Matt Roberts is hoping his housing nightmare is over this week.
It’s been 2.5 months since he and his four-year-old son woke to firefighters pounding on the door of their third-floor apartment at 721B Earlescourt Dr.
A kitchen fire on the second floor prompted an evacuation of the entire building, but it was quickly under control. No one was seriously injured.
Roberts, a 34-year-old construction worker, quickly grabbed an overnight bag and left with his son and about 35 others in the building.
“We were told it would just be a couple of days, so I took my son, Logan, to his mom’s house and I went to a hotel.”
Seven days later, the City of Sarnia posted an order directing the landlord, Equity Builders Ltd. (EQB) of Mississauga, to refuse access to the entire second floor, one unit on the first floor and three units on the third floor, pending repairs.
“Based on the assessment provided by the engineer, access to remainder of the building is permitted,” the order read.
Believing he had his apartment back, Roberts returned to the building only to find that he and all his fellow tenants were locked out.
“I started contacting our property manager once or twice a week, asking for our clothes, my son’s toys, our bedding,” he said.
While he was able to stay with a relative in Corunna, Roberts said others were forced to live in local shelters and hotels.
Jess Latreille was a neighbour on the first floor at 721B and said she was not at home the night of the fire.
She was allowed to get in once to retrieve her two cats and a laptop immediately after the fire and, like Roberts, believed she’d be back at home within days.
She’s still waiting to get in and has taken donations of clothing from her girlfriends so she has something to wear.
Roberts said four-year-old Logan cries at times because he wants to be back home and sleep in his own bed.
So does Latreille. “I haven’t slept in my own bed in nearly three months,” she said.
Instead, a good friend has offered her couch. Latreille considers herself one of the lucky ones but she wants her home back.
In early March, Roberts, Latreille and 19 other tenants took their case to Community Legal Assistance Sarnia (CLAS).
They believe they were illegally locked out of their apartments because the landlord wants to upgrade the units and rent them out to new tenants at a much higher price than what they were paying.
Roberts paid $1,100 for his two-bedroom unit and said he can’t find anything new to rent for less than $1,400 plus hydro.
“I could do it but it would really be a stretch,” he said. “But the point is, I don’t want to. I want to go home.”
At one point, the landlord offered to terminate Roberts’ lease and pay him up to $2,000 to relocate.
“They said their engineer found the entire building is contaminated by smoke but that’s not true,” he said. “I’m not going to give up on my belongings and just walk away,” he said. “My place is undamaged and I want it back.”
Latreille, a server at a local restaurant, did not want to disclose what she pays for rent but said it is half what she’d pay if she moved.
“I was grandfathered in and have a really good deal,” she said.
“I’m a reasonable person but I do wonder if the landlord wants us all out. They call it renoviction. It’s really, really unsettling that this can even happen.”
On Friday, Robert Patchett, vice-chair of the Landlord and Tenant Board heard the case over Zoom and ruled that 14 of the tenants at 721B Earlescourt Dr. were illegally locked out because their units were not impacted by the fire.
The landlord was ordered to immediately allow those 14 tenants to move back into the building, confirmed Andrew Bolter, executive director at Community Legal Assistance Sarnia.
“There are rules under the Residential Tenancies Act that set out a process that the landlord did not follow,” said Bolter.
“The landlord never served notice explaining why they were being evicted.
“It’s been very disrupting to their lives. Many have been scrambling to couch surf or stay at motels,” he said.
“The tenants’ rights have just been ignored.”
The Tribunal ordered “immediate” repossession, but when Latreille and Roberts showed up Monday, they said they were still locked out.
“I called the police for some direction and they told me the Sheriff’s office has to get involved,” Latreille said.
Bolter said his office is continuing to advocate for the tenants by contacting the landlord as well as the Sheriff.
“Jess and I were told by the property manager that we can’t get in our building because there’s no hydro or fire alarm,” said Roberts.
“It’s just one excuse after another.”
EQB could not be reached for comment by deadline.