Karen Phelan couldn't believe what she was seeing when she read the notice threatening to evict her from her apartment at 2B Arlington Ave.
"I just started to shake," she said.
"This is a legal notice that could lead to you being evicted from your home," it warned. "I am giving you this notice because I believe you owe me $0.03 in rent."
The notice threatened action with the Landlord and Tenant Board if the amount wasn't paid by last Oct. 27 "or move out by the termination date."
Phalen checked her records and verified that she had indeed paid her full rent — right to the penny.
"I have a money order showing the proper amount. It says (I paid) $906.78. He (the landlord) says I gave him $906.75," the senior said.
Phelan said if she had inadvertently shortchanged her landlord by three cents, "I would have given him a nickel and said keep the change."
"But don't threaten me. I always pay my rent," she added.
The threats, however, soon began to wear on her.
"I called my dad in tears and said, 'I may have to move home,'" she said. "I don't want to move. I love it here."
Phalen is one of several tenants at the 40-unit St. Catharines building who received similar notices in the months since Arlington Manor changed ownership last summer.
At age 94, Rose Baker feared she would have a stroke when she read the first of two notices she received — forcing her to obtain bank records each time to prove her full rent of $749.55 had been paid.
"I had this notice to say I had to get out, and I've been here for 40 years," Baker said.
She said she has always paid her rent on time through her bank, and the threat of being evicted increased her blood pressure.
"I had to go to the hospital because I have heart trouble. When I got this note I was so angry," she said. "Where am I going to go? Where would I go at 95? This is my home."
Wednesday evening, more than a dozen building tenants who all share similar experiences met with Niagara Community Legal Clinic paralegals Lisa Ridsdill and Sinead Flarity, as well as St. Catharines MPP Jennie Stevens, who advised them about their rights under the Landlord and Tenant Act and urged them to form a residents council.
The residents took that advice and organized under the leadership of longtime resident Lisa Bryant.
"Right about the second month, we started getting eviction notices," said Bryant, who received several evictions notices herself — including one saying she owed 60 cents.
Landlord Kasey Wong, chief operating officer for Cacoeli Living, said the notices residents have received were computer-generated, and his business is required to send them out to tenants.
"Even if it's a penny short, I still have to get it out there," he said.
Despite the notices, Wong said he would never pursue eviction proceedings against someone he believed owed him three cents.
"I'm not like that. I don't even go to the adjudicator; I go to remediation. I try to work it out," he said. "I always try to work it out. I have never evicted somebody for three cents."
Wong said some of the notices sent to tenants were issued because of confusion over payments, such as some tenants who sent payments to the previous building owner, while other payments were received too late to stop notices from being sent out.
In some cases, he said, notices were legitimately sent to tenants who were months behind on their rent.
The residents believe the letters are a deliberate attempt to coerce them into leaving their apartments to allow the landlord to then charge the next tenant far more, as a result of increasing market value in the city.
"The thread is, it seems to be the grandfathered people that have been here for some time," Bryant said. "Everyone's paid their rent, but it's a scary thing. It's harassing."
Stevens shared similar concerns.
"Fear of losing your home or not having a roof over your head is shameful, and enough is enough. I will fight this as a dog with a bone. I'm not going to let it go," the MPP vowed.
"It's because of landlords who are buying up buildings in St. Catharines and are pushing out people who have lived in their buildings and their homes for over, now in this building, 50 years, 40 years, 30 years. Even if it's only been four or five or 10, it's not right."
Wong denied the allegation.
"I'm trying to be fair here … I'm not pushing anybody away," he said.
Wong said he plans to work with residents to address their concerns.
"I have no problems sitting down and helping and to make sure that we move forward on this," he said. "But I have a budget that I have to put back into the building to make it viable, to make it good for the tenants."
Although Wong agreed with concerns discussed about the shortage of affordable housing in Niagara, he said landlords should be looked at as part of the solution.
"If we close shop, nobody is better off. If there's a price ceiling on rent control, we're not at equilibrium. There's a short supply and high demand right now," he said.
"You need more landlords; you need more housing to drop the prices down. That's the way to do it, to build more units. But if you make it hard for us as business owners, we stop building."
Residents of the building near Queenston Street and Grantham Avenue said their eviction notices are only one of their concerns, while also citing issues that included a leaky roof, a broken intercom system and inadequate laundry facilities.
Wong said he has invested $80,000 in the building since purchasing it.