'People didn't matter': Tenant details relationship with failed Saskatoon real estate firm

Chandra McMillan-Behrenz knew she wasn’t dealing with a typical real estate company the day Epic Alliance took over her property in 2019.

After living in her house for more than 12 years with few issues, the tenant in Saskatoon’s north end was handed a notice from Epic saying her rent was increasing by $400.

“They said, ‘If you don’t like it, you can move,’” McMillan-Behrenz said.

Epic Alliance also demanded McMillan-Behrenz pay a $200 pet deposit for her 13-year-old cat that had lived in the house since birth, she said. When her dishwasher broke down, Epic Alliance offered to pull it out from underneath the countertop and cover the dishwasher-sized hole with a piece of plywood. The dishwasher hasn’t run since.

After a month of not hearing from Epic Alliance about her faulty oven, she was forced to buy an electric roaster to host family for Thanksgiving dinner. The inconveniences started to pile up.

“It didn't take me long and I knew that they were out for money and that people didn't matter,” she said.

McMillan-Behrenz repeatedly notified Epic Alliance about a smoke detector that wasn’t working properly and constantly making noise, she said. After months of no response from Epic Alliance, she called the fire department and the smoke detector was replaced the very next day.

“The way they behaved wasn't professional at all,” she said.

Epic Alliance was founded in 2013 by Rochelle Laflamme and Alisa Thompson. It evolved into various other companies and had 118 employees before it collapsed in January. A court-ordered investigation has found that $211.9 million raised from investors by the Saskatoon-based real estate firm is mostly gone.

Renters of Saskatoon and Area (ROSA), a local advocacy group for tenants, says the stories from people who lived in homes managed by Epic Alliance are wide-ranging.

“A Renters of Saskatoon and Area (ROSA) tenant shared a concern of disability barriers with the paperwork payment transitions of the Epic Alliance change of ownership. Instead of practicing reasonable next steps of improving bill collection support communications with the tenant, the new property manager dangerously skipped to using the free public justice resources to drive housing insecurity, with delivery of an urgent notice to evict,” a statement read.

However, ROSA is even more concerned about the longer-term effects on the area with hundreds of former Epic Alliance homes in Saskatoon core neighbourhoods being handed over to other owners and property managers, potentially creating a squeeze on affordable housing.

ROSA encourages other tenants at former Epic Alliance homes to come forward and share their knowledge of “this system failure.”

“Let’s treat housing as a social good instead of a profit-making commodity,” the statement read.

McMillan-Behrenz has accepted she’ll likely never get back the hundreds of dollars she says Epic Alliance owes her, but by speaking out and detailing her treatment, McMillan-Behrenz hopes it encourages other tenants to speak up and defend themselves so other companies don’t continue to take advantage of tenants.

“It's kind of a human rights abuse when you've got a dishonest monopoly,” she said. “People are being treated like that, especially long-term tenants that look after a place only to have their rent severely raised.”

Other homes on her block bought by Epic Alliance sat vacant for over a year, according to McMillan-Behrenz. She figured the company was in trouble when she got a call from Epic Alliance demanding she pay her overdue rent when her rent was paid only days earlier.

With multiple grandchildren, her church and other family in the area, McMillan-Behrenz wasn’t deterred by the constant issues, but she has deep sympathy for other tenants who didn’t stand their ground and fight, and instead were evicted or handed unreasonable bills from Epic.

“We don't want to uproot, so a lot of the repairs we did here came out of our own pockets,” she said.