It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to transform a vacant, dilapidated building into something welcoming, functional and liveable for tenants who might not meet traditional rent qualifications. Amanda Knight, who currently owns seven buildings around Nova Scotia—a combination of duplexes, a triplex and a fourplex—does just that, embracing the challenge of taking a house and turning it into a home.
“Personally I love the old homes,” says Knight. “I love the character of them, the fact that most of them need some TLC and are much more affordable for me as an individual to get into. I put a lot of my sweat equity into it—obviously not with things that I need tradespeople for like plumbing and electrical, but ripping things out, painting and finishing, and clean-up work. That’s where I spend my time.”
With 17 units in her care in smaller, rural areas of the province, Knight finds those run-down homes in established neighbourhoods where neighbours are happy to see them revitalized and brought back up to spec.
“I’ve taken over a couple of really derelict homes and improved them,” she says. “My first one was a duplex that had been abandoned for a couple of years. A pipe had burst, there was water in the basement, but after we got everything fixed and brought up to code, that duplex is now rented to two young families, a couple and a single mom upstairs with a couple of kids. They love it! It’s attainable and a great, clean little spot.”
One of her other fourplexes, located in a family-friendly neighbourhood and also badly damaged, run-down, and abandoned for months, required three months of hard work to fix up, and is now rented to four young professionals.
“It’s a professional little unit now,” Knight says. “I still have work to do, but it’s a great spot and the young people are happy because they’re all working and they’ve been given a chance.”
This chance to find affordable and clean housing can often be difficult to come by, especially for those just starting out. “One of my tenants is 18, doesn’t have a stitch of credit, doesn’t have any information,” Knight says. “She’s been fantastic. I was 17 when I moved out, and I said, ‘I’ll give you a chance.’”
Helping tenants is a big part of Knight’s goals, but one that may be threatened as the province’s fixed-term lease is currently under review, or, as Knight says, “under attack.”
“As a housing provider, a fixed-term lease lets me say, ‘okay, you don’t have any credit experience, I can’t call a previous landlord, but I can call your employer and get a reference that way, I can call one of your teachers, but I’m really taking a risk with you,’” she explains. “Also, I have three other residents in this property and I have to look out for their best interest as well. The fixed-term lease I did with this young girl allowed me to put her on it for three months. My rules are the same with everybody: Pay your rent on time, respect my property and have open communication with everything.”
The young woman’s employment references were great, but Knight told her if there was a hiccup in the three months or it turned out to be a party house, her lease wouldn’t be renewed and she could move on and find someplace else.
“I’ve just renewed her for another six months, and we’re talking now only because she thinks she’s going to move out of the province to take a break, and that’s where my open communication comes in,” says Knight. “I said, ‘you’re still technically in a lease with me for two months, but if you want to break it early I don’t have a problem with that because life happens. I just need you to be open and honest with me.’”
Fixed-term leases in the province are a game changer for housing providers like Knight, and if they are eliminated, new tenants who don’t have any experience or are new to the country through immigration are going to be left by the wayside.
Another area of housing that Knight is just getting into is conversion, purchasing single-family vacant dwellings and converting them into two units. “It’s about increasing housing in some of the smaller towns and working with community navigators to find either short-term housing for doctors or professionals who are doing stints with education or upgrading or just filling in for a few weeks or months in certain areas.”
Knight thinks people would be surprised by the work property owners are doing, and she finds it wearing when rental housing providers take a beating in the media. “We’re working with our tenants to make sure they understand the rules and regulations as well and are held account to them just like we are,” she says. “We all need to be.”
Originally from Ontario, where she also provided rental housing, Knight has always been interested in renovation projects, and enjoys the challenge of a fixer-upper. “Any of the properties I’ve owned have been ones that need work,” she says. “I like to see what I can do and I like to do it at my pace, so I guess it was a natural transition.”
The move to Nova Scotia led to owning properties in Truro, New Glasgow, Westville and Pictou, and managing properties in Antigonish and Sydney. It also led to Knight’s valuable partnership with IPOANS (the Investment Property Owners Association of Nova Scotia), a vital voice in representing residential investment property owners.
Upon purchasing her first property in July of 2020, she connected with Executive Director Kevin Russell, who explained the IPOANS process, advocacy, education and member services.
“I knew I needed a strong voice to represent me, because I’m the smaller guy,” she says. “I needed support from an organization that had experience with advocacy, specifically with regards to rental housing, and more so in small and rural areas. In Nova Scotia, when you get into some of the smaller communities, unless you’ve got somebody with a really strong voice you can get overlooked.”
She was invited to join as a working board member, which means weekly meetings to discuss, among other issues, changes that impact rental housing providers, from the larger providers in Halifax to the smaller ones, to give them a voice and a different perspective.
Knight also took advantage of IPOANS’ variety of educational resources via programs at NSCC (Nova Scotia Community College), in particular the Residential Property Management course. In fact, she considers getting involved with IPOANS one of her biggest accomplishments.
“They’ve given me the opportunity to participate in numerous surveys and discussions, but more importantly I’ve been asked to sit at the table with decision makers in this province with regards to things that pertain to rental housing,” she says.
If that’s her biggest accomplishment, Nova Scotia’s two percent rent cap is her biggest challenge, she says, coupled with skyrocketing prices. In November 2021, her heating oil cost 85 cents/litre for her Truro triplex compared to her April 2022 bill of $1.97/litre, an annual rise from $2,975 to $6,895, a $3,900 increase on one property on heating oil alone. The rent cap—the amount she can increase her tenants’ rent for the year for those three units—is $708/year combined between all three tenants.
“This rent cap has crippled me,” she says. “It doesn’t take into consideration that people are now working from home, so instead of using the company’s bathroom, sinks, kitchens, you’re using your own. If you’re renting, the property owner also has an increased cost in water consumption as well.”
The overall cost of property maintenance and all trades costs have also gone up, along with insurance and basic appliances. “I have appliances that are over ten years old. We know they have a limited lifespan,” says Knight. “We know something is going to need to be replaced. I don’t have the money set aside to be able to do that now. I’ve got water heaters that aren’t efficient. I want to replace the water heater to improve efficiency, but where do I get the money to replace it, and what if something goes after the water heater? With that two percent cap, we’re crippled.”
If her heating bill goes up 45 percent, she’s not going to give tenants an equivalent rent increase, she says, but she did work on rent increases with two of her tenants before the cap was extended, an agreement that worked out to $45/month.
“The tenant was agreeable to it because they hadn’t had a rent increase by the previous owner in over 10 years and was looking forward to the much-needed upgrades in their units,” she says. “Some of their units are very dated. I buy old buildings. I don’t buy them in pristine shape.
Before it could be finalized, however, the rent cap prevented her from putting those agreements in place. “That’s one of the big things that really bothers me and I think we lose sight of this,” Knight says. “I engage with so many property owners and they all say the same thing: We wanted to put heat pumps in so we could we could improve efficiency and also cool the place in summer, and now we can’t because we can’t increase the rent to offset the cost to put it in.”
When Knight initially looked at purchasing and rehabilitating these properties, she did so under the assumption the cap would be eliminated under the new government, or at least be tiered to recognize the challenges of the small and rural landlord, as well as those who maintain older properties.
“I’m buying homes that are 80 to 100 years old, and all I’m looking at [are expenses],” she shares. “Things are just deteriorating. I thought, ‘even if they tiered the rent cap to account for some of these older homes, I can still jump into this, I can still offer housing and make enough money to have some set aside if something happens, and I’m not pulling out of my own savings to deal with it and can still offer attainable housing to people.’”
Unfortunately, the new government—which guaranteed the cap would be eliminated fully—instead extended it until December 2023. “Between what’s going on in the economy and the fact they flat out lied, it puts me in a questionable position as to what else I invest my time and energy in if I’m capped at what I can do.”
This leaves Knight not knowing what her goals and milestones will be during such an uncertain time. She is certain, however, of her dedication to her work and the relationships she’s made.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without the connections, the work IPOANS does on behalf of housing providers around the province, and the voice they’ve given me to speak on behalf of myself as well other small and rural providers,” she says. “However, my goals are directly impacted by the current government’s position on housing, which is preventing me from recouping any of my skyrocketing costs and in turn preventing me from maintaining the current housing I provide.” Knight fully agrees with IPOANS’ stance that “the most affordable rental housing is the province’s current rental stock.”
This government needs to engage with small rental housing providers across the province to develop practical incentives and support that can be implemented quickly and efficiently, she adds. “Without trust and confidence in government policies, setting goals becomes a reactive response, not a proactive action.”