Property problems on Pearl Crescent
By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Gina Rossignol has had a lot of trouble sleeping over the past couple of weeks.
On Jan. 23, out of the blue, the Pearl Crescent resident learned the townhouse she’s rented for the past seven years has been sold, and said she was told she would have to leave voluntarily or face eviction.
Rossignol said the deal was sweetened with a $5,000 cash incentive to go with a contract she felt highly pressured to sign.
“The woman sat at my kitchen table and bullied me,” Rossignol claimed of the encounter. “I felt like I had no choice. I haven’t really been able to really sleep since. I can’t eat…I’m so stressed.”
Rossignol, who is raising her nine-year-old autistic granddaughter Sophie, is not alone. There are 24 families who learned their units have changed hands. There are six four-plex buildings in total, with five on Pearl Crescent and one on nearby Orchard Heights.
The saga began Jan. 22 when tenants discovered a notice of entry for inspection taped to their doors.
The notice advised residents that two people representing the new landlord would be coming the following day to complete a one-hour inspection.
However, none of the paperwork stated who the new owner was or when the townhouses were sold.
The only identifying information came from a form letter, printed with letterhead from Lotus Paralegal, a Welland-based firm.
Signed by Lotus Paralegal owner Jessica Travers, the form was presented to the tenants at the time of the inspection.
Travers, a licensed paralegal, and Dimple Grewal, a representative of WC Solutions Property Management, undertook the inspections.
Rossignol, who refused to open her door for the inspection that Sunday evening, said Travers returned to her home the next day as Sophie was getting home from school.
“I let her (Travers) in and she basically told me to sign the contract and that I had no choice,” Rossignol said.
The contract states Rossignol and Sophie will have to vacate their unit in 60 days. She said Travers told her the reason behind the eviction is that the new owners have “a vision” to renovate all of the townhouses.
The woman, who survives on an Ontario Disability Support Program pension, said she fears her little family will become homeless, as she can’t afford to pay market rent, which would be at least double her current $700 fee.
A spokesperson for the purchasing company said that the new landlord plans to upgrade the units.
The Chatham Voice reached out to the new landlord by way of an e-mail addressed as part of the contact information provided to tenants.
The questions were answered in part by Sussex Strategy Group, a Toronto-based public relations firm.
In an e-mailed statement, Sussex vice-president Colleen Ryan said a company called Avanew will be undertaking “extensive renovations” to address issues that include the “appearance of mold, insect infestations, a lack of smoke detectors and more” to bring the properties up to code.
Ryan’s statement said renovations are currently expected to take between nine to 12 months, and that no tenants being evicted as tenants have “options to return once renovations are completed, including first right of refusal, or to voluntarily relocate with financial compensation and other supports and services to support a seamless transition” should they prefer.
Even though some of the tenants opted to take the $5,000, agreeing to be out in 60 days, others aren’t buying it.
Harry Fry, who has lived in one of the units for the last 25 years, said he isn’t budging.
“They’ll have to come in with a bulldozer,” Fry said. “That’s the only way you’re going to get me out of here.”
Fry is critical with the way the process was handled, calling the actions of paralegal supposedly representing the new owners “sketchy.”
His fiancé Judy, who is ill, has lived at the address for 35 years. Fry said he fears a move will kill her.
Carrie Allely, who has lived in the cul-de-sac with her two sons for seven years, said she didn’t sign the contract presented by Travers, but she felt pressured to do so.
She did end up letting Travers and Grewal in for the inspection. Allely said the pair checked the smoke detector and then Travers launched into a hard sell, urging her to sign a document and take the $5,000.
“It was very, very pushy,” Allely stressed. “There was no notice, no paperwork, no timeframe.
“I don’t know who this is or what company it is,” Alley said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
None of it makes sense to Chatham-Kent’s housing stability worker either. Licensed paralegal Jeff Wilkins, who has been working on tenant/landlord issues for many years, said what’s currently happening at Pearl Crescent is the most “blatant example of bullying tenants” he’s ever seen.
Wilkins, along with members of the Chatham-Kent’s housing services team, met with 15 of the affected tenants Jan. 25.
He urged them not to sign anything.
Wilkins also advising those who did agree to take the $5,000 and leave to let the company know they want to rescind their approval.
Wilkins said it’s not illegal to evict tenants to do renovations, but notes the affected tenants are entitled to compensation and to first right of refusal once the renovations are complete.
Under the law, the tenants may move back in and the rent can only be raised 1.2 per cent per year, according to provincial guidelines.
Some of the Pearl Crescent residents said they were told by Travers the renovations would take up to a year and a half to complete.
Others said they were also told they could come back and pay their current low rate of rent for a year but after that it would increase to market rate value.
Wilkins said that’s illegal.
According to Wilkins, most of the Pearl Crescent residents he spoke with said they feel bullied and scared.
He added the $5,000 incentive might seem like a lot of money at first, but it’s not when you “drill down into it.”
The contract that he saw indicates the monthly rent will be deducted from the amount so it doesn’t end up being a full $5,000.
Plus, with the scarcity of affordable housing, Wilkins said there’s no place to go.
“These are inexpensive three-bedroom units,” Wilkins explained. “They’re like unicorns now.”
Wilkins, who regularly handles tenant/landlord issues with the Chatham-Kent Legal Aid Clinic, said Pearl Crescent tenants have been blindsided.
He said they have no idea who their new landlord is, or who they are supposed to pay their rent to, although some were told to forward money to the Welland based Lotus Paralegal.
Wilkins advises against that.
“There’s a legal way to do this and this isn’t it,” Wilkins noted. “Plus, it’s morally wrong.”
For the tenants, it’s now a game of wait and see.
The e-mail correspondence from Ryan indicated the property was sold in late January, going on to say the units were “left in a state of disrepair by previous owners with many severely dilapidated and unsafe for residents.”
According to the e-mail, neglect by previous owners means the properties “require extensive changes for safety, which will also serve to enhance the current properties and surrounding community.”
According to Wilkins, Chatham-Kent is now a target for opportunistic landlords as it’s one of the few remaining municipalities in Southwestern Ontario that’s left with any housing inventory.
The Voice has learned that Avanew Single Family Rental GP, the name on a rental agreement Wilkins witnessed, is a subsidiary of Core Development Group.
Toronto-based Core announced in 2021 it has a goal of acquiring a $1-billion portfolio of 4,000 rental units in Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Atlantic Canada by 2026.
As previously reported by the Globe and Mail and the CBC in June 2021, Core’s main business has been condo development with numerous projects in the Toronto region.
The articles state Core is buying hundreds of detached houses in Ontario with the plan of renting them out and profiting on Canada’s housing crisis.
The approach is one not normally undertaken in Canada, but is said to be modelled on the highly lucrative institutional house rental market in the United States.
Core has stated it is targeting mid-sized cities in Ontario in the expansion, including Kingston, St. Catharines, London, Barrie, Hamilton, Peterborough and Cambridge.
The company’s plan is to buy, fix up and rent ground-level suburban homes, turning them into multi-unit residences.
In the meantime, Pearl Crescent residents face uncertainty.
For her part, Rossignol says she remains confused.
“I still have a lot of unanswered questions,” she said. “I would like to stay here. This is like a family here and it’s the only home Sophie has ever known.”