A number of students say one of the city’s biggest landlords is still requiring money before they sign a lease, even after a court told the company not to.
Templeton Properties, which owns Fenwick Tower, was chastised in small claims court in April and again in May for charging tenants more money upfront than the law allows.
Some students say that Templeton is still doing this at its highrise building in south-end Halifax.
In 2015, Scott Musgrave, a student at Saint Mary’s University, applied for a two-bedroom apartment in Fenwick Tower, a popular place with students. Fenwick is the tallest building in Halifax, at 33 storeys and 275 units. It’s close to universities and offers cheaper rent than many other apartment buildings in the city.
Musgrave says he paid three post-dated cheques of three months’ rent and a deposit of $637.50, which was half a month’s rent, before he entered into a lease. He said he was told he had to prepay the rent because he was a student and he didn’t have a co-signer who had a stable job.
“We were just kinda desperate for an apartment and just unsure of what was or wasn’t allowed to be done,” he said in an interview Nov. 16.
Musgrave said he was surprised when he ended up with a different unit than the one he was shown when he applied. He decided he didn’t want it, and asked for his money back. He said after he threatened to take the company to court, he got the three months’ rent back that he had prepaid, but was told the company was legally entitled to keep the security deposit of $637.50.
The case ended up in small claims court, and Musgrave got his security deposit back after an adjudicator ruled in his favour.
Templeton Properties bought Fenwick Tower from Dalhousie University in 2009. It’s a family company, run by Joe Metlege and his father Andrew, who own a number of properties in the city. During the court proceedings in Musgrave’s case, Matthew Metlege, who testified on behalf of his family’s company, said it was a “common practice” of other large landlords and a “routine and long-standing practice” of Templeton to collect and keep a security deposit if the tenant opts out of the lease, according to the written decision from April 2016.
Adjudicator Augustus Richardson called this a “sad comment on their knowledge and conduct” and said it was illegal to charge an application fee before signing a lease — no matter what else it may be called.
Musgrave said he isn’t sure that Templeton got the message.
“They didn’t seem to feel like they were in the wrong,” he said.
In May, another adjudicator admonished Templeton when a different case involving Fenwick Tower was heard in small claims court. That case was from 2013, but involved the prepayment of three months’ rent.
In fact, the provincial Residential Tenancies Act states it is illegal to charge an application fee or collect rent in advance.
“Landlords are not permitted to charge an application fee when a tenant is applying to become a tenant,” said Heather Desserud, a spokesperson for Service Nova Scotia, in an email. The department oversees the residential tenancies program.
“Also, landlords are not permitted to collect rent in advance. In Nova Scotia, rent is typically due on the first day of the month but can be a different day if stated in the lease agreement,” she said.
Eight international students in four separate apartments have come forward to The Signal this fall saying they were asked for a security deposit and three months’ rent for their apartments in Fenwick Tower. The people in two apartments became tenants after April. Two others in one apartment renewed their lease after April.
The students said they were told they had to prepay three months’ rent if they didn’t have a Canadian co-signer with a stable job. Many international students have few or no local connections.
Yuxuan Pan, from China, got his apartment in September. A graduate student at Saint Mary’s University, Pan didn’t question what he was told because he had only moved to Halifax a few months earlier.
“When he told me that, it just made sense. I’m an international student; what if I leave for my country in the middle of the contract?” Pan said in an interview in Mandarin.
Pan said he paid the deposit of $497.50, which was half of one month’s rent, and then prepaid three months’ rent before he signed the lease. It worked out to more than $3,000. He said there was nothing in his lease agreement that mentioned the three-month payment.
Pan was already in the process of getting the apartment, so he just kept going.
“What are you gonna do?” he said.
Yanqing Zhang has been living in Fenwick Tower for four years, but renewed her lease this fall. She came to Halifax to complete a master’s degree in finance at Saint Mary’s University, and didn’t know anyone.
“I knew no one, no families, no friends, all I knew was the name of the city,” Zhang said in Mandarin.
Zhang moved to a new apartment in Fenwick this fall. She said she didn’t see the apartment before she signed the new lease, but accepted that. Pan said he ended up in an apartment that was not the same one he was shown when he applied, and that surprised him.
The other tenants didn’t want to be identified for this story. They said they were worried about any repercussions for speaking out.
Jass Singh has been helping a number of tenants solve their challenges with living in Halifax. He’s the managing director of Univfax, a non-profit organization that provides services for international students, such as finding an apartment.
Singh said Univfax has dealt with Templeton, and that they told him this fall that the international students he was trying to help had to pay three months’ rent and security deposit before even applying or they wouldn’t get an apartment.
Singh said that’s a lot of money to pay upfront, so he has counselled some students not to apply to Fenwick Tower because they would be rejected if they didn’t pay as asked.
“If I come from India and they ask for three month rent if you convert it to Rupee, it’s almost 200,000 Rupee,” Singh said.
The only option, he said, is for these international students to look for other places with a higher monthly rent.
“They are stuck,” Singh said. “They cannot pay in advance.”
The Signal contacted Templeton Properties four times between Nov. 18 and Nov. 30. The Signal was told that the manager, Matthew Metlege, was on a vacation overseas and could not be reached for comment and they couldn’t give the Signal his phone number. An email to Templeton Properties through its website was unsuccessful. The Signal contacted the company three more times by phone, but no one was made available to comment.
Scott Musgrave, who won his case in small claims court, has advice for tenants.
“I do encourage anyone living there who has a problem should go to the residential tenancy board and file an application to the director or just get advice if that’s something they should do,” he said.