Jill Green is a Conservative MLA and the current Minister of Service New Brunswick. In late November, Green introduced a bill that, if passed, would allow tenants to contest rent increases that exceed the Consumer Price Index on a case-by-case basis, by contacting the Residential Tenancies Tribunal.
The Conservative government’s solution to the province’s housing crisis is akin to placing a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. It requires, in Green’s words, “everybody to be working together.”
“We need the landlords to step up,” Green told reporters. “And we need the tenants to talk to us and tell us when they have a rent increase that they think is inappropriate.”
However, according to the CBC, 369 tenants submitted rent reviews to Service New Brunswick in 2022. Of these 369 applications, only 53 led to the denial of rent increases (another 31 were still under review). What gives?
The problems with the Conservative government’s solution are twofold. First, it puts tenants on the defensive, forcing ordinary people to defend themselves against their landlord’s poor behaviour. Second, it assumes that landlords and tenants share equal amounts of wealth, time, experience, and energy to deal with the Residential Tenancies Tribunal’s bureaucratic process.
In late September, my old roommate forwarded me a claim against our damage deposit filed by our previous landlord.
The document alleged that we had caused over $1,800 in damages. Immediately, I took to the internet to draft a response, attaching a handful of photos and emails as evidence.
The Residential Tenancies Tribunal assured me that I would soon receive a response by email.
In late October, I received a second claim in the mail.
This time, my landlord had doubled down, upping the cost of damages and adding wholly new damages to boot. The claim now clocked in at over $2,200.
Confused, I patiently waited to hear back from the Residential Tenancies Tribunal. The email, however, never arrived.
It had been lost in the shuffle, and by the time my old roommate had forwarded me his copy of the email, it was nearly too late. At this point, my landlord had added new pieces of evidence to his claim: email chains, statements from new tenants, and sales receipts.
Much of this evidence contradicted his initial claim filed months prior. At this point, I had little more than a weekend—four days in total—to submit evidence to counter my landlord’s numerous (and inconsistent) claims.
What’s more, my hearing was scheduled little more than one week in advance.
As a graduate student, I temporarily put my studies on hold and took to crafting a defence. I wrote three full sentences before my laptop shut off and refused to turn back on. It had died. Murphy’s Law? My hearing was in three days.
I went to the library and pored over old photos. I called friends, rifled through text messages, and contacted my ex-neighbours. I panicked, and I fretted. Anxious, I re-read tense email chains and analyzed heated exchanges.
I soon realized that I was attempting to craft a legal defence using a system of rules and regulations that I was wholly unequipped to understand. What’s more, my busy weekly schedule did not permit careful contemplation.
The Residential Tenancies Act, first assented to in 1975, is more than 20,000 words long. The document is mired in legal jargon and contains thirty unique sections, many of which have their own subsections and exceptions. To date, the tribunal does not offer legal aid to tenants, and for many New Brunswickers, myself included, the document remains an enigma.
My hearing was an unmitigated failure.
The tribunal lost my evidence, and for several minutes, I was placed on the defensive. I panicked. Once my evidence turned up, I attempted to disassemble my landlord’s claims. But the officer in charge of my case was confused. I was effectively attempting to argue against three different and contradictory versions of reality.
As my hearing ended, the officer in charge of my case urged me to settle. This way, my landlord could not pursue legal action.
I lost the entirety of the damage deposit.
In theory, New Brunswick’s Residential Tenancies Tribunal is a neutral authority that resolves financial disputes between landlords and tenants through a process of mediation.
However, in practice, it’s anything but.
According to Jael Duarte, the Tenants Advocate for New Brunswick, to the untrained eye, the Residential Tenancies Tribunal “seems like a neutral party.”
However, Duarte remains unconvinced. “They are not even a tribunal,” she explained over the phone. “It’s just a name.”
“A tribunal normally has a court, clear regulations and procedures, and a right to appeal,” she explained.
What about the province’s legal system?
“If you disagree with the decision of the tribunal, you can go to court,” Duarte told me.
“But, there are very few [legal] precedents in New Brunswick, and the few precedents have been decided in favour of the landlord.”
“The judge can only decide based on what [evidence] the lawyers have shown to the judge,” she explained. “So, obviously, the landlord has more ability to show [evidence] to the judge.”
In practice, ostensibly neutral bureaucracies like the Residential Tenancies Tribunal are never truly neutral spaces.
Wealth begets power, and power begets evidence.
In one corner, landlords sit with ample time, deep pockets, abundant resources, and serious financial incentives. In the other corner, tenants sit unprotected and unadvised. They often work long hours, have limited resources, and lack experience dealing with the law.
Bureaucracies, the Residential Tenancies Tribunal included, cover up society’s fundamental inequalities, and in this sense, they are violent. By maintaining systems of apparent order, bureaucrats can perform violent acts with the press of a button—rubber stamping evictions, siphoning damage deposits, and facilitating massive rent increases, for example.
Oh, you want to evict a single mother of three? By all means—there is a form for that, a timeline, and a process.
Bureaucracies function by segmenting violent acts into their most manageable portions, allowing for the forceful eviction of sick, elderly, and struggling tenants to seem necessary, fair, and even moral.
How can we expect workers, students, minorities, single parents, disabled people, the sick, the elderly, and the poor to face off against a more powerful class of landlords, many of whom are wealthy financiers?
The Residential Tenancies Tribunal forces ordinary New Brunswickers with no prior experience to become independent, untrained, and unpaid lawyers. In practice, then, the province’s fledgling legal system relies on the involuntary labour of tenants to work.
In total, I spent more than twenty hours contesting my landlord’s claim. According to the Economic Research Institute, lawyers in Canada make an average of $77 per hour. In my case, this would have amounted to over $1,500—a hefty sum.
Who should I make the bill out to—the Conservative Party, the Residential Tenancies Tribunal, or my landlord? I also take cash.
I say flip the script. Flip the violent, tedious, and mentally draining bureaucratic process against the province’s landlords.
The logical (albeit partial) solution is simple: give New Brunswickers access to legal aid, no strings attached. Other solutions include introducing a permanent rent cap and enacting a human rights-based housing framework.
Legal frameworks that do not put the rights of tenants first uphold the power of landlords — full stop.
Premier Higgs, whose side are you on?
Harrison Dressler is a master’s student in history at Queen’s University. He writes about Canadian history, labour, politics, and the environment.