Social housing is rent geared-to-income housing, available to all citizens living in Ontario. Co-operative housing is meant to create a healthy and inclusive environment of participation whereby tenants contribute equally to the physical maintenance and social well-being of the complex. It is run by a board of directors, all of whom live in the complex, charged with making the decisions which a paid coordinator then implements.
But one woman’s experience in Sault Ste. Marie at La Chaumiere social housing complex paints a different picture of co-operative living in our community.
In 2012, Erin Jacques moved into La Chaumiere Place off of Queen street. For the first three years, everything ran smoothly. She became close with the group of people living there, worked continually to build a better life for herself and her children. “I never had a problem with anyone there,” Jacques told SaultOnline. “The kids (in the co-op) would have sleepovers, go on trips, come over and play with the baby. It was a very trusting relationship.”
In 2015, a new coordinator was hired and the situation immediately took a turn for the worse. Her mother, Debbie Dunlop, described the coordinator as a puppet master who has abused her power, leaving the board entirely at her disposal. Dunlop depicted the next two years as “constant badgering,” saying that social housing has violated her daughter’s human rights and caused lingering credit problems.
When Jacques rekindled her relationship with the father of her children, Andrew Jacques, the issues really came to a head. She said they wanted to take their relationship slow and live separately until they were ready to ease the transition for their four children. “He was approved as a casual guest. We were on and off for fifteen years, and he worked away, so doing it this way was just easier on the kids,” she explained.
However, alleged badgering and mounting pressure from the coordinator forced Jacques and her boyfriend (now husband) to change their living situation. Dunlop explained, “As soon as they (the board of directors) see a vehicle in the driveway, they are saying this and that. Accusing him of living there even though she provided evidence that he lived with his mother. They wanted to know where he was working, wanted his employment files. Eventually they told her that her boyfriend has to move in, forcing them to be co-applicants because it would just make things easier.”
Of the stressful period Jacques said, “She (the coordinator) determined what we did and didn’t do, and how long he stayed at our house. It became, oh he has to be a long-term guest, so he would live with me but not be a member of the co-op. I told her no, we weren’t ready. I provided his address, I.D, everything she asked. We were on Ontario Works and she told them we were frauding, so he got kicked off and then we had to live together. I put in the application for him and housing never got back to us for a couple of months so she evicted us.”
But that was just one of many tense situations that she shared with the coordinator.
“She tried to evict us when I was pregnant with my fourth child because Andrew backed the truck up on a one way street into a garbage dumpster to throw out the trash. She didn’t see it happen, but someone told her. We got a warning and it never happened again. But then she put it in to the Landlord Tenant Board that we had committed serious criminal offenses against the co-op,” Jacques alleged.
The issue was brought to court, where the judge allegedly told the coordinator to educate herself on when and how a tenant can be evicted, effectively dismissing the case.
Jacques also accumulated a number of fines and was threatened with eviction on more than one occasion. These fines include but are not limited to; missing co-op board meetings while pregnant despite having a doctor’s note, a pet she didn’t have as well as not cleaning after said pet, her boyfriend backing his truck up to a dumpster on a one-way street, an air-conditioner she didn’t have, changing the locks on the door without telling her, the coordinator’s lawyer fees. These fines added up to a whopping $5,000, which Erin and her mother have alleged are unwarranted and excessive.
Jacques alleged “she (the coordinator) put stuff in to collections that I had already paid off. Even when the board tells her she can take something out of collections because I’ve paid it or it’s wrong, she doesn’t.”
Jacques has also said she has never received a single detailed receipt from the coordinator in regards to what she was actually being fined for, and ultimately paying for. In fact, after evicted, she was asked to return to the co-op office to sign off on what she owed. According to Jacques, she was not permitted to read the files before signing it. “She (the coordinator) said I couldn’t read it, so Andrew wrote on it that we don’t agree that this is what we owe. Then I signed it and made her give me a copy. She was screaming and yelling, she grabbed his arm and tried to throw him out the door. We tried to charge her with assault but because it was private property and technically Andrew hadn’t been invited, she wanted to charge us for trespassing.”
The invoices are vague at best, and Jacques has speculated that the money within the unit is being mismanaged. Documents provided by the Jacques show that while they moved out of the co-op Sept. 1, the fee to pay for the carpet was not added to collections until Nov. 10. “So many of the fines I was never even told of. I would just see it in collections. She (the coordinator) didn’t even try to contact me to get me to pay first, she goes straight to collections. And I don’t know why. I’ve never missed a rent payment in my life, and the two fines that I am guilty of (a plumbing charge and a drywall issue) I am willing to pay, I own those ones.”
The fines and the money are one part of the story, but the other critical issue is the toll it took on Jacques mentally. “I was stressed and pregnant, I was violently ill almost the entire pregnancy. When we went to court, I gave birth the next day, two weeks early. Then I had to go back to court when the baby was a week old, not knowing if I would have somewhere to live.”
Now, Jacques and her family have been left in dire situation. “We could have kept fighting it” she explained, “but mentally I couldn’t keep doing it because she would just keep going and keep finding more loopholes to evict me. She didn’t like me because I stood up to her.”
Now they are paying full market price for a home in Echo Bay with four children and constantly coming to and from the Sault, she is struggling to make ends meet with terrible credit. “The truck loan was in my name, so when I went to trade it in they told me my credit was horrible. I had no idea why. Then when I went to check it out I found out I owed $5000 to the co-op,” Jacques explained. “My whole life crashed around me. We can’t pick ourselves back up.”
Jacques and Dunlop have called upon the aid of Social Housing Sault Ste. Marie to no avail. Of her request, Jacques said “I asked for help so many times. They (Social Housing) said get a lawyer. Well how do I get a lawyer when I have no money and I don’t have the credit to get a loan? I can’t get legal aid because it’s technically a civil matter. I am trapped and so many other women are too. Housing doesn’t care what happens to us.”
When asked for a statement on Erin Jacques’ situation, Social Housing told SaultOnline that they don’t deal with disputes, only financial oversight. The representative said that each individual housing complex has their own internal process for hiring and tribunals and legal clinics are in place for when those processes fail. “We don’t get in the middle of who is right and who is wrong,” the representative explained.
But what happens with the issues simply cannot be resolved internally?
The board is voted in by members, and the the board hires the coordinator. But the co-op operates in very tight circles. Jacques’ good friend, who is the president of the board, was kicked out of multiple meetings where Jacques’ case was discussed because it was deemed a “conflict of interest.” Jacques’ concern with this is “shouldn’t it be a conflict of interest for everybody in that case? I’ve taken their kids on trips, they’ve come into my house whenever they please, one of their mother’s dated my father-in-law. How is that fair?”
After speaking with another co-op, Jacques proposed the idea of having another board from another co-op come in and make the decision as to whether or not she should be evicted since they would be coming from an unbiased perspective. Jacques alleged that the coordinator said “its too much time and effort and she doesn’t want another co-op coming in.”
The board also refused to have a meeting without the coordinator, leaving Jacques and her family with nowhere to turn. They have taken matters into their own hands, turning to the media and protesting to get their story out there.
After protesting outside Social Housing six months ago, Jacques received word that the coordinator up and quit. La Chaumiere’s Board of Directors has since hired a new coordinator, according to the Social Services website.
This has co-op members and victims of alleged harassment like Erin Jacques asking who holds the Board of Directors accountable? Who holds the coordinator accountable?
When asked who holds the Board of Directors accountable, SaultOnline was told by Housing that “The Board of Directors is made up of peers, so it should be more fair. Once you’ve gone through the co-op board, just like any other organization, that doesn’t mean you’ve fallen out of the standard process of anyone renting a unit in Ontario.”
Housing listed the other options as the Landlord Tenant Board, which deals with the Landlord Tenant Act and arrears, but Jacques raised the point that she can’t go through the Landlord Tenant Board because she is no longer living in the co-operative, leaving her, and many like her, stuck with a debt she feels is unfair.
Housing also told SaultOnline that they only get involved in these processes when there is money involved. As far as they are concerned, corruption is when books are mismanaged and money is being used improperly.
But, there is money involved. The money of people like Erin, for whom a $5,000 debt to collections in an unbearable burden, especially when the fines are unwarranted.
Erin’s situation would indicate that there isn’t help. Housing made it clear that they are following the rules mandated within their system,
but perhaps the bigger problem is the system.
Debbie and Erin are calling upon elected officials to change the system.
Situations like Erin’s have left her, and many others, feeling like their financial and mental well-being is of lesser value than that of others.