Wednesday, March 7, 2012

a dubious welcome

As a returning resident to Canada you need a place where the government can send your mail. If you want to get that mail you have to be in residence. You may remember that as a Catch-22 and it was the deal we faced in the summer of 2010. Ready or not, it was time to go and we needed a place to live by September 1st.

We could have flown here from Portland, OR to find an apartment but that would have been very expensive and, besides, it would have been a holiday and nobody is ever completely rational while on vacation. So we did what modern people do and googled for a decent place in an area of Halifax that looked reasonable for people who enjoy walking.

Eventually, we found Parthenon Properties*, a management company that had pictures of very nice apartments in modern buildings, and we decided to rent a 17th floor place at their newly renovated Slabhurst Tower**. The rent was higher than what were paying for our urban townhouse and the only appliances were a fridge and stove, meaning we'd have to do without the garbage disposal, microwave, dishwasher, and the washer and dryer we'd grown used to having. Parking was going to be extra as well. We figured we'd cope for a year while we looked for something nicer.

When the lease arrived in the mail we were surprised to see six extra pages listing all the items associated with our new apartment whose cost we'd have to cover if they were damaged. It was stated we'd lose our deposit for normal cleaning costs at the end of our tenancy but would be billed for the items listed:

nail hole in wall - $10 each up to 1/4 inch to replaster - landlord's discretion for repair charge for larger holes
gouge in hardwood floor - $200 per room to re-sand and polish
scratch on kitchen counter - $50 - $250
drip plates for stove - $15
broken switch plate - $25
broken light fixture - $50 - $150
cracked bathroom tile - $15
toilet seat - $50

and so forth but I'm sure you get the idea. It seemed strange but we weren't too worried as we'd never broken any of those things so I filled out the forms and sent the money - deposit and 12 post dated rent checks plus one more to guarantee a secure parking space for a year.

A few days before the end of August, when we'd finished giving away everything we weren't taking, when we'd packed and sealed our inventoried boxes, when the movers had come to pack the rest and had driven it away, we carried our bags to the car and left. One day I may write about the 4000 mile journey but not today. The moving company had given us an estimate between 10 and 30 days for delivery to our new place and, since we had to be there to sign our belongings through Customs, we didn't have time to delay. We made decent time but it was a long trip so by the time we arrived in Halifax it was already September 5th, Labor Day.

We knew the management offices would be closed but they'd promised to leave the keys to our apartment with the maintenance staff and since we were very excited to see our new home we went there straight away. After staying in hotels for 7 nights,  packing up to leave early every morning, we didn't mind that even though we had no furniture we'd have our own floor to sleep on and a 17th floor view of the Atlantic Ocean.

What we hadn't reckoned with, indeed hadn't understood at all, was that Halifax is a college town. It turns out there are 5 universities here with more than 30,000 students in need of housing every September. When we arrived at Slabhurst Tower it appeared that half that number were lining up for the elevators along with their belongings. Chaos barely describes the scene in the lobby.

Not knowing what else to do we went off to look for someone who could show us our new place. Following signs marked 'Maintenance' and 'Boiler Room' we opened doors and walked along corridors until we found a grungy little office with a very harassed man sitting at an untidy desk. After we told him who we were he dug through a great stack of papers, pulled out a file and told us to follow him.. back to the lobby where he eventually commandeered an elevator.

What more can I tell you about the apartment he showed us that the picture doesn't say? Besides the gouges in the floors, the holes in the walls, and the oven door all atwist, we gazed in shock at the glass balcony doors 6 inches beyond which was a jersey barrier and the whole thing, from floor to ceiling, enclosed by an impenetrable chain link fence. This was my Atlantic Ocean view?

The maintenance man was definitely having a busy day but even he was shocked at the condition of the apartment as he asked us if we'd like to sign the documents and take the keys or would we prefer to see the building manager the next morning. Remembering the six page itemized list, we told him to keep the keys.

Once outside in the safety of our car we started to giggle, and as we each remembered another horror the other might have missed we laughed all the harder. Finally, after wiping our eyes and blowing our noses, we went off to find a hotel and a place to have a stiff drink. Neither of us had consumed so much as a glass of beer for a decade but the occasion seemed to warrant a palliative.

An hour or two later we sat at an outdoor pub picking at french fries and sipping our glasses of Unibroue La Terrible, a beer we'd chosen for the appropriateness of its name rather than its taste, as we strategized about our meeting the next day. Surely, we imagined, the management would be as disgusted as we were over the state of the apartment and would be eager to offer reparations. Maybe they'd offer us an undamaged place. It wasn't in our best interest to not take the apartment because it had become our official Canadian address but we couldn't live in the dungeon we'd seen. We decided to see what they'd say.

Shortly after 8am the next day we were back in the lobby of Slabhurst Tower, but this time a heavy wooden door that had been locked the previous afternoon was open. We stepped from a tiled floor onto a lush gray carpet where we found ourselves in a wide hall hung with subtly lit artwork. At the far end was a grand lobby dominated by a tall reception desk whose mahogany curves were highlighted by a magnificent chandelier. The bored receptionist pointed us toward a nearby seating area where we were to wait for the busy manager. It wasn't difficult to see where the renovation money had been spent.

Looking distinctly uncomfortable about meeting us, we sat watching as the manager buzzed in and out of her glass fronted office holding muted conversations with various men in suits while pointedly ignoring our presence. Twenty minutes passed before she gave a deep sigh in our direction and told us to follow her.

Once we were all seated she opened our file and asked if we were ready to take charge of the apartment we'd rented:
'No, not in the condition it was in yesterday afternoon.'
We fixed that.
'It's impossible you fixed it since then.'
Well, we might have to do a little more later but it's ready now. Sign this and take the key.
'No, we want a place that looks like the one you advertised.'

Hearing that, she got up and left the room. A few minutes later one of the suited men entered followed by the manager and a security guard pushing a big executive chair. The man sat down in the big chair, the manager sat in her small executive chair, and the security guard leaned against the wall behind us with his arms crossed.

We spent the next ten minutes listening to a senior vice president of Parthenon Properties alternately cajole and threaten us with lawsuits. Needless to say nothing he said changed our minds. In a sense it was bizarrely amusing to watch as he shook and turned colors on his way to becoming apoplectic. That was when we got up and left.

A little later that day we asked a lawyer if we could be sued for not accepting the apartment. His only question was, 'Did you accept the keys?' When we told him 'No' he said that had been the right thing to do. Of course, we lost the deposit, the first month's rent, and a year's worth of secure parking, but the relief we felt at not having to live at Slabhurst Tower almost made up for that.

A few days later we rented another apartment and proceeded to notify everyone about our new new address. We'd found yet another temporary home.

*name changed to preserve us from lawsuit
** as above but with thanks to Randal Graves