This story is part of our solutions series on rental affordability in Nanaimo, Making Rent. Sign up for our weekly newsletter for the latest updates on this reporting. If you want to see more reporting like this, please support it.
When Alexandria Hadlington’s neighbour, a single mother with a child with special needs, was feeling fearful about strange men knocking at her door through all hours of the night, Hadlington took action in the only way she could think to. She printed off a sign for her neighbour’s front door with a big stop sign on it to redirect strangers elsewhere.
“She’s like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m hoping this will help!’” recalls Hadlington.
Hadlington is a resident of the subsidized Quarterway family housing complex on Bowen Road, operated by the nonprofit housing provider, Nanaimo Affordable Housing Society (NAHS).
She’s among a handful of concerned and proactive parents who have organized over recent months to advocate for their safety in the complex.
About five households living at the 22-unit townhouse complex have been working to address ongoing incidents since the beginning of the pandemic. The residents say they have faced challenges including threatening behaviour, open drug use and non-residents staying in the building.
NAHS operates about 16 buildings in Nanaimo with mostly independent units, meaning they are not intended to support residents struggling with complex mental health and substance use issues. However, between the fallout from the pandemic, the ongoing recession, housing, mental health and substance-use crises — all kinds of people in Nanaimo are living on the frontlines.
While the residents say they still don’t feel safe in and around their homes — and their landlord, NAHS, acknowledges there’s still more to do — they’ve made progress.
Here’s what Hadlington and her neighbours have done to reclaim the family-friendly focus of the complex in face of a series of systemic barriers.
‘Reach out to everybody‘
The Discourse learned of the tenants’ organizing when two families reached out at the launch of our solutions series on affordable rental housing, Making Rent. But The Discourse is not the only organization residents have reached out to.
“We had reached out to the MLA. We had also reached out to the police, the landlords, spoken to a lawyer about our civil rights as well,” says Hadlington. “I’ve tried to do everything that I can and reach out to everybody that I can.”
Though progress has been slow, she says doing something is better than nothing. “We shouldn’t just have to deal with things the way things are just because of the way things are.”
Her advice: “Even though it feels like you may not be getting anywhere, to stay persistent, and to do what you know feels right to you. Because parents always know best for their kids,” says Hadlington.
Organize with your neighbours
For the concerned residents, meaningful action has meant organizing. Hadlington says that a number of residents use a Facebook chat to communicate. “We’re like, ‘Let’s get everybody together and see if we can work together as a community to get it dealt with.”
I asked her how they managed to organize during the pandemic. She says that when there is a police incident, most residents go outside. “So then we would all meet up in the middle of the parking lot and be like, ‘Oh, hey, this is what I saw. This is what I heard.’ So we’re like, ‘Well, you know, we have each other on Facebook, let’s just start a Messenger.’”
This communication ensures there are eyes from one end of the complex to the other. “We’re like, ‘Hey, the police are outside, you might want to get the kids inside.’ Or, ‘Hey, there’s somebody outside with a baseball bat or somebody out there yelling.’ So we all look to see what’s going on to see if everybody’s safe or if we need to call the police.”
She says they also share communications with their landlords to ensure everybody is getting the same response. It also serves as a support. “Just letting each other know that we’re all in this together and that we all see it happening, and we all want it to stop.”
Resident David Drewes, who lives in the complex with his two teenage sons and roommate, agrees that community is key. “This is what these people don’t want to deal with,” he says. “They don’t want to deal with the community. They want to just come in, find a little place to stay to themselves, do their drugs, come and go.”
He says that ground-floor residents have been the most proactive, as they’re most affected by the disruptions, but he hopes that other residents will get involved. “We’re trying to get everybody in this complex on board to be a community and say, ‘Hey, we can’t have this here. We’ve got to stand up.’”
Involve the RCMP
A few households sent The Discourse detailed reports of incidents, including screenshots of email communications with their landlord, NAHS, who would advise residents to contact the RCMP’s non-emergency line if they felt unsafe.
“I cannot count on my fingers the amount of times the police have been called to this complex,” says Rebecca Kennedy, a resident and single mother of a son with special needs.
“Anything we can report we’ve been reporting,” says Hadlington. “Noise complaints, suspicious behaviour, vehicles that aren’t supposed to be here, drug deals — because they do it in the middle of the parking lot during the day.”
The RCMP would not confirm details, citing privacy concerns, though a representative told The Discourse that, generally-speaking, they often go to townhouse complexes and that there’s the odd theft in that area.
Hadlington says the most that’s ever happened is that the RCMP removed a person from the property. But that hasn’t stopped her from filing detailed reports.
Drewes, who has lived in the building complex for almost seven years, says that involving the RCMP has become for him a last resort. “How do you get somebody’s attention? If something’s not broken, nobody fixes it. So unless there’s a big issue, then nobody’s going to pay attention.”
He also recognizes it’s an imperfect solution. “Just kicking them out is not doing anything,” he says. “And then you have all the funds that you’ve put into the policing of the area and everything. Why not just take those funds and put them into education for these people?”
“Unfortunately I think I suffer from Superman syndrome,” admits Drewes. “I have a very hard past with physical, mental, sexual abuse, all that stuff.”
He says he’s been in multiple physical altercations with people in the building, some of them he instigated. But today, he advises against it. “You have to learn to leave the frustration and anger to the side,” he says, and deal with management and the RCMP. “Let the police deal with it. Things can go south really fast.”
He says that because of his past, he’s still learning how to do that. “There’s days I sometimes lose balance and stuff,” he says. As a result of his hot-headedness and the inaction of NAHS, he says, “Now it’s to a point where there’s a constant tension in the complex.”
Tighten up security
“I’m very aware that Nanaimo Affordable Housing kind of have their hands tied,” says Drewes. While he says it took much longer than it should have, their advocacy did finally lead to more security on site and floodlights around the complex.
Some residents have taken their own measures. “We have a tele-security camera, a doorbell camera, and we’ve even got the inside security,” says Hadlington.
She says that in the Facebook group chat, they’ve considered placing some of the dads at the parking lot entrance to try and control cars coming and going since they know who’s supposed to live here. They’ve decided against it, “but if it gets to that point, then we will,” she says.
For now, Drewes says he texts the building manager every time there’s a non-resident vehicle parked in the parking lot.
Hadlington says that “being present out front” has been the best tactic they’ve tried. She says they’ve gotten to know some of the unwelcome guests at the complex by name, and while other neighbours are more confrontational, her approach is more gentle. “‘Like, ‘Oh, hey, so-and-so, where are you going?’ Just to let them know that we were watching them and that we’re not OK with them being here.”
Though they’ve been specifically advised not to confront their neighbours, doing so in some cases has been the only way to be proactive about the situation, Hadlington says.
“I’ve even sat down and talked to my husband and said, like, ‘Are we just annoying them? Are we becoming a nuisance?’ And he’s like, ‘No, because if we stop, then they’re gonna think everything’s OK. When it’s not.’”
Hadlington says she has a specific folder on her phone for photos and videos associated with every unit of concern, and sends most of it to her landlord. “So I’m like, OK, I want to make sure they have what they need. Because I want my kids to be able to feel safe leaving the front door.”
Andrea Blakeman, executive director of NAHS, says the video evidence is really helpful, even though they’ve lost eviction arbitrations with the Residential Tenancy Branch despite having “more evidence than you would see in a court of law.” She adds that detailed and objective reports are critical to secure an arbitration.
“It takes constant and repeated reporting from as many tenants as possible,” she says. “So not one tenant writing letters for 10 other tenants and compiling them. It’s about those 10 tenants continuing to write independent reports and letters in to us to really build that case.”
Blakeman says that the tenants at Quarterway have been “really, really supportive and helpful,” adding that the complex mental health issues displayed by some of the tenants are not unique to Quarterway.
“There’s a lot of social problems generally that have been exacerbated — depression, etcetera — on all fronts with COVID,” she says. “It’s just some people have more resources to keep it hidden.”
She says the delays in NAHS’s response to the complaints also stem from barriers with the Residential Tenancy Act, which from her vantage point is making evictions increasingly difficult, particularly during the pandemic. Though progress has been slow, she says changes would not have been possible without a team effort from tenants, the province and security.
“It’s been extremely difficult for the tenants, who have been nothing but helpful. … We probably would have never gotten there without them,” she says, adding that BC Housing’s financial assistance to cover the extra costs of security were also “critically important.”
Eviction is not an easy decision to make, she says, but they have to look at the bigger picture. “It’s our obligation to keep as many tenants safe — and care for their well-being to the best of our abilities. And, unfortunately, there may be people that we would otherwise hope to support to stay in housing, that we simply can’t because we have to look at the other 23 families.”
In an update, residents and NAHS told The Discourse that two of the four most disruptive tenants at Quarterway had been evicted as of April 29, with another eviction in progress. The Discourse reached out to one of these tenants to listen to what it’s been like for them, but did not hear back in time for publication. Tenants of this complex who would like to share their perspectives are invited to reach out.
“The emotional and the physical damage is already done,” says Hadlington, citing the anxiety displayed by her daughter and her husband’s stress-related heart issues. But she says she’s happy to see some changes have finally been made.
“It makes me feel like I’ve actually accomplished something now that somebody is listening to us,” she says.
Weekly visits with her counsellor have been a huge help, she says, in addition to treating her anxiety and taking breaks outdoors. “I’ve been either going to the dam, or we go up to Nanaimo Lakes and just get out of service and become able to focus on each other again.”
For Drewes, he takes care of his sanctuary as best he can. “I have a fence, I have a deck, I have an awning, I’ve got flowers. I try to make my house my castle, because this is all I’ve got,” he says. Though he says he’s frustrated that he can’t relax around his home, meditation and breathing helps.
“I care about the neighbourhood around me and my neighbours and my family. Because this is my world,” he says. He also feels for the younger kids in the complex. “I mean, my kids played outside, they didn’t have any of that stuff to deal with.”
As a recovering alcoholic, Drewes says that he’s been open with his own teenagers about the visible mental health and addictions issues within their own family, and in the complex. “They get both sides of the story. They’ve seen it.”
“Give them all the information they need to make an educated decision and hope for the best. That’s the best I can do, right?”