In the end, the sign served as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The fluorescent green and pink letters commanded attention: “109% Rent Increase Means We Gotta Move,” the sign in front of Face Up Cosmetics and Brow Bar read.
Shawna Sulek was so offended by her landlord’s new rent demand of $1,200 a month for the 800-square-foot property, a dramatic increase from the $575 she’d been paying for the last three years, that she made a street sign in protest and placed it in front of her Lunenburg beauty salon each day for more than a month. In her eyes, it was an impossible demand and another attack on small businesses in this province.
Sulek turned to Lunenburg town council, local MLAs and the province’s business minister for help. She says she was ignored by all of them.
Over the weekend, she packed up her Lincoln Street business. She’s now considering her next move.
“I’m angry that out of nowhere my rent skyrocketed,” said Sulek. “But I’m also upset that I was ignored by my municipal and provincial government, the same governments that like to talk about how important small businesses are to the province. Yet landlords can get away with doing this. So it’s not a secret why there are so few small businesses in rural Nova Scotia. It’s a sad state of affairs.”
Sulek said she was informed by email back in September about the rent hike that would take effect in January. She said her landlord wasn’t interested in a compromise, such as increasing the rent gradually year over year. Fed up, she went looking for help.
“I invested thousands of dollars into renovations, splitting the cost of flooring, rebuilding the walls, painting. I expected a rent increase, for sure, but I thought we
could work something out.”
The property owner, who did not want to be identified, said she spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating the building, which also includes another 800-square-foot commercial space and apartment units. She said the rent increase reflects the market value and it’s necessary to reclaim her investments.
“I gave her three months free rent last year and I provided four months notice of the increase,” she said. “I have a new client moving into the new space paying the new rent amount. It will take me years to reclaim that money.”
Sulek sent letters to both Lunenburg area MPs hoping for some help. She also raised the idea of legislation similar to rent control. Neither responded to her concerns, she said. She also said she sent a similar letter to Business Minister Geoff MacLellan but no response was forthcoming.
“I told him that this is an important issue. Small business owners are vulnerable to this. Plus, I said he should be concerned that if nothing’s done I’m going to have two former employees that are going to be a drain on government resources because they could be looking for employment insurance.”
A Business Department spokeswoman told The Chronicle Herald in an email that there was no record of Sulek’s letter and offered no response about the possibility of rent control legislation. Currently, commercial lease disputes are handled in the courts.
Anna Shoub, owner of The Hat Junkie in Lunenburg, feels Sulek’s pain and agrees the province isn’t doing enough to support or protect small business owners.
“Everybody loves them, but no one wants to do anything to actually ensure they stick around,” said Shoub. “The province seems a lot more interested in bending over backwards for big business.”
Beyond the idea of rent control, she says, the province should aim to support the economicbackbone of rural communities, main street businesses. Property owners could
be offered incentives to keep rent down through a reduction in property taxes or financial help with building restoration work.
“Instead, they’re ignoring the problem. Look at the fact that all businesses have the same commercial tax rate. It’s sheer stupidity and it’s not fair.”
Kristen O’Keefe, a Halifax lawyer who specializes in commercial law, agrees that the province should examine ways to support small businesses, even consider the the idea of rent control legislation.
“Look into this issue and see if there is a need for this type of rent control legislation,” said O’Keefe.
“I’m not saying that’s the solution. But I’ve heard enough from small business owners to know it’s worth a discussion.”