By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
For Terry Glover, it’s been two years and there’s no getting away from the cockroaches. He collects the dead ones in a small tupperware container.
For Marie McPherson, there’s no escape from the mice, the bugs and the broken appliances that never seem to get fixed.
For Robert Ellis, there’s no escaping his diagnosis of bronchial asthma, which could have been brought about by a life lived inside a cockroach-infested apartment.
And for Sandra Manley, she’s stuck in the apartment that caught fire earlier this year and left her with second and third degree burns on her legs and feet.
These are only a few of the tenants that spoke out to The Oshawa Express for this story, hoping a collective voice could be loud enough to reach those who don’t seem to be listening – the building’s owners.
In the south end of Oshawa, a small cluster of unassuming apartment buildings are housing the tales and images of bug-infested apartments left in disrepair by landlords who either ignore the complaints of tenants or are simply deaf to them.
This story deals with buildings at 275 and 280 Wentworth St. W.
The owner of 275 Wentworth, who The Express has learned is Toronto-based landlord Arnold Litwin-Logan, could not be reached for comment and calls to the Toronto rental office went unanswered. The Express did contact the on-site landlord, Beverly Rittwage who provided details for this story.
The owners of 280 are Davpart Property Management. The company’s website also lists residential properties at 1040 Cedar St. and 835 and 885 Oxford St. as part of their portfolio.
When contacted at their Toronto office, The Express was informed no comment would be provided for this story
Words on deaf ears
Facing each other on either side of Wentworth Street West, 275 and 280 may look different on the outside, but tenants on either side of the street have the same complaints.
Along with the bugs, the safety concerns and broken appliances, the most common complaint is the lack of response from building management.
“I put in work orders, they disappear. That’s pretty much how it’s been since I moved here and that’s three Christmases now,” says Rachel Legos, a tenant at 280 Wentworth.
Glover, a tenant at 275 Wentworth, says the same.
“We go down to the manager and give her a notice and nothing gets done,” he says.
And for Shayla Dean at 280, who, last winter, was left in a wheelchair when she slipped on an unsalted sidewalk, the response is always the same.
“Basically, the supers here just told me to go f*** myself, to put it politely.”
Aging buildings can create many problems for landlords, but Rittwage says the process at 275 Wentworth has always been the same since she started there as on-site manager in 1997. Tenants fill out a work order in the office on the main floor and work gets done after that.
“If it’s electrical, it’s right away. If it’s plumbing, it’s right away. The other things, we have to schedule them and give them appointments,” she says.
As well, large-ticket items can take some time to complete, she says.
“If we get all these big things, like changing the floors, changing cupboards, all at the same time, well then there’s a wait.”
Rittwage says the building is currently undergoing many renovations, including replacing the roof.
“You only have to look at our building and know that we’ve been doing the roof, the balconies, fixing outside, we’re doing lots of renovations.”
And she says she understands that there are upset tenants in the building, but the repairs do add up, she says.
“We’re not magic; we can’t just make everything happen all at once.”
“So why don’t you move?”
It’s a question many of these tenants have been asked before and, at times, it’s a hard one to answer, but it always leads to the same conclusion: they can’t.
Several tenants The Express spoke to survive off disability cheques, some on welfare, others just simply did not have the financial ability to afford rent in other parts of the city.
Manley says she still doesn’t have a fire alarm in her apartment following a fire in March (the wiring in the alarm was broken at that time). She’s working her way through school and finances are tight.
“Right at this moment I’m in school…so I’m sort of stuck here until that’s done,” she says.
McPherson, who lives with her boyfriend at 275, says its a choice between two evils.
“To know that we can have a roof over our head, we choose to stay where we are,” she says.
Online listings show a divide in rental rates compared to Oshawa’s north and south ends.
Currently, a three-bedroom apartment at 275 Wentworth costs tenants $1,025 a month, while a similar sized apartment in the north-end is, on average, $1,495 per month.
The same goes for 280 Wentworth, at which a two-bedroom apartment is listed online at $899 a month, while a north-end equivalent will cost $1,160 on average.
However, along with finances, Ellis says it can come down to other factors.
“They don’t want anyone who’s on disability, they don’t want anyone who’s on welfare, they don’t want anything, they want you to be working,” he says of landlords looking for renters.
For Ellis, whose father is on disability and he and his siblings are in school, it doesn’t leave many options.
Fighting for basic rights
Last month, The Express reported on a group of tenants who were fighting to improve their subpar living conditions by forming South Oshawa’s first tenant association.
That group, led by Raymond Fortune and Laura Green, both tenants at 275 Wentworth St. W., appeared at city hall to share their story with city council.
At the corporate services committee on Oct. 26, Fortune and Green urged council to help enforce bylaws they claim their landlords either don’t know about, or choose to ignore.
“There’s obviously issues surrounding tenant rights,” Fortune said.
“Tenants are at risk,” Green said. “Most of these issues are fairly easy to fix by having proactive enforcement.”
However, Oshawa’s bylaw enforcement is ruled on a complaint basis only.
But that hasn’t deterred tenants; 275 Wentworth takes the title for the building in the city with the most complaints with 163 over the last five years. Eighty-two of those complaints were related to property standards, 45 related to animals, eight to adequate heat and a few other assorted complaints.
“We fully recognize that there’s a problem there,” Jerry Conlin, the city’s director of municipal law enforcement and licensing services, tells The Express. “What is required there is a considerable project and we’re trying to put the pieces together to figure out who needs to be a part of this and how we would proceed with this in terms of an investigation.”
A full investigation of the building could be undertaken if a tenant requests it to the city, something that hadn’t been done yet, according to Conlin.
An investigation was undertaken at 280 Wentworth eight years ago and led to more than $1 million in repairs being needed for the building.
In terms of enforcement, what may look like a recurring issue to those on the outside – a bug infestation for example – can be labeled as separate incidents. Specifically, two units with the same cockroach problem can not be filed as a recurring problem as they are two separate units.
“If it’s an ongoing issue with different apartments and things like that, we have to take each apartment unto its own and then we have to look at the evidence when we’re getting into the investigation,” Conlin says.
And while bylaw officers have been at 275 and 280 in the past, tenants still claim nothing has been done to fix their problems.
“I have tenants contact me every single day…specifically for tenants that have had ongoing issues for three or four-plus years,” Fortune says.
This also isn’t the first time a building owned by Litwin-Logan, the owner of 275 Wentworth, has been brought to the media attention for subpar living conditions.
Earlier this year, the City of Toronto cleaned up the landfill that was forming around the building at 2777 Kipling Ave. after tenants started tossing their garbage off their balconies and out their windows in protest of the broken garbage chutes, which hadn’t been repaired in months.
The city claimed they will be adding the cost of the cleanup to the building’s property tax bill for the next year.
When asked if Oshawa could take a page from Toronto’s book in this case, Conlin says it’s a possibility, but unlikely.
“Typically, the city doesn’t go in and do the repairs to the inside of a building, we’re not engineers, we’re not architects and we’re not builders…typically the extent of our involvement of our remedial work involves clean up and elimination of hazards,” Conlin says. “We have the ability to require repairs and to bring properties into compliance with minimum standards. If the owner of the property complies with a particular case, then they’ve done what is required.”
“No one should ever, ever live in these conditions,” said Councillor Dan Carter.
Following the tenant association’s appearance at committee, council referred the item to staff, hoping for a report to tell them what exactly could be done to deal with the situation.
The association’s comments were also sent to Municipal Law Enforcement and Licensing Services to consider during their on-going review with the possibility of considering proactive enforcement in the future.
“This is going to take a real team approach in order to do it,” says Councillor Nancy Diamond.
It’s a sentiment the tenant association is taking to heart.
Following a recent meeting of tenants in the lobby of 280 Wentworth Street West, Fortune says a new tenant association, one to represent the tenants of that very building was formed and will be working in close conjunction with the association at 275.
The association has also invited councillors to come visit their building, an invitiation several councillors accepted on Nov. 3.