February 26, 2009 8:03 PM   Subscribe

Two nights running with no power or hot water. What's a tenant to do?

I live in a residential highrise in a large Canadian city. The power for the building went out at about 2:00 am this morning; twenty hours later (I type these words at 10:00 pm or so) no word on when it will be restored. The superintendent shrugs and says they are trying to get a generator, but "they will probably not be able to turn it on because people will complain about the noise."

The building changed hands a few years ago and the new owners, a numbered company, are a somewhat shady lot in my view. Last summer, a couple of months apart, letters from both the gas company and the electric supplier appeared taped to the front door of the building stating the owner was in arrears and unless they were paid by the eighteenth (or whatever) of the month, the building would be cut off; both times service continued uninterrupted, so I suppose someone intervened.

Twice in three years my rent cheque has been lost: once in 2006, a note appeared on my door a few days into the month notifying me I had not paid. I declared that I had and sure enough it turned up. Last month, two weeks after my rent cheque had been cashed, two strangers declaring themselves to be the owners knocked on my door saying I had not paid. I again declared that I had and that the money had already been withdrawn from my account. They took my phone number, promised to look into it, and then continued down the hall, knocking on most if not all doors on my floor (for what it's worth, these seem to be the actual owners, as I have since seen them in the office on the main floor, but they presented no ID when they turned up at my door and demanded money).

Tonight I returned home after a business trip. Jet lagged and tired, I was looking forward to a hot shower, a warm meal, and maybe watching a DVD. The cab pulled up in front of a darkened building, and the latest in a series of revolving door superintendents, standing out front told me the power was off and there was no firm idea of when it would be back on, so "welcome home." I trudged up eight flights of stairs by the light of my cell phone (no emergency lights in the stairwells) to find that there was no hot water, no heat, and I had a fridge full of room temperature food. I collected some supplies and set off to my office to microwave some gradually thawing food.

On the way down through the darkened lobby, I encountered some bylaw enforcement officers, so the city is on the case. The bylaw dudes were talking to the new super, now on his fourth day, and were less than happy to hear that with no emergency lighting in the stairwells, tenants had put candles on each landing. Yes, a whole bunch of unattended open flames in a building with no working fire alarm system (I assume) apparently does not fit in with the fire code.

Friends have offered to put me up, and indeed I work in the hospitality industry, so I can probably go snag a free room, so I am not worried about that, but I am wondering what recourse I have for a refrigerator full of spoiled food and two nights and counting with no heat or hot water or power. When the lights come on again, should I go grocery shopping, save the receipt, and deduct the amount from my next rent cheque? When the temperature is right around the freezing mark and the landlord has reneged on the agreement to provide heat, is there any option that tenants have, save to move away?
posted by ricochet biscuit to Law & Government (12 answers total)
Break the lease and get the hell out of there.
posted by QuarterlyProphet at 8:10 PM on February 26, 2009

It's hard to be able to specifically offer information with the vague location details. Canada is big and has more than a few large cities.

Google for your city's or province's tenant rights.
posted by kirstk at 8:17 PM on February 26, 2009

Check this out if you're in Ontario.
posted by number9dream at 8:23 PM on February 26, 2009

I believe you're on the other side of the river, but this is exactly why we have the régie on this side.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:59 PM on February 26, 2009

Call the electric company and find out if they're in arrears. If they are I'm 99% sure you can break your lease.
posted by fshgrl at 9:47 PM on February 26, 2009

There's no recourse from bankrupt entities.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:02 PM on February 26, 2009

Do you have a decent law school in your city? If you're in Toronto, call up Downtown Legal Services in the morning to find out what your rights are. In Halifax, Dal law runs a clinic in the North End and they provide advice in this sort of situation. In other cities, I'm sure that lots of law schools provide the sort of poverty-law clinics that could give you a quick and free answer to whether you can break your lease in these situations, or withhold rent, or whatever.
posted by Dasein at 11:56 PM on February 26, 2009

I assumed anybody answering and interested in what city would have looked at my profile: it is Ottawa.

And as I mentioned in the question, moving away is certainly on the table, but as I live as half-block from where I work, it is not my first choice. Rather, I want to know what recourse I and my fellow tenants have here to suddenly having no heat when the forecast is seventeen degrees blow zero overnight. Sleep in sub-zero apartments? Stay at hotels/hostels/the Y on our own dime? Bill the landlord or the city? Withhold rent?

I have contacted the city, which has steered me to the Landlord and Tenant Board. Their website tells me that landlords are obliged to ensure basic services are provided. My attempts to reach someone at the LTB lead to a recorded message saying "we are experiencing an emergency and are unable to take your call at this time. Please call later."

Further calls to the city say that the landlord "should" make arrangements for accommodation in this sort of situation. All well and good, but the landlord has not responded to a message left last night and does not answer the phone today. There is work going on but the superintendent still deploys shrugs when asked for a forecast.

As an update: the city says that it is a failed transformer and currently says five days (!) until it is repaired. I cannot blame the shady landlord directly for this, as I really don't know what caused it. I am concerned for my neighbours -- one of my fellow tenants on the eighth floor is a senior citizen and while I check in on him once or twice a day, it's not like he is going to walk up and down eight flights of stairs in the dark; other tenants work from home and suddenly have no internet connection or working computer (or phone if they have phone through the cable service).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:32 PM on February 27, 2009

My kerosene heater is keeping me toasty warm, not that it helps the dark, hot water, or spoiled food.
posted by wierdo at 3:51 PM on February 27, 2009

Blown transformer.. Have you tried calling Hydro Ottawa?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:50 PM on February 27, 2009

I do mean Hydro Ottawa.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:03 PM on February 27, 2009

For anyone still tuned in:

With temperatures of around -20 in the offing, I took up a friend's offer to put me up for the weekend. A call to the city this morning revealed that the power and heat, etc, "should" be back on by today.

I returned home to my apartment tonight to find two things: One, the power and heat are back on in the building, and Two, there was a police officer standing in front of where my door used to be. The pipes had thawed and burst in my apartment so the fire department had taken down my door and done some significant damage to the place in repairing the leak. As well, everything that was sitting on the floor is history. This is not a small amount of stuff: I tore my apartment apart last week looking for my passport shortly before I left on my trip, and then had to pack by flashlight yesterday afternoon, so it was not the most orderly apartment. So: a few paperbacks and some clothes that had been carelessly tossed aside were ruined. Most annoying: a box of letters, some of them decades old, some from now-deceased friends and relatives: all soaked.

posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:58 PM on February 28, 2009

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