Matthew Cowap has a home in a nice neighbourhood but says he’s been forced to live as in the wilderness, amid a near five-year billing dispute with the City of Winnipeg.
Cowap received a water bill demanding more than $20,000 in October 2016; one year later, with the note unpaid, the city cut off water to his Cambridge Street house. The amount was transferred to his property tax in 2018 — and has since grown to more than $60,000, after compounded interest.
Cowap said his lawyers advised him not to pay that property tax bill, nor any water bills after the first statement in dispute.
The he-says, it-says battle with the city started through the court system earlier this year, and is set to go to trial May 10, 2022.
Meanwhile, the Winnipeg homeowner goes without.
For years, Cowap has used 20-litre carboys or even flats of bottled water for drinking, caring for his dog, washing, and flushing the toilet. "Imagine camping in your own house," he said.
Cowap gathers up any dirty dishes and laundry, puts them into his truck and brings them to his mother’s house to clean. He eats lots of microwaved foods to avoid dirtying pots, pans and plates. Dirt and dust accumulates, and Cowap said he feels helpless to clean it.
"Mentally, I’m f----d right now," Cowap said in an interview, clasping his hands and sitting on the edge of his mother’s couch. He was wearing the bright yellow vest after a day of working construction; he’d stopped in to take a shower.
“Stress, depression, everything. I can’t do anything. I have a house sitting there, but I can’t clean it. It’s affected every single facet of my life. I can’t sleep right some nights, eat right some days ‐ some days I just wake up, and I just want to quit.” – Matthew Cowap
"Stress, depression, everything. I can’t do anything. I have a house sitting there, but I can’t clean it," he said. "It’s affected every single facet of my life. I can’t sleep right some nights, eat right some days — some days I just wake up, and I just want to quit."
It’s a far cry from the vision Cowap had of homeownership. He scraped together his money after joining the workforce at 16; when he was 21, he bought the house on Cambridge Street.
"I was ecstatic," said Cowap. "I was the belle of the ball. Everyone loved me because we’d all have a nice place to go and chill. It was supposed to be the spot."
Once the water was shut off, Cowap said he started seeing friends less, and his ensuing depression made it harder and harder to reach out.
"I’ve been doing the pandemic (isolation) now for five years, apparently," he quipped.
His plan had been to use the real estate as a financial safety net. He would continue to save and hopefully, buy a second and third house. The contested water bill has put a damper on any such moves.
In addition to the number’s growing weight, Cowap is worried the city will soon come after his house to collect those taxes.
In a pre-trial briefing, Cowap and his legal counsel said the water bill does not accurately reflect the amount of water he had used and the city "failed to fulfill its duty to provide accurate water meter readings and accurate billing."
The statement from the city in the briefing is unambiguous: "Any economic damage incurred by the plaintiff (Cowap) is his own doing."
Cowap said it’s now his word against the city’s.
The city said the water meter was not defective and its readings were accurate. Cowap said no civic employee has ever entered his house to read the meter, despite his asking several times.
“I’m so pissed off. To be honest, if I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d spend it all suing them.” – Maeve Cowap, Matthew’s mother
According to the city, Cowap didn’t provide water meter readings between September 2013 and April 2015, making it impossible to catch what it alleges was a leak. The city said it sent multiple notices; Cowap said he never received any.
Cowap and his mother have sent emails to civic representatives and city councillors. They said they’ve taken it up with River Heights Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard and the Manitoba ombudsman, all to no avail.
"I’m so pissed off," said Maeve Cowap, Matthew’s mother. "To be honest, if I won the lottery tomorrow, I’d spend it all suing them."
Water and waste committee chairman Coun. Brian Mayes wouldn’t comment on the case because it is before the courts (and because he wasn’t aware of the details) but he said the city could do a better job informing the public about how water bills work.
"We probably could do more to let people know this can be a huge liability... We should probably emphasize more to people that this is our system for catching leaks, and this is in your self-interest to call (meter numbers) in."