Hamilton city staff apologize for ‘minimizing’ health impacts of insect and rodent infestations

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Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton’s medical officer of health, apologized for comments her staff made that minimized the health impacts of pest infestations on residents. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

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Public health staff have apologized to residents for not enforcing the city’s pest rules for over four years and recently making comments that minimized the health impacts of living with insect and rodent infestations.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city’s medical officer of health, made the apology on Thursday, following CBC Hamilton’s story.

“I want to apologize on behalf of the City of Hamilton as well as public health services to those in the community who felt our level of service for not addressing pest control complaints was not up to their expectations,” Richardson told reporters.

Public health manager Matthew Lawson previously told CBC Hamilton there’s little evidence to suggest rats, cockroaches and bedbugs carry diseases. 

Lawson also apologized Thursday, acknowledging pests can affect people’s physical and mental wellbeing, and cause allergic reactions, infections related to scratching, as well as anxiety and insomnia.

“I take the health and wellbeing of those in Hamilton very seriously,” Lawson said. “That’s why I’m here today to extend an apology to those who felt pain based on my comments in a recent media story minimizing the negative impacts pest infestations can have on community members.” 

Earlier in the day, Mayor Andrea Horwath urged city staff to apologize. 

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Following their apology, she told CBC Hamilton she was shocked when she read the story and said residents felt diminished and insulted.

“I want to articulate how sorry I am,” Horwath said. “People need to know the city is on their side. When they call with issues, we need to respond and if we’re not able to, we need to know why.” 

A bylaw officer will be in charge of responding to new pest complaints starting next Tuesday, while also working through hundreds of cases the city has yet to respond to, Richardson said. 

Horwath said she expects the city to contact every resident who has lodged a complaint and find ways to expedite the process. 

Kevin McDonald, a city public health director who oversees the healthy environments division, previously said Hamilton’s public health division paused pest control in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic started. 

That means landlords who fail to keep buildings free of cockroaches, bedbugs or rats, as required under the city’s property standards bylaw, haven’t faced bylaw orders or fees.

Public health says enforcement paused during the pandemic and a bylaw officer will pick it up next month

CBC Hamilton is investigating the living conditions that tenants face and what responsibility the city has to uphold property standards. This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Parts 2 and 3 will run in the coming weeks.

The cockroach and bedbug infestations in Tammy Brown’s Hamilton apartment have all but destroyed her life, she says.

Roaches have taken over her fridge and stove, contaminating her food and making it impossible to cook for her two adult daughters, one of whom lives with a disability, and her four-year-old grandson. 

Brown has thrown out nearly all their clothes and furniture in an effort to rid her home of the pests.

“We have nothing left,” she said. 

Brown, a member of the tenant advocacy group ACORN, has called the city four times in under a year, begging for it to order the landlord at 221 Melvin Ave. to fix the pest problems.

She said neither public health nor bylaw has ever responded. 

“Nobody from the city gives a shit,” she said. “Pardon my French, but the job is not being done.” 

There’s a reason she hasn’t heard back. The City of Hamilton isn’t enforcing its own pest control rules — and hasn’t for over four years, staff told CBC Hamilton.

That means landlords who fail to keep buildings free of cockroaches, bedbugs or rats, as required under the city’s property standards bylaw, haven’t faced bylaw orders or fees.

Kevin McDonald, a city public health director who oversees the healthy environments division, said in an interview the decision to pause pest control happened in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, when staff were reassigned to respond to the emergency. 

Pest control was determined to be a low priority at that time, McDonald said. The public was notified of the change through a report prepared for the Board of Health and the previous mayor in June 2020.

In that report, it does not list services — like pest control enforcement — that were put on hold, but rather services that would continue. Pest control was not on the list.

Public health lifted its state of emergency related to COVID-19 over a year ago.

“We appreciate and are not trying to minimize the presence of pests in someone’s home can be extremely stressful, frustrating and concerning,” said McDonald. “And depending on the type of pests, that can have a mental and physical impact on individuals.” 

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Brown and her family live at 221 Melvin Ave. in Hamilton’s east end. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

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However, according to public health manager Matthew Lawson, there’s little evidence to suggest rats, cockroaches and bedbugs carry pathological diseases, and the idea that residents could experience negative mental health impacts is a “novel, developing notion” that began in 2008 when bedbugs started making a resurgence in Hamilton.

“I couldn’t agree with you more that nobody wants to live with pests,” said Lawson. “But pests in the modern form aren’t necessarily presenting a health hazard.” 

Hamilton public health received 1,365 pest complaints from 2019 to this month, as shared with CBC Hamilton. There were fewer than five orders issued by the city in that time. A corporate landlord found guilty of violating the city’s pest control rules may face fines of up to $100,000.

McDonald said enforcement will begin again by mid-August, after one bylaw officer is reassigned and trained.

The bylaw officer will respond to pest control complaints, which residents can file by calling the city’s customer contact centre, he said. 

“Everyone deserves a safe place to live. And I really want to emphasize that pest control is absolutely a health issue in so many ways.”

– Laura Pin, Wilfrid Laurier University assistant professor

In a call with CBC Hamilton, the general manager of 221 Melvin Ave., Breed Singh, denied there were infestations in Brown’s unit or anywhere else in the building. However, the property manager, Family Properties, has hired a pest control company to do preventive treatment in common areas, he said. Singh said if they receive a pest complaint from a tenant, they spray that unit and the ones surrounding it. 

The city’s bylaw department received nine complaints about the building in the last year and a half, said manager Dan Smith. In three of the complaints, all related to property standards issues, the city ordered the landlord to make repairs, which it did.

Brown said she faces eviction this week over unpaid rent. However, she said she was planning to leave as soon as possible regardless, as the pest situation is untenable. 

She’s still looking for another place, but expects her monthly rent to jump from $1,600 to over $2,000 as the cost of housing has soared in recent years. 

“I am very ticked off with the services of Hamilton,” she said. “This is why they have housing problems. People are not being heard and they can’t take it anymore.” 

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Under Hamilton’s property standards bylaw, landlords are responsible for keeping units free of bedbugs. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

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Laura Pin, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies housing policy, said this lack of property standards enforcement disproportionately impacts low-income residents, including people like Brown who are receiving social assistance.

They’re more likely to rent and be financially “stuck” in units that are falling into disrepair and with the “huge” psychological impact of living with pests, said Pin. 

“It is a really serious problem. Everyone deserves a safe place to live. And I really want to emphasize that pest control is absolutely a health issue in so many ways.” 

Brown and her family’s physical and mental health have been greatly impacted, she said. They can’t sleep at night because of the bedbugs, and their bites are itchy and sore. They feel unwell from the cockroaches, both from allergies and the bacteria, and the waste the insects leave behind.

Pin said she can understand why the city paused its enforcement in the initial months of the pandemic. 

“But the idea that there’s been no enforcement for years, it makes me wonder if anyone who is a tenant is actually sitting at the table and making these sorts of decisions.” 

City enforcement is also important right now because of the delays at the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB), said Pin. 

Tenants can request that the LTB order a landlord to do maintenance and repairs if they haven’t done so properly or quickly enough. The board can also order the landlord to compensate the tenant. 

However, it takes up to two years for tenant complaints to be scheduled for a hearing, the Ontario Ombudsman found in May. 

Lawson, the public health manager, said the city is working to get back on track, recognizing there will be a backlog of complaints.

“The concern is the perception there’s not enough work being done quick enough,” said Lawson. “There’s a number of issues in Hamilton you can attribute that to. Everyone wants stuff done now.”

Family of six living with exposed wires, concrete and caulking after water destroyed walls

One morning last September, Aden Hassan returned from a quick trip to the corner store to find his entire two-bedroom Hamilton apartment was flooded.

The sloshing inches of water had destroyed baseboards, walls and most of his family’s belongings, Hassan said. He lives in the apartment with his wife and four children.

In the days following, the landlord made emergency repairs — hiring a contractor to strip away a few feet of soggy drywall, according to an eviction notice that describes events and was filed months later.

But the repair work stopped there, and seven months later the family is still living in “very difficult” conditions at 235 Rebecca St. Hassan said.

Hassan, 27, showed CBC Hamilton the extensive damage, gesturing to loose wires, exposed concrete and caulking, and sharp metal corners that pose a constant danger to his 18-month-old son. 

He points out black mould blooming in corners and closets. He can see the bathtub’s underbelly through a giant hole in the bedroom wall. And the bottom of his bathroom cupboard has never fully dried. 

“I’m frustrated, overwhelmed and very depressed,” Hassan said. “I don’t have time to keep fighting for this to be solved in days or months.”

The family relies solely on Hassan’s income as a construction worker, and can’t afford to move anywhere else. Hassan said he’s paying just over $1,500 a month in rent, while two-bedroom units elsewhere can cost $2,000 or more.

He and his wife were born in Somalia and moved to Canada as refugees. He said they’re still learning English and about their tenant rights, and was hopeful the landlord would follow through on repairs. 

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A hole in the wall of Hassan’s bedroom. The bathtub can be seen in the next room over. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

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But in recent weeks, out of desperation, he said he got in touch with tenant advocacy group ACORN, Hamilton Community Legal Clinic (HCLC) lawyers and HCLC Black justice coordinator Gachi Issa. 

“It’s time to speak out,” Hassan said. 

His family’s “deeply concerning” living situation is not only a symptom of Hamilton’s ongoing housing crisis, but also an example of anti-Black racism, said Issa. 

“A lot of landlords, especially in the downtown core, take advantage of migrants often, those with language barriers and those who are vulnerable,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to see.”

Two legal experts told CBC Hamilton there’s no excuse for the unit to still be in this condition.

“The landlord has an obligation to fix it, period, end of story,” said Harry Fine, a retired paralegal who isn’t connected to the case.

If the landlord believes the tenant is to blame, it can then go to the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) to recover the repair costs, he said.

Medallion Corporation, a Toronto-based real estate development and property management company, owns and maintains the apartment building. 

Medallion spokesperson Danny Roth declined to answer CBC Hamilton’s questions as to why the repairs haven’t been completed. 

“The issues in this situation are specific to an individual tenancy and do not speak to systemic issues in the community or industry,” he said in a statement. 

“Medallion continues to believe that individual tenant matters are best resolved directly — between management and resident, and not through the media. That process of dialogue is ongoing between the resident and management.”

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A section of dining room wall that’s exposed poses a risk to Hassan’s children, he says. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

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The day Hassan’s apartment flooded, Sept. 22, 2022, the city had shut off water in the area to replace a fire hydrant, said Monica Ciriello, Hamilton’s bylaw and licensing services director.

Medallion served Hassan an eviction notice in January — in it, the company blamed Hassan for the flood, claiming he left the kitchen tap on and a plug in the drain.

When the city turned the water back on an hour later, it filled up the sink and flowed onto the floor, the notice said.

Hassan is adamant the flood was not his fault. He said it likely began in the washroom, where the toilet bowl often overflows with water and floods into the bedroom. He said it’s been an ongoing issue since he moved into the unit four years ago and despite repeatedly asking the landlord to do repairs, the problem has never been fixed. The same can be said for his leaking kitchen sink.

“This building has a water problem, and everyone knows about it,” Hassan said. “I’ve been paying to live here for four years and I have a right to stay.” 

The landlord told Hassan and his family to move out of the unit by the end of March or pay $11,878 to repair the damages. 

Hassan said he recently took out a $5,000 loan to give Medallion, in the hopes it would stop the eviction process and motivate them to make the repairs. 

“I am willing to solve the problem and work together as a team,” he said.

But Medallion is continuing to pursue eviction, filing an application with the LTB, according to an email from the LTB to Hassan. 

The LTB will eventually hear the case and make a decision. 

Hassan also made a complaint with city bylaw in early April, confirmed Ciriello, the city’s bylaw director.

According to Hamilton’s rental property bylaws, landlords are required to maintain and repair interior floors and walls, plumbing and electrical. 

Hassan provided CBC Hamilton with a recording of a phone call from April 5, in which he said he spoke with a bylaw officer. 

In the recording, the officer seems reluctant to go to the property and discourages Hassan from pursuing an order. The officer says he’s already spoken to the landlord, who indicated they’d appeal any order from the city.

“I would leave it and let [the landlord] fix it when they can,” the officer is heard saying. “I’ve been doing the job for 30 years and I’m just trying to help you.” 

After Hassan asked again for help, the officer said, “I’m going to come but your landlord is going to come down on you hard to evict you, I know that.”

When asked about the recording and whether the response was in line with messaging bylaw should be providing to residents, the city declined to comment.

“We cannot confirm conversations that may or may not have taken place before or after inspection,” said Ciriello.

A bylaw officer “worked with the property manager to make repairs,” she said. A month later, the officer confirmed the landlord had hired a contractor to complete the work. 

As of Friday, Hassan said he hadn’t heard anything from the landlord about repairs. 

And standing in the middle of his living room, with the couch pushed into the middle, away from the exposed wires and concrete, Hassan said clearly the work hadn’t started.

Property management company says tenant is providing ‘misleading information’

A Hamilton tenant says he can’t lie on his bed, move his shower curtain, comb his hair or even put on his shoes without finding bed bugs. 

Gerald said it’s a problem that’s only gotten worse in his bachelor unit in a downtown apartment building, despite the property management company having it sprayed two dozen times in the past year.

“I couldn’t get any sleep last night because I’m literally being eaten alive,” he told CBC Hamilton earlier this week. 

CBC Hamilton has agreed to withhold his full name, as he fears being linked to a bed bug infestation will impact his future employment and housing options.

He said the bed bug problem in his 325 James St. S. apartment is affecting nearly every aspect of his life. He’s spent hundreds of dollars on laundry — washing and drying all his clothes and bedding repeatedly, trying to get rid of the bugs, he said.

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Gerald says he has permanent scars from where he’s scratched his bed bug bites. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

He avoids showering as much as possible because that’s where he finds the most bed bugs. He has scars and scabs on his body from scratching the bites, including several dotted marks around his ankles, CBC Hamilton has seen. He rarely gets a good night sleep without feeling the tiny pests crawl across his skin or itching the bites, he said.

Then there’s the isolation. “It’s hard because I have to worry about, am I going to bring these bed bugs with me?” Gerald said. 

Gerald, 27, moved into his apartment in February 2022 and within three weeks said he found bed bugs. He said he has never experienced bed bugs before living in this building. 

Tenants have an obligation to keep their units relatively clean while landlords have an obligation to keep units habitable, said paralegal Bruce Parsons. 

“So [the landlord] has to respond in a timely, reasonable manner and it has to be effective,” said Parsons. “But you would expect effective treatment for bed bugs. It can’t be something where they’re not actually fixing the problem.” 

The most effective treatments for bed bugs include freezing or heating units and belongings, said Hamilton’s Housing Help Centre executive director Larry Huibers, who was co-chair of the city’s now-disbanded bed bug action group.

He also said bed bugs migrate easily from unit to unit in apartment buildings and treatments in those case would be more effective if they involve more than one unit. 

Since the fall, Gerald’s unit has been sprayed with a natural biopesticide, according to an email sent to him on Nov. 2 by the management company, The Silver Group, and seen by CBC Hamilton. The Silver Group is acting on behalf of the landlord. 

On numerous occasions, Gerald has emailed The Silver Group about the bed bugs, as seen by CBC Hamilton, asking them to try different extermination methods, spray more often and in his bathroom, or provide him with another unit.

You either need to book a spray for this week or find me different accommodations ASAP as I am getting bit daily,” Gerald wrote on Oct. 25, 2022 after living with bed bugs for over six months. “Why should I have to suffer like this?”

The Silver Group hired another extermination company, it said in an email response to him in November, acknowledging that the bugs had likely developed a resistance. By that time, The Silver Group had already waived one month’s rent for the “inconvenience.” 

The Silver Group’s senior property manager Christine Robinson told CBC Hamilton in a recent email that Gerald is providing “misleading information” and interfered with the pest control company working in his unit, refused to let the technician in and was “verbally abusive” towards staff and the technician.

We remain diligent in providing our residents with professional services in a timely manner,” said Robinson. 

The day after they were contacted by CBC for comment, The Silver Group served Gerald with an N5 eviction notice for “directly preventing the landlords from fulfilling their maintenance obligations, which is interfering with their reasonable enjoyment, and the reasonable enjoyment of residents in the complex.” CBC Hamilton has viewed a copy of the notice.

Gerald said he has done everything he can think of to comply with extermination efforts including sweeping, vacuuming and mopping, keeping his apartment free of clutter and moving some of his belongings onto the balcony. 

He denies he was ever verbally abusive toward anyone and said he has left his unit close to 24 times in the past year for treatments.

But earlier this spring, Gerald said he was there when the technician visited. Gerald said the technician left without doing the treatment after Gerald began recording the interaction on his phone. 

In the N5 notice, The Silver Group said Gerald followed him and called him vulgar names. 

In a video viewed by CBC, taken at the time according to Gerald, Gerald could be heard saying to someone, “can I ask why you’re refusing to do this? What have I done not to do the spray today? Please let me know.” 

Gerald has stopped paying the $940 in monthly rent. He said in part it’s because he is in between jobs, but also he doesn’t know what else to do to get his landlord’s attention.

He said he can’t afford to move, so getting the bed bugs eradicated from his apartment is his only option other than homelessness.

The Silver Group has also served him with a separate eviction notice for failing to pay rent, as seen by CBC Hamilton. Gerald said he plans to continue the fight at the landlord and tenant board in the coming months and will be filing his own applications alleging that the landlord gave him an eviction notice in bad faith and has not complied with maintenance standards.

“I shouldn’t have to live like this,” Gerald said.

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