Joining forces in face of ‘renoviction’

NOVEMBER 12, 2008 AT 4:33 AM EST

VANCOUVER — It’s the last thing Roland McFall thinks of when he falls asleep at night and it’s the first thought that pops into his head when he awakens: At 83, Mr. McFall faces eviction from his grand and sprawling two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver’s downtown West End.

“It’s on my mind all the time,” said Mr. McFall, a retired brewery worker. “I can’t sleep. I think about it all the time.”

Mr. McFall and his two sisters moved into the three-floor, brick building in 1961, when the West End was dotted with all kinds of these sturdy walk-up apartment blocks with their chandeliered foyers, soaring ceilings and fireplaces in every suite.

Forty-seven years later, Mr. McFall and his surviving sister, Mary, 91, still share a second-floor suite, which is adorned with framed family photos and mementos. If evicted, the elderly siblings say they will likely have to go to a seniors home. So the tenants of the Seafield apartment building have banded together with the McFalls and refused to leave.

They say they are victims of a new trend in B.C. – nicknamed “renoviction” – in which landlords evict tenants by announcing big renovation plans.

The protest has also shone a spotlight on tenants’ rights in the pricey city, and has become a campaign issue in municipal elections. At issue is a provision in B.C.’s rental legislation that permits landlords to evict tenants for significant renovations. Tenants’ advocates claim this gives landlords carte blanche to clear out apartment blocks to jack up rents. A similar provision in Ontario’s rental
legislation was eliminated.

Seafield residents surprised their landlords this fall when they said they will ignore the notices that they must get out to make way for renovations that include plans to add new kitchen counters and cabinets, rewire the building and install metered electric heating in suites.

They have also held rallies at City Hall and summoned the media to their doorstep for updates.

The Seafield is one of the few remaining heritage apartment blocks in a city where glass and steel towers dominate the landscape. Unlike many box-shaped modern apartments, these old suites have the look and feel of real homes.

Like the McFalls, many tenants have lived in the building for decades and proudly called themselves “Seafielders.” They hold Christmas and Halloween bashes in the wide corridors, and backyard barbeques in the summer.

But times changed, Vancouver downtown property grew dear, and many of these buildings disappeared from the neighbourhood, replaced by high rises or converted to pricey condominiums.

In July, modern times arrived at the Seafield, when Gordon Nelson Investments Inc., took over the building.

At a meeting in September, co-owner Chris Nelson told residents that they would have to vacate before the renovations. Rent hikes, Mr. Nelson said, would be between 80 and 100 per cent. He didn’t expect any of the tenants could afford the new rents. Right now, rents range between $1,250 and $1,450.

“It was very upsetting for all of us,” said David Bronstein, 61, who lives across the hall from Mr. McFall. “He told us we wouldn’t be able to afford to live here.”

The tenants have been told they must leave their suites by Dec. 1.

Mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson has said that, if elected, he will give city staff the power to scrutinize or halt renovation permits.

Tenants’ advocates say the provision was designed to give landlords access to suites if tenants resist a renovation, but has been misused. Instead, landlords use it to double their incomes.

Sharon Isaak of the group Renters at Risk said she’s counted 40 buildings in the past four years in the Vancouver area where landlords have evicted tenants for renovations. Ms. Isaak herself was evicted from her West End building four years ago, but took the case to court and won.

“How many people are you willing to throw out of their homes? Is this acceptable for Vancouver as a city to be displacing whole groups of people?”

Seafield co-owner Jason Gordon would not comment on the matter. He said he and Mr. Nelson have decided not to speak to the news media out of respect for the tenants’ privacy. When told that the tenants are willing to go public, Mr. Gordon still refused comment.

“Regardless of how they’re conducting themselves, we’ve committed to letting them know first exactly what and when we decide for the future of our building.”

Asked if the tenants will be evicted, Mr. Gordon replied: “That might well be the case. It’s likely the case, but when and how that happens is not exactly determined. And I think, in all fairness, that’s what all of them, not just the most vocal, should hear directly from us.”

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