Have you ever rented an apartment that seemed expensive, and wondered what the people who lived there before you were paying?
Advocates on Prince Edward Island think you have a right to know.
In mid-February, My Old Apartment sent out its first card to a tenant who didn’t realize their landlord had increased their rent by an illegal amount. The tenant, who was paying $1,500 a month in rent, received a card that read: “Welcome to my old apartment. Are you paying too much rent? When I moved out on 09/17, the rent was $1,200 a month.” Inside was information about how to file the paperwork to try to get their money back.
The initiative was the idea of Darcie Lanthier, the president of a solar panel company in Charlottetown. She’s also an advocate for social justice, she told HuffPost Canada, and has run for the Green Party a few times. But she didn’t attach her name to the cards because she didn’t want anyone to think it was a partisan issue, she said.
“I usually budget about $100 a month for random volunteer activities and donations,” she said. During the pandemic, because she hasn’t been going out to eat or going to concerts, she has more disposable income.
Housing is often on her mind, she said. “There’s a housing crisis in Canada. Housing is a basic human right and it’s just being used as a commodity.”
“There was absolutely no movement in the housing market. You couldn’t move anywhere. Tenants were terrified.”
And as vacancy rates went up, paradoxically, the cost of rent increased dramatically.
So Lanthier decided to take aim at landlords who are illegally hiking up rent. She had the cards printed up, along with brightly-coloured envelopes, because “not everybody just opens mail addressed to ‘Occupant,’” she said.
Landlords on P.E.I. have to follow strict rules imposed by the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission (IRAC). In 2021, they can only legally raise rent by one per cent. In 2020, that number was 1.3 per cent. Landlords can’t raise rent more than once a year.
But the problem is that there’s no real way to enforce those rules, Lanthier explained.
“The rules are fantastic,” she said. “The only problem is that there’s no rental registry, so there’s no way of knowing how much the previous tenant paid. And that’s where the whole system falls flat on its face.”
She had a friend over a few weeks ago — which is allowed under P.E.I.’s pandemic rules, she was quick to note — who used to live in a three-bedroom apartment near her. They were talking about that apartment, and were curious about what the current tenants were paying.
So her friend filled out a card and walked over to his old place.
“He just walked over and knocked on the door — it’s P.E.I. — and said, ‘Look, I just want to give you this card, if you want to open it and read it and tell me what you think.’ And the new tenant was just gobsmacked.”
It turned out his landlord had been raising the rent by much more than the legal limit. The card included information about how the new tenant can file a provincial Form 2, which could theoretically lower his rent by more than $200 a month and reimburse him for the rent he’d been overpaying.
“Housing... should be about human rights, and it’s just become this way for people who are already rich to make more money.”
Lanthier named her initiative My Old Apartment in part because of the Barenaked Ladies song, which she said has been stuck in her head for a few weeks now. When she tweeted out a photo of a card for the first time, on Feb. 15, it went viral.
“It kind of spread across Canada,” she said. “A lot of comments from B.C., where they’re having issues, a lot of comments on Toronto. Some comments from England. I saw one post that was shared to New Zealand.”
“My top tweet earned 6.53 million impressions,” she said. “I just learned about Twitter analytics yesterday.”
She’s glad so many people are supportive. But the massive response demonstrates the scale of the housing crisis, she said.
“Clearly, housing is an issue. It should be about human rights, and it’s just become this way for people who are already rich to make more money.”
The response has also made another thing clear: she has to print out a lot more cards.
“I thought it would be a small thing and might take a little while to get going. So I just printed 100 cards,” she said. People in Charlottetown can pick them up from the Voluntary Resource Centre, and Lanthier has had requests to send them all over the province, she said. She just printed 200 more.
She’d like to see, “at least,” a rental registry that would serve as a record of what landlords are charging. She’s also hoping some of the people who responded to her on Twitter will start similar initiatives in their own communities. She’s also hoping that in a few months, her account will be able to share stories of people who succeeded at getting their money back — and that those people will continue the cycle by sending a card to the last place that they lived, too.
“Landlords who are following the rules should have absolutely nothing to fear here,” she said. “The ones who are freaking out are, and some of them are, are the ones who have been not following the rules.”