In each “Behind the Scenes” segment, Village Media's Scott Sexsmith sits down with one of our local journalists to talk about the story behind the story.
These interviews are designed to help you better understand how our community-based reporters gather the information that lands in your local news feed. You can find more Behind the Scenes from reporter across Ontario here.
Today's spotlight is on CollingwoodToday.ca's Jessica Owen, whose story '‘There’s no help’: Collingwood landlord living in fear' was published on No. 14.
Here is the original story if you need to catch up:
When Alex Bullock picked up her life in Toronto to move to Collingwood two years ago to be closer to her mom, she hoped to leave the past behind and get a fresh start.
Part of that was owning a home, and renting out an accessory unit to help cover the mortgage, which is the part of the dream that's become a nightmare.
Bullock and her mother, Andrea Leeming, came before council on Nov. 6 to present a petition signed by Bullock’s neighbours on Seventh Street, pleading for help with a problem tenant that lives in Bullock’s accessory apartment, but hasn’t paid rent since July.
As there are significant delays at the Landlord and Tenant Board, Bullock says she has no recourse to evict her tenant immediately, with the next date provided to her for a hearing not until March 2024.
And while she waits, Bullock is struggling to carry her mortgage, afraid of the strange people she sees coming and going from her property, while her tenant, essentially, lives rent-free.
“I worked so hard for this house, and to have this happen and there be no repercussions?” Bullock told CollingwoodToday.
Bullock purchased a home on Seventh Street in April 2021 that had already been split between a main house and an accessory apartment. After putting her entire $100,000 savings into the purchase, Bullock intended to live in the main house while renting out the apartment to help supplement her mortgage payments. Leeming co-signed on the mortgage. Both her mother and her grandparents live in Collingwood.
This is Bullock's second tenant. When the tenant moved in to the unit in February 2022, it was with sparkling references.
“The reason I’m in this mess – and I take responsibility – is she gave me references that were false. I said yes. I should have done a lot more research. I tell everyone now: Do as much research as you can,” said Bullock.
Bullock says she noted some erratic behaviour right off the bat from the new tenant, but says she tried to stay optimistic because she wanted to see the good in people.
“Things started to slowly go off the rails,” Leeming recalls.
Multiple attempts were made by CollingwoodToday to reach out to the tenant referred to in this story, but were unsuccessful.
It started with the tenant smoking in the unit, which was prohibited in the lease, specifically because Bullock suffers from asthma.
“She tried saying no one was smoking. Every month I could hear her screaming at someone because they didn’t pay her. Then the rent would be late,” said Bullock, noting the rent started coming in a few days late, which, as time went on, turned to weeks.
Since her tenant moved in, Bullock and some of her neighbours say they have found burnt tinfoil, small bags of cannabis, a crack pipe and a bag of needles scattered on the front lawn and in the backyard of the home.
Both Bullock and the surrounding neighbours also say they have witnessed different people coming and going from the apartment at all hours of the day and night.
“I’ve called the cops so many times because people are screaming, or banging. They’ve kicked my car in,” said Bullock, who provided photos of the damage to CollingwoodToday.
The faint smell of marijuana smoke permeates into Bullock’s part of the home, despite foam being stuffed in the vents in an attempt to block the smell. In March, the back window to Bullock’s home was broken.
In June, Bullock served her tenant with an eviction notice through the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) process. Bullock says the tenant’s behaviour has escalated since, and she will sometimes yell threats through the vents in the home, or send threats directly to Bullock through voicemails and text messages.
“It’s scary. I have random people coming into my backyard. I would open the backdoor and ask who they are and they’ll say, ‘No one,’” said Bullock.
Collingwood OPP have attended the residence on multiple occasions, most recently on Oct. 27 due to a domestic dispute. Bullock says she was the one who made the 911 call that night, as she heard a woman who wasn't her tenant screaming for help.
At this point, the tenant hasn’t paid any rent since July. As Bullock’s mortgage payment comes out every month whether the tenant pays or not, Bullock and Leeming said they are struggling to make ends meet. To help make up the difference, Leeming’s husband has had to get another job.
“It’s taken a toll on our whole family. (The tenant) owes us more than $12,000 in rent,” said Leeming. “We were trying to open a store, and we can’t, because all the money we had for that we gave to Alex to cover the rent.”
At one point, the tenant had stored many items in the garage of the home, which was off-limits to the tenant on the lease. After many requests from Bullock to remove her items were not heeded, Bullock and Lemming put a series of locks on the door connecting the garage to the apartment, and got to work clearing out the garbage.
Among the garbage, Bullock says she discovered a notice of eviction from the tenant’s previous landlord, noting she owed more than $12,000 in back rent and damages to that landlord.
“How does she keep getting away with this? No one’s doing anything about it,” said Bullock. “It’s terrifying. I don’t know who is coming in. I don’t want to leave my house ... because I don’t know what they’re capable of.”
Bullock also expressed frustration that it seems no one can do anything to help her in the interim while she waits for an LTB date.
“The LTB is so backed up and that’s part of the problem,” said Bullock. “The whole process of trying to evict and doing it the legal and proper way the government tells us to do it, is broken. There’s no help. It’s ‘fill out a form and wait.’"
“There needs to be a different route for people who are in emergency,” she added.
Bullock's tenant troubles have extended to the neighbourhood. One of her neighbours started a petition to attest to what they've witnessed.
The neighbour who started a petition did confirm their involvement with CollingwoodToday.
Bullock said her neighbour approached her one day in the backyard to ask her about the situation.
“People had started thinking I was some kind of drug house," said Bullock. "I filled her in on what was happening.”
“She asked me if there was anything she could do to help. The community didn’t feel safe,” she said.
That petition was presented to council at its Nov. 6 meeting, and was signed by 26 residents who live adjacent to Bullock’s Seventh Street home. The petition notes that all signees have witnessed and experienced disruptive situations with the tenant living in the apartment.
“At first, I felt embarrassed, because I don’t like burdening other people. I felt ashamed that I had let this get so bad and had let these people into the community,” Bullock said. “This community is great. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my neighbours starting up a petition and trying to help.”
Following Leeming’s presentation of the petition to council on Nov. 6, council voted unanimously in favour of forwarding the concerns to the ministry of the attorney general and Simcoe-Grey MPP Brian Saunderson, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) and the Landlord and Tenant Board and to refer the safety concerns to the Collingwood Police Services Board for consideration.
During discussions on the matter, Coun. Christopher Baines called the backlog at the LTB “outrageous.”
“I know there are a ton of landlords out there that are in worse situations than I’m in, and they don’t have that (community support),” said Bullock.
The LTB resolves disputes between residential landlords and tenants and processes eviction applications filed by non-profit housing co-operatives. The board also provides information on the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants under the Residential Tenancies Act.
Saunderson, who also serves as parliamentary assistant to the attorney general, told CollingwoodToday that the provincial government is making headway on the LTB backlog.
“We are in the process of doubling the number of adjudicators – right now we are at approximately 70 and plan to have around 84 after the next round of appointments,” the MPP said.
Saunderson confirmed that the current wait time between filing to hearing at the LTB is five months. He said the province’s goal is to get the wait time down to three months.
“We anticipate getting to that target in the first quarter of 2024,” he added. “We are committed to streamlining the process so that landlords and tenants can have their matters addressed in a timely manner.”
Bullock and Leeming said that in the absence of significant help from the police or any levels of government, they have considered taking the law into their own hands by waiting until the tenant leaves and changing the locks. But the unpredictability of the tenant’s behaviour and her regular guests gave them pause.
“What are the repercussions of that, though? ... You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” said Leeming.
“I’m at my breaking point. I don’t recognize myself,” added Bullock.
On Nov. 8, Bullock told CollingwoodToday she had received an email that morning from the LTB saying they had approved her request for an expedited hearing, however, a new date wasn’t included in the email.
Until that happens, Bullock has to keep waiting.
“It’s put me in limbo. I can’t work. I can’t do what I’m supposed to do. I feel bad because my mom had to help me. We’ve worked so hard. Even when (the tenant is) gone, it’s not done. We’ll have to put the house back together,” said Bullock. “It’s like my life will have to restart over again.”
Leeming also notes that even if the tenant leaves following any LTB decision, she worries that while their immediate problems might be over, a new landlord’s problems might just be beginning. She’s also not optimistic she’ll see a cent from the tenant following any ruling the LTB might make.
“Where does she go? Does she go to somebody else and the whole thing starts over? Somebody has got to do something. This is a community problem,” said Leeming.
“It doesn’t feel good to pawn her off on someone else,” added Bullock.