When the coronavirus hit, Dustin Cartwright found himself unable to make April’s rent on his duplex in Medicine Hat, Alberta. He had recently lost his job in tech and struggled to find work. So he asked his landlord for a more reasonable payment plan. Instead, the landlord came over to his home to schedule an inspection and later, served him with an eviction notice.
Cartwright might have turned to his elected representative for help, but the problem is, Cartwright’s landlord is also his elected representative: United Conservative Party MLA Drew Barnes.
Having your landlord being your MLA “guarantees that renters aren’t going to get a fair shake,” Cartwright said. “I’m at a loss for words for how messed up it is.”
During the pandemic, Alberta has provided little support for residential tenants. While Ontario and British Columbia have implemented eviction bans with an unspecified end date, Alberta’s moratorium on evictions lasted only for the month of April.
UCP press secretary Tricia Velthuizen said in a statement to VICE that the province is providing “extended eviction protection for nonpayment of rent for tenants who enter into a meaningful payment plan with their landlords.”
Landlords looking to evict “must be able to show that they made a reasonable effort to enter into a payment plan with their tenant or that an agreed-upon payment plan was not followed,” the statement said.
Barnes, who owns or co-owns dozens of rental properties according to public disclosure documents—and earns $120,936 as an MLA in Alberta—told a local newspaper he would “work with all tenants on an individual basis to ensure their housing needs and financial difficulties are met.”
But Cartwright says it took Barnes’ property management company, First Choice Property Management, 28 days to reply to him.
VICE sent a detailed list of questions to Barnes’ constituency office and First Choice, but did not get a response. Staffers at Barnes’ public office directed VICE to contact his property management company. VICE’s calls were not answered, and a message left on the company’s voicemail was not returned. When First Choice finally responded to Cartwright, it was with Barnes showing up at the duplex on May 1 to personally serve him with a 24-hour entry notice to “inspect the state of repair of the premises,” Cartwright said.
Scheduling in-person inspections during the pandemic is seen as a harassment tactic employed by landlords against tenants who haven’t paid rent, housing advocates such as Toronto’s Parkdale Organize say. Since strangers would be entering the house, the inspections are also a threat to the health and safety of tenants.
A few days after receiving the notice, Barnes’ son Davis emailed Cartwright to negotiate a payment plan. Cartwright proposed $300 per month—down from the normal $995 monthly rent—which Davis declined and countered. After Cartwright said he couldn’t afford Davis’ counteroffer of $500 a month and $945 in arrears to be paid within three days, he received an eviction notice on May 15 and was given two weeks to move.
Cartwright said that while he’s received support via private Facebook messages and organizers of the Keep Your Rent movement, Medicine Hat residents and other tenants in properties owned by Barnes don’t want to speak out because he’s an MLA. Cartwright said other tenants aren’t even aware that Barnes was their landlord. “I wouldn’t even know (he owns my property) if my e-transfers didn’t show up as being to Drew Barnes,” said Cartwright.
Jody Stanway, who occupied a Medicine Hat property owned by Barnes between 2013 and 2016, never crossed paths with Barnes. He said that for “90 percent” of the time during his tenancy, his phone calls to property management weren’t returned. After dealing with bed bugs, broken eavestroughs, and an unexplained removal of all of the sod from his backyard allegedly directed by Barnes, Stanway moved out. “How a man runs his business is how he will run his politics,” said Stanway.
Barnes did not respond to Stanway’s allegation for this story.
Since Cartwright proposed a payment plan that was declined, it’s unclear whether the eviction notice will stand. Cartwright would like to organize and fight the eviction, but said “the deck is stacked” against him. The landlord tenant resolution service “isn't equipped to handle retaliation for organizing or pandemics,” he said.
Cartwright is now thinking of leaving Medicine Hat, but hopes that others follow his example in standing up to their landlords and joining locally organized rent strikes. “I saw this whole thing as a perfect opportunity to stand up for some people because there are definitely people out there that are worse off than myself,” he said.
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