two articles by Chronicle Herald staffers. Johnston has asserted that Atlantic Living's buying spree is a positive experience, if not so much for the tenants of the buildings it acquires, then at least for the neighbourhoods that they are re-vamping.

With the assistance of the Herald, Johnston has painted his company with the broad brushstroke of development for development's sake, taking buildings that he “would never live in ... when we buy [them], and ... would always live in it once we renovate [them].” Tenants who get in the way of this necessary progress are “scared away.”

Evan Coole, of ACORN Canada, has been plodding the streets of Dartmouth and the HRM, knocking on doors, looking to sign up low- and moderate-income tenants in an effort to present a united front against the negative effects of unimpeded development and poor treatment by slumlords. And while he's all for fixing up the derelict low-rises of Dartmouth, he questions the effects of Atlantic Living's property upgrades upon those they impact the most: the people who live there.

“I would first ask [Atlantic Living] 'Is it standard practice to raise the rent?'” says Coole. “Because that's what I've been hearing from folks in East Dartmouth; that Atlantic Living will take over the old properties and do cosmetic upgrades, like rip up the carpets in the hall, fix the holes in the walls and slap a coat of paint on it, and then the rents will be raised above what you can afford on social assistance housing allowance. So I'm not sure I'd buy that.”

As for Jessica Bastarache's living conditions, Coole rates them at about a eight out of 10 in terms of the severity of what he's seen in the HRM.

“Jessica's story is not that uncommon for the HRM or anywhere in Canada really," says Coole. "[Slumlords] are getting away with a lot. They're collecting rent while their buildings deteriorate into mold and mice and rat-infested hellholes.”

The Nova Scotia Residential Tenancies Act technically does offer recourse for tenants under duress. There are provisions in the Residential Tenancies Act that allow for tenants to give their rent to the government to be held in trust in situations like Bastarache's. But steps like this necessarily involve navigating the complex world of governmental bureaucracy, and Access Nova Scotia, the governmental body intended to serve the public in such matters, does not even have an office in peninsular Halifax or Dartmouth.

Coole doesn't place much faith in the bureaucratic system, and thinks that an individual tenant's voice will go largely unheeded. Organized, however, he sees the possibility for change.

"The first thing for tenants to do is come together in groups. ACORN is working on that. We have to come together, use our numbers to start pressuring landlords and the government into not allowing stuff like this to happen."

We leave Bastarache at Jackson Road, staying, for the next few days at least, in an apartment she continues to pay rent in, that for all intents and purposes should be condemned.

"If somebody could find me a place ... that is mold free, that is what I'd really like," says Bastarache. "But I can't see anybody doing that right now. That's what I'd like the most though."

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Topics: Housing
1249 words


Reply to your article!

Hello, good job for writing this article!

I just want to say that I feel bad for the person talked about in this article. Also because I am a resdient of this same community means that I am fimular with the health of some of the buildings in this area of Dartmouth. I cannot say anything aginst Atlantic Living whereas Atlantic Living is the Landloard who owns my building.

I will say that her evition notice was very unfair because Community services dose pay her rent.

Kendall Worth


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