It was a long weekend to remember for Stephanie Smith — but for all the wrong reasons.
Smith returned home after a weekend trip in August to discover mushrooms sprouting from a crevice between her carpet and walls, dusted with what appeared to be black mould.
“Seeing them was one thing, but the smell when we walked in was so bad that I was immediately vomiting,” said Smith, who lives in Quarry Co-operative Housing in south Ottawa.
“It just grew so rapidly. It was terrifying.”
WATCH | A timelapse of ‘terrifying’ mushrooms springing up:
That room, situated underneath a leaky bathroom, had since been taped off with a “mould abatement” warning sign.
But the unwelcome fungi are just the tip of the iceberg, said Smith, who describes a decade of waiting and pleading for fellow Quarry Co-op board members to address her repeated maintenance requests.
The 244-unit housing co-operative is structured as a non-profit, where members hold shares of the property together — in a sense, they’re their own landlords. Co-operatives can provide housing for low-income residents through subsidies from governments, and members pay monthly housing fees which are often more affordable than average rent.
Members also elect a board of directors to govern day-to-day decisions and to oversee the budget for repairs and upkeep. Under Quarry’s bylaw, members can’t repair their own units without going through the board first.
Smith, who paid a membership fee and joined the co-op more than a decade ago, says her home has been plagued with leaks, mould and flooding for years.
This March, she and her family left for four months so repairs could take place. But upon returning in June, Smith says the problems weren’t properly fixed and leaks and mould persisted.
“I’m constantly in a fight or flight mode,” she said. “Numb fingers, my heart’s racing, I’m clammy a lot of the times, I’m constantly sick.”
CBC News spoke to other co-op members who described waiting for the board to arrange major and minor maintenance requests — including electrical and heating issues, bad plumbing, broken doors and windows and holes in the roof.
Experts say co-op members are excluded from Ontario legislation that helps landlords and tenants resolve disputes. Smith and other Quarry members say they’re left on their own, and feel their only effective recourse is through civil court — a nonviable option for some lower-income neighbours.
“There’s no help out there. It doesn’t matter if you contact the MPPs. It doesn’t matter if you contact city [property] standards,” said Smith.
“[The board] left us to kind of drown in the water.”
WATCH | A tour of Smith’s home as water drips from ceilings, puddles:
Now launching lawsuit
Smith was a Quarry board member for ten years but says she resigned in October 2022 to launch a lawsuit against the co-op.
Even though she worked as a liaison with contractors, Smith says when it came to push for timely repairs — not only for her own unit but also for other members’ units — her hands were tied.
“It was lonely … I know in my heart I’ve absolutely done everything I could for this membership,” she said. “The only way I could do something was to step off the board and come at it from a legal perspective.”
Her civil suit claims Quarry Co-op “failed to keep the unit in a good state of repair fit for habitation” and includes a laundry list of issues for almost every room of her house.
The claim states the lack of timely repairs worsened the unit, caused her to live apart from her children and pets for months at a time, and inflicted damage to her family’s health and mental wellness.
Quarry blames pets, Smith’s ‘entitlement’
In its defence and counterclaim, Quarry Co-op denies all of Smith’s allegations.
It blames Smith’s guests for damaging the unit, as well as her “menagerie of pets” and their urine and feces. The co-op claims Smith tried to “micromanage” repairs “to the extent that the contractor had a hard time retaining personnel,” and states she agreed to pick up some repair costs but claimed in excess of the agreed amount.
It also states that the fact Smith sat on the board “gave her a sense of entitlement to special treatment” and that Quarry “succumbed to her entreaties” and hired contractors to fix her unit.
Their defence lists two pages of detailed repairs already completed in each room — from repainting to installing and replacing several problem items.
In response to the counterclaim, Smith told CBC she has two house-trained dogs and a cat and that “it would be awfully crazy” for her pets to cause “the velocity of water” falling through her house.
She said if contractors had trouble retaining staff, it had “nothing to do” with her, and that it’s “a complete falsity” that she agreed to pick up any cost to the unit.
In response to allegations of entitlement and special treatment, Smith pointed around her living quarters still under construction: “Well, if this is preferential treatment, I don’t know what exactly they acquiesced to.”
Our whole community is in crisis right now and we really need that new leadership.– Anna Wolfe, Quarry Co-op member
CBC has viewed the City of Ottawa’s order dated Aug. 14, which states the co-op violated its property standards bylaw and requires them to fix a list of issues — including the mould and mushrooms — by October.
Smith says she’s felt the city has been unhelpful in enforcing the orders in the past.
The city’s bylaw director, Roger Chapman, wrote in an email to CBC that the department responds to all service requests “on a priority basis.”
The co-op’s board declined an interview and said it can’t comment on Smith’s case due to ongoing litigation.
In a statement, property manager Kaeli Van Regan acknowledged there are “often bumps” when people work together to maintain affordable housing and that the non-profit has a “difficult task” balancing affordability and maintenance for its aging buildings.
The board added there have been “numerous hiring issues” due to COVID-19, and that it only dealt with emergency maintenance requests during the pandemic.
What options do members have?
Co-op members don’t have the same rights provided under the Ontario Residential Tenancies Act for landlords and tenants, said Charles Ng, a lawyer with the non-profit clinic Community Legal Services of Ottawa.
The Landlord and Tenant Board won’t accept applications from co-op members dealing with maintenance issues, but will allow co-ops to apply to evict a member, Ng said.
It may be difficult for members to get help from legal aid and community clinics who may not advise on small claims or civil matters, Ng added.
“Unfortunately … there is not a whole lot of resources available to assist co-op members,” Ng said.
Carolyn Whitzman, a housing and social policy researcher with the University of Ottawa, says one option is for members to elect new leadership.
“It’s kind of on them to solve the situation, either through getting a majority of residents to agree with them or through getting some help to resolve the dispute,” said Whitzman, referring to regional and national co-op associations.
Members band together to dissolve board
That’s exactly what Anna Wolfe is hoping to accomplish.
“It’s sadness, it’s frustration and it’s despair,” said Wolfe, a co-op member who’s co-leading a movement to disband the current board. “They feel like nobody cares.”
After an interview with CBC on Aug. 18, Wolfe and her co-lead Chantal Lebel dropped off a petition with 70 signatures from neighbours.
They hope to hold an emergency meeting within a month and get enough votes to elect a new board.
“Our whole community is in crisis right now,” Wolfe said. “And we really need that new leadership.”