Couple still reeling over lost property

Barb Sweet
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Residential Tenancies’ decision permitted the disposal of their belongings

A St. John’s couple felt comforted by two reports from the citizens’ representative office, but are still devastated at the loss of their furnishings and family mementoes.

A St. John’s couple, Margaret (above) and Cecil Burke, felt comforted by two reports from the citizens representative office, but are still devastated at the loss of their furnishings and family mementos. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

“It’s been quite a time,” said Margaret Burke, who broke down during an interview with The Telegram.

“I have nothing to pass on to my children. I was an only child, very close to my family and (the landlord) had no problem taking my life. And just doing whatever he did.

“When we moved, we never even had a spoon.”

Burke said the couple rented an east-end home for several years after selling their own house to put them in a better financial position to aid her husband Cecil’s business endeavours.

But they claim they got fed up with the landlord’s inattention to needed repairs, the worst of which, they say, was mould that made their family sick. So they stopped paying rent.

And the landlord, who lives in Ontario, evicted them.

What happened next led the couple to file a complaint with citizens’ representative Barry Fleming.

Fleming filed two reports — one in 2012 and another this past March — that sided with the Burkes and said the Residential Tenancies Division should not have given the landlord permission to dispose of their property.

That permission was given in May 2012.

The Burkes claim some of the items were donated to the Salvation Army, while the whereabouts of valuable furniture and art is unknown.

Here’s what Fleming had to say about the case in his November 2012 report:

“On thoroughly reviewing this file, I have concluded that the actions of the department have led to considerable hardship for Mr. and Mrs. Burke. I believe that under the specific circumstances the authority to allow the disposal of the Burkes’ belongings did not exist.”

Fleming faulted Service NL, which oversees the division, with failing to make an adequate attempt to contact the Burkes. He requested the abandoned property policy be amended and suggested an apology be made to the Burkes.

And in March this year, Fleming found that the Residential Tenancies Division director’s decision to not proceed with an investigation sought by the Burkes was “contrary to the law, unreasonable, based wholly or partly on a mistake of law and wrong.”

The Burkes failed to appear at a hearing their landlord requested in December 2011.

Cecil Burke told The Telegram he was getting medical treatment for blood clots in his legs at the time and that’s why the couple weren’t there.

A trail of emails they provided to The Telegram suggests they had been trying to obtain their possessions.

But they were also told by the landlord’s lawyer their belongings would be released if they made arrangements to pay back rent.

According to Fleming’s report, the Burkes wrote to the department asking the Residential Tenancies Division to intervene in March 2012.

But the landlord applied to have the belongings disposed of, declaring they had been abandoned.

The Burkes claimed their property was worth more than $200,000 and that Residential Tenancies failed to verify a list and photos supplied by the landlord.

The department originally said it didn’t have that March 2012 letter from the Burkes, but acknowledged to Fleming’s office that it was subsequently located.

Fleming took no issue with the fact that the department issued orders in regard to the rental arrears and vacating the property, but said the repercussions of oversight of the letter, though unintentional, were significant.

As for the list Residential Tenancies received, Fleming said an objective person would have realized the furnishings and other items had value and, in fact, a Service NL employee had pointed that out and suggested an appraisal, which did not happen.

Even the director, in a letter granting the disposal, disagreed with the opinion that the items had no monetary value.

Cecil Burke said the couple didn’t take their items when they got the eviction notice because they have pets and were having trouble finding another place, so they had to spend some time in a hotel. Then they had trucks hired, he said, but couldn’t get permission to  get their belongings.

Burke admitted that keeping rent from the landlord to resolve what they felt were problems with the home was not the way to resolve the matter.

“We made a mistake, no doubt about it,” Cecil Burke said.

He said the couple left behind  not only valuable, but personal items, including business documents, birth certificates, marriage certificates and photos. They claim all of those unsellable items went to the landfill.

According to the Burkes, who recognized family heirloom china and other possessions for sale at a thrift store, they were told by the Salvation Army that the personal documents were kept for a day and sent to the dump.

The Telegram contacted the Salvation Army, which the Burkes said received some of their possessions, but the call was not returned.

This week, a Service NL spokeswoman said the department agrees with the citizen representative’s suggestion to amend the abandoned property policy to reflect its current practice of contacting all affected parties, wherever possible.

But the department said it feels the whole matter was adjudicated in good faith by the director of Residential Tenancies.

As for the second report, the department said the director’s decision was that he did not have legal jurisdiction to proceed with the complainant’s application to conduct an investigation.

The department has no authority to overturn or interfere with a decision of the director of Residential Tenancies, the spokeswoman said, adding if the complainant wants the decision overturned, he must go to court.

The Burkes say they have sought help since the last report, but cannot afford a lawyer.

“The citizen’s representative office are the only people who treated us with any respect. They kept me together. It’s been horrible,” Margaret Burke said.

Service NL is currently reviewing the Residential Tenancies Act for updating, has finished public consultations and is reviewing legislation from other jurisdictions.

But St. John’s South Liberal MHA Tom Osborne said the department has taken too long already on that review.

“Improvements could potentially help individuals such as this family,” Osborne said.

“The report on the consultations has been sitting on the minister’s desk for a year.”

Osborne said as a result of what happened, the family  has lost many things that can’t be replaced.

“Without proper regulation and oversight, that could happen to someone else,” he said.

While landlords need to have a remedy when rent isn’t paid, it can’t be punitive to the point that tenants lose everything, Osborne said.

Landlord Bruce Sheppard, reached in Ottawa, said he had no comment on the situation.

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Recent comments

  • Ruth Ann Badrin
    December 17, 2013 - 10:32

    I don't usually comment on things like this but in hoping that the Christmas spirit will awaken in us the need for true compassion I shall try my best. Its easy to blame the landlord or the Burkes but to me blame is useless, it solves nothing but fuels anger and hurt. Instead let this be a lesson to all of us how to better respect each other, show compassion and follow the law with some good old common sense. I know that we should be attached to each other not our material things, but its easy to see how someone who lost both her parents and is an only child can grieve for the loss of her photographs, a special piece of furniture that has sentimental value, its like having an old sweater or blanket as a child that you cannot throw away because of the memories it evokes and the comfort it brings you. I know the Burke family to be decent and loving people, yes they were wrong to withhold the rent but I feel the landlord was wrong as well,and he probably feels bad with his judgement in handling things . Hopefully we can all learn a lesson from this and try to show more compassion to each other, and in following the law we try and use common sense and dignity, I wish both families peace and I hope they can move forward with forgiveness, and I ask that if anyone out there that may have some of their belongings to maybe contact the family and give them a chance to get some of it back for sentimental reasons, as it may be just pretty furniture to us but to them its a memory that they can touch. Wishing you all reading this peace,love and joy for the coming year.

  • Trevor McCarthy
    December 06, 2013 - 10:54

    Personally, I think it is utterly disgusting how so many of you are right there to judge and accuse the tenants (VICTIMS) without knowing a hint of information. Just because you read "with held rent" all of a sudden this family is using the system? or trying to take advantage. Sad thing is that little do you people know who are harshly commenting may of even received handouts and support from these people yourselves indirectly. I personally know this family and staying completely partial I can understand where they went wrong and they should and DO take responsibility for their actions but come on...... To find that your WHOLE LIFE has been SHREDDED!!! Your whole life and memories of people who are no longer with us. With holding Rent or not... No body deserves to be put thru what this family has had to endure since all of this happened. Keeping in mind this family has been known for their volunteer work and many many functions to help the less fortunate and when they have to put all pride aside and say "Can someone help" you all point fingers!!! and you all play the BLAME GAME!!! However, my opinion is my opinion and I am entitled like everyone else. Let this be Haiti now or someone not even from this country and support starts coming out in DROVES!!!!!! Sad how negativity is causing such devastation. I personally Have nothing but the highest respect for this family as for their belongings??? Family Pictures of people that you will never see again.... You're childs first curl, first tooth. antique furniture pasted down thru generations, these are not things that can be priced! I pray for this family. I pray that no one else has to go thru what I have witnessed this family go thru. For all the rest of you who are quickly judging......... I am guilty of that too, until it hits home then It's a completely different ballgame! God Bless you Burke Family!

    • Common Sense
      December 12, 2013 - 12:53

      Why didn't the Burke's take any precautions and put their property in storage or at least take the personal stuff with them once they received their eviction notice? I'm not an expert, but the courts give time for just this...

  • Another Landlord
    December 02, 2013 - 07:59

    Agree with "A Landlord." Residential Tenancies, while not perfect, DOES equally protect both the landlord and the tenant IF both parties follow the rules. When either the landlord or the tenant becomes emotional and lets that interfere -- which is how 90% of cases you hear about begin -- then one or both parties end up on the wrong side of the law. And a $200,000 valuation on the property inside their rental home? Hmmm....when I consider the way the Burke's have approached this case so far, I'm skeptical of that valuation to say the least.

  • Greedy Landlords should pay.
    December 01, 2013 - 18:56

    Maybe the landlord should have dealt with the repairs that were required. Living in a house with mould is disgusting! The landlord could have made contact to ask about the property left - especially when it has value because who would leave anything of value? I hope the landlord reimburses as best he can for his stupidity. Karma has a way of getting her way and he'll get what is coming to him.

    • a business man
      December 02, 2013 - 12:19

      The Landlord followed the law and got the approval from the Residential Tenancies Division. The Landlord did nothing wrong and should not have to pay. He/she followed the proper channels and recieved permission to dispose of the property

  • Just Saying
    December 01, 2013 - 18:34

    The Residential Tenancy Act is suppose to help protect both Landlords and Tenants equally. In this case it appears the Director of Residential Tenancies failed to do his/her job. The article states that the tenants returned to retrieve their furniture, but the landlord withheld the family's belongings then claimed they had been abandoned . Section 29 of the Tenancy Act states that a landlord cannot withhold a tenants belongings for any reason, even if the tenant is in arrears. So landlord seems to have been violating the Act from the start. It does not appear this family was expecting any Government Agency to protect them. As I read it the Burke's issue is with a Government Department getting a request to dispose of their belongings and not even bothering to attempt any contact with them or investigating the Landlord's claim. Especially with all the red flags indicating the Landlord might not have been truthful in his application. Perhaps the Burke's should have handled this situation better. But for a landlord to give away or keep everything a family owns. This is pretty ruthless and cold. What goes around comes around!! I expect the Court system will eventually determine the final outcome. It should be noted that the Burke's made a complaint to The Law Society of NL regarding the actions of the Landlord's lawyer. Subsequently, The Law Society found enough evidence of wrongdoing to file their own complaint against him. I expect we have not heard the end of this story.

  • Suckered Landlord 2
    December 01, 2013 - 14:14

    I'm not a slum landlord and I'm sure this landlord isn't either... I am a landlord that went through something similar. In order to evict a tenant there has to be a justified reason and even after that there are hearings, promises to correct the situation, follow up hearings to prove that nothing was done to remedy the situation... Notice to leave and then notice that the sheriffs office will be changing locks... Notice to remove their belongings and then when the belongings are left behind, the landlord is obliged to remove them and store them at the landlords expense until the tenant picks up their stuff.... Until I became a landlord and ran into this same situation I didn't realize how unfair the legislation is in regards to the landlords rights... Trying to locate a tenant is near impossible... This type of person is referred to as a professional tenant. There are processes in place to correct situations such as mold... And these processes are much easier than getting someone evicted . These people are reeling, well reel away and I also,think the journalist should also check Residential Tenancies Board in regards to situations such as this before they present these people as being persecuted. If these people are reeling then reel away... You should have paid you rent and either looked for another place to live or deal with it through the Tenancies Board

  • Richard
    December 01, 2013 - 13:48

    Could have all been avoided possibly if the Burkes weren't a no show at the residential tenancies board hearing, and it would have only taken a phone call or a family friend to appear and ask for a postponement. Authors of their own misfortune. Property in an apartment worth $200,000.00 and cannot afford a lawyer? you're kidding right?

  • david
    December 01, 2013 - 13:43

    A perfect example of "a dollar short and a day late". If they didn't like where they were, they should have done something about it for themselves. But like far too many Newfoundlanders, they did nothing, sat on their hands until it was too late, and now look for the! look after them. Grow up, take responsibility for your life, and stop being professional victims.

  • t. Sleeveen
    December 01, 2013 - 13:40

    Note to self: never rent a property if the landlord is Bruce Sheppard. While there may be plenty of blame to go around, the landlord could have at least let the family that personal belongings. Seems to me that this was vindictive and unnecessary.

  • Ryan
    December 01, 2013 - 12:09

    I really doubt their processions totaled a value of $200,000.

  • Joe
    December 01, 2013 - 08:50

    Why is this news? Effectively these people were squatting in a house, not paying rent and they expect the landlord who was out a few months rent to seemingly store all their belongings for them until a time of their choosing? Pay your rent, and this wouldn't happen. Everything things that everything is someone elses fault or responsibilities these days. Take responsibility for your actions.

  • Another Landlord
    December 01, 2013 - 07:00

    I have no sympathy for this couple and I don't have any sympathy for a slum landlord... I am not a slum landlord but I was pried upon by what is called a professional tenant .I went through a similar experience with one of my tenants.. The effort and cost involved in getting to just getting permission to serve an eviction notice is unbelievable. It takes months and several hearings and several notices documented and served. The laws are very much in favour of the tenant. Once the eviction is served, getting them out is another legal battle again if they refuse to leave and when they leave their stuff behind and the locks are changed is another song and dance. These tenants knew exactly what they were doing! The only thing they didn't count on was permission to dispose of their property... There is a clause that requires the landlord to move and store valuable abandoned property for 6 months... This is ridiculous ..shame on them. Reel away...

  • Curious
    December 01, 2013 - 04:46

    Sad situation. However, I have to wonder how much, and for how long, the rent was held back prior to the landlord taking the action they did. In addition. What steps were taken to contact the burke's thoughout the process to evict and subsequently sell their belongings? It's a sad situation but the reality is there probably more detail under the surface that's not been published here. Evcition and subsequent sale or disposal of personal property of a tenant doesn't happen overnight.

  • Sad but true
    November 30, 2013 - 22:56

    Generally the rules around the landlord tenant acts favour the person who is In the better financial situation, the landlord, just like most other regulations favour the person at the top. The rich stay rich and the poor get poorer

  • Michelle Joyce
    November 30, 2013 - 20:10

    No the long story is the Landlord is using the parts of the rental act to benefit himself. Where is the documentation on things that were sold to recoup money for rental loss, I am sure some paintings, furniture would have paid for rent. Everyone in this situation wants to pass the buck instead of saying we made a mistake and we can not get your stuff back but lets with you try to change before happens again. Great another landlord who does not reside in Newfoundland gets away with slum housing and mold situations but takes money to another province. If this landlord maybe had of just looked into fixing property this never would have happen And God Bless the Salvation Army I bet expensive china gets dropped off everyday for donation , maybe 30 days holding time on donations of large value.

  • buddha
    November 30, 2013 - 12:22

    The Buddha says attachment to materials possessions will always lead to disappointment. Detach. Embrace community.

  • A Landlord
    November 30, 2013 - 11:12

    So the short story is that the Burkes tried to take matters into their own hands by not paying their rent rather than rely on the regulators responsible to ensure such matters are taken care of, and the landlord followed the rules. The Burkes abandoned their property, and is upset that government (aka the tax purse) didn't protect what they were not willing or able to take with them. Sad story, but it didn't need to be if the Burkes had taken responsibility for themselves rather than shirk it or pass it off for others to do for them. All tenants and landlords benefit from the residential tenancies act. While it's not perfect, it can prevent this kind of occurrence.

    • Brad
      November 30, 2013 - 21:15

      So what would you have done in that situation then? They were fulfilling their end of the agreement, the landlord was not. Not only that, the landlord had ZERO right to seize their proptery and dispose of their property, especially when there was no apprasial made of valuables, and it doesn't seem they attempted to contact the tenants. The landlord is a very lucky man the tenants don't have financial resources; otherwise, I can guarantee he would get stapled to the wall in small claims court.

    • Brad
      December 01, 2013 - 09:04

      They did because their landlord failed to hold up their end of the contract. They also didn't "abandon" their property because they made attempts to get it back. The landlord had no right whatsoever to seize their property in lieu of rent because there was no valuation done on said property. I hope this landlord is reported to the police, or taken to small claims because not only did he not hold up the contract, he stole their property.

  • Sheila
    November 30, 2013 - 09:22

    A landlord is required to hold on to the possessions of evicted tenants for the length of time the law requires. After that whatever happens to them is the fault of the former tenant. A landlord is a business person not a free storage company. It is simple you did not pay rent, you got evicted you left you property behind and did not claim it in the time allowed by law.

  • Tom
    November 30, 2013 - 08:44

    Place a lien on the property. You must of done something in the house that cost you money, time, and materials to clean mould or paint. If you did you have a right to place the lien. It may never get anywhere but the owner will never be able to sell and would be tied up legally for years. Then sue. The owner was clearly told to get a value placed on the items in question and never so take them to court. Che's Crosby would have a ball winning this case.

  • John Smith
    November 30, 2013 - 08:20

    The Burkes are 100% to blame here in my opinion...don't pay rent...don't show up at herring...then you get thrown out ASAP.

  • JP
    November 30, 2013 - 04:29

    In 2011 there were storage units available in St. John's and Mount Pearl. I think there's a lot of facts left out by the Burkes in this story. How much money did they owe? I have a feeling leaving all of their property after being evicted was just another way they were trying to have control over it. No excuse for leaving all their valuable documents either. Not much sympathy from me! They failed themselves, tried to use the system and lost!

    • liz
      December 03, 2013 - 14:18

      Have anybody even read that they both got sick in this mold infested house .My god this landlord was completely heartless and ruined these peoples lives.Absolutly no need to dispose of personal .I can't help but wonder if he is enjoying the Burke's expensive furniture this christmas.