When a joke leads to eviction

Halifax student facing eviction over jokes he says are “misunderstood” but his roommates say create a “hostile environment.”

By Matthew Scrimshaw

Jing Tang records the comments made by her roommate in a little black book. (Matthew Scrimshaw / Peninsula News)

Inside her third-floor bedroom, a spacious triangular alcove with a door leading to a small snow-covered porch, 23-year-old Jing Tang is able to carve out a little piece of serenity.  She turns down the music playing on her MacBook, the gentle voice of a Chinese opera singer dimming, and pulls a small, black notebook from the drawer beside her bed.

“This is one of the few places where I can relax,” she says, her arms motioning like those of a conductor and pointing to the large size of her room.

She opens the first page of the notebook and traces her finger down a page littered in notations.  Each notation is accompanied by a date and time, and observed together with the accounting books lining her bookshelf, the book appears to be a ledger.

It is.  Tang does not get along with one of her roommates.

“I was told to document every bad thing he’s said,” she explains, turning the page to reveal yet another page full of written-down transgressions.

The transgressions largely centre around the use of sexist, racist and homophobic stereotypes according to Tang.

“He told me he would send me back to China,” she says, laughing now at the absurdity of the threat, but at the time she says she was thinking, “I’m here alone, an international student, female, from Asia, so it’s become personal.”

The repeated comments have made her feel helpless says Tang and her once spacious room now seems claustrophobic.

“It would be nice to study downstairs, or spend more time in the kitchen, but I don’t want to argue anymore,” says Tang.

Uncomfortable

Tang lives in a large house on the edge of Dalhousie’s campus with six other roommates.  She has done so for two years and several of her roommates have come and gone during that time.  Though the rooms are rented individually, and her roommates often begin as strangers,  Tang insists that she has gotten along with all of them – but one.

“My roommate, his comments make me very uncomfortable,” she says, “It’s become a hostile environment.”

In the downstairs kitchen that foreign-exchange student Tang prefers to avoid, one of her roommates agrees with her assessment.  Brent Carpenter is a third-year-old law student at Dalhousie and only moved into the house last September.

“It’s an uncomfortable environment,” he says while seated at a worn kitchen table, two computers splayed out in front of him. “And the intimate nature of the roommate relationship makes it more of a concern.”

He says he knew living with strangers might be complicated, but was not expecting this level of animosity.

“It’s somewhat anticipated that there will be some butting of heads, but you can’t foresee the general disruption of a roommate who constantly creates conflict.”

Carpenter accepts that his roommate is entitled to opinions different than his own but says he takes umbrage when those opinions lead to disrespect.

“No one deserves to be criticized or ridiculed on the basis of their ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation,” says Carpenter.

Though many of his housemates have elected to avoid the house’s common areas as much as possible, Carpenter has done the opposite.

“It’s a form of bullying, and while I won’t sink to that level, I’m not going to back down either,” says Carpenter.

Is communication the answer?

The rising tension amongst the house’s tenants reflects one of the main concerns of Dalhousie University’s Off-Campus Living Office.  They offer students a guide to living with roommates that emphasizes the need for regular communication.

However, Tang insists that communication is not the problem.

“We have tried talking politely, talking angrily, talking to our landlord…. I have gone to Dal’s legal services office to get advice,” she says, dropping her head.  “It’s not that we don’t talk, it’s what’s said when we do talk.”

She adds that documenting her roommate’s behaviour was the suggestion of the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service.

Though the roommates are reluctant to mention specific incidents, it appears that the majority of the complaints stem from off-colour jokes and comments that they feel are made solely to elicit a response, according to Carpenter.

“We’ve tried many times to be nice, to talk, to start with a clean slate, to let bygones be bygones, and to establish ground rules,” he says. “Without fail, this individual overstepped boundaries and made comments.”

Misunderstanding or eviction?

This individual is Giovanni Rojas, an engineering student who moved into the house in September, the same time as Carpenter.  He says he is not a villain, but simply misunderstood.

“I make jokes, and sometimes people get offended because of those jokes, but I don’t mean anything offensive,” says Rojas.

He says that many of his roommates make the same type of jokes, and that he has never had issues with people he has resided with in the past.

“I lived in residence for five years and never had any conflict,” says Rojas.

Nonetheless, Rojas admits that the house’s landlord, Ezra Edelstein, has given him multiple warnings, both verbally and in writing, to stop antagonizing his roommates.

Form E - Landlord's Notice To Quit
Form E – the landlord’s notice to quit – must be hand delivered to the tenant. Upon receiving it, the tenant has 15 days to vacate the premise. (Picture courtesy Access Nova Scotia)

He says his perceived dismissal of these warnings has prompted Edelstein to seek his eviction, citing a breach of statutory condition 3 under section 9 (1) of Nova Scotia’s Residential Tenancies Act, which states:

“A landlord or tenant shall conduct himself in such a manner as not to interfere with the possession or occupancy of the tenant or of the landlord and the other tenants, respectively.”

Edelstein says that he has never had to resort to eviction in his time as a landlord, but has received repeated complaints about Rojas’ behaviour.

Meanwhile, Rojas says he is exploring his options, including filing his own complaint against the landlord.

“[I am] Probably going to fight it because I think my rights are being violated when someone like the landlord comes and says he’s going to kick me out,” says Rojas.

Too little too late?

Tang welcomes the news of her roommate’s potential eviction, but laments the timing.  Her semester is almost complete, and she is likely moving to Vancouver in May.  For now, she is resigned to studying within the confines of her own room, but able to find solace in the support of current and former roommates alike.

Carpenter says that despite Rojas souring his year, there are rewarding aspects to living with other people, such as shared meals and common experiences.

Indeed, as Tang’s former roommate Stephanie Dover points out, common issues are often what bring people closer together.

“Some of the best memories of my life are because of living with roommates, you almost become like family,” she says, smiling as she fingers Tang’s notebook of transgressions.  Before she can continue, Tang delivers the punchline.

“You chose to live alone this year!”