Normally, we don’t run articles from mainstream media on our homepage, but this article by Sandra Thomas that appeared in today’s Vancouver Courier gives an overview of not only the situation faced by Seafield Apartments residents, but the plight other renters face due to the gutting of the Residential Tenancy Act. She also talks to other tenants in the West End (namely, residents of 990 Bute Street), who are facing renovictions by owner Satnam Singh Gandham. It is important to note that that at no time did Seafield residents refer to our landlords, Jason Gordon and and Chris Nelson of Gordon Nelson Investments, as either ‘corrupt’ or ‘unscrupulous’ as the article suggests.
By Sandra Thomas
The first thing you notice when entering the West End apartment of Brian Broster and his partner Ross Warring is the spacious living room and bright sunlight streaming through the windows.
Other features of the charming two-bedroom suite include original hardwood floors, lead glass windows off the kitchen and high ceilings.
But, Warring explains, that charm is a trade-off for living in a 1931 three-storey walk-up with a tiny galley kitchen with minimal counter space, no balcony and heat provided by radiators, which on this sunny February day give the suite a tropical feel, even with the window open.
Warring and Broster believe it’s that mix of vintage detail and lack of amenities that makes the $1,374 monthly rent they pay for their 1,250-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment right on the money. But that’s not how the new owners of the Seafield Apartments at 1436 Pendrell St. see it.
In January, Broster and Warring, along with the other tenants of the building, received notices from Gordon Nelson Investments stating the company has applied to the provincial government’s Residential Tenancy Branch for rent increases of up to 73 per cent. That would see the monthly rent on Broster and Warring’s apartment rise to $2,255.
Gordon Nelson Investments is owned by local businessmen and brothers-in-law Jason Gordon and Chris Nelson. The tenants claim the application, based on what’s known as “geographic profiling” is outrageous, but Chris Nelson argues the increase is in keeping with what’s being charged for similar apartments in what he calls one of the most desirable neighbourhoods in North America.
The landlords and tenants will fight it out March 11 during arbitration through the Residential Tenancy Office. Though not legally binding, the outcome of the ruling, which could take up to 30 days to decide, is expected to be precedent setting.
The tenants of the Seafield view the application as yet another ploy to drive them out of the building, which would give Gordon and Nelson carte blanche to charge new renters what they want for rent.
But the tenants have drawn a line in the sand and say they’re not going to be driven out of their homes by what they call unscrupulous and corrupt landlords.
It’s a battle that’s been unfolding in apartment buildings across the West End for the past several years, and past and present tenants all put the blame squarely on the provincial Liberal government and more recently, Minister of Housing and Social Development Rich Coleman. The tenants say loopholes introduced to the Residential Tenancy Act in 2004 allow landlords to get around the allowed 3.7 per cent annual increase, and they want Coleman to amend the act. Despite repeated attempts to contact Coleman for this story, the minister never returned the Courier’s calls. Many tenants also claim Coleman remains missing in action during what they call a housing crisis sweeping the West End.
- Vancouver Courier: Renters, Landlords Eye Crucial Seafield Arbitration Case
- CBC: Seafielders Speak up on CBC’s On the Coast
- Georgia Straight: Chris Nelson Talks about Rent Hikes at Seafield Apartments
- Vancouver Courier: Seafield Apartments Tenants Cry for Help
- 24 Hours: Seafield Residents Protest Gordon Nelson’s Rent Hike
- The Province: Expectant Mom Faces Huge Rent Hikes from Gordon Nelson Investments
- Vancouver Sun: Gordon Nelson Investments Looking to Increase Rents by Hundreds
Broster, who’s been living at the Seafield for 16 years, accuses Nelson and Gordon of using the loopholes to drive the Seafield tenants out in several ways, including threats to evict them to make way for renovations. Some tenants living in other buildings say when they were evicted to make way for renovations, the work turned out to be nothing more than a coat of paint.
The Gordon Nelson application is also under review at city hall. The practice is becoming so common in the West End, it’s been dubbed “renoviction.” And according to the Residential Tenancy Act, it’s legal.
“It was after we fought that move that they applied for the rent increases,” says Broster, an architectural intern. “Now they’re trying to ‘rentovict’ us.”
One of the first instances of renovictions to garner media attention was the Richmond Gardens case in 2005.
The Richmond News reported that Amacon Properties had attempted to evict 60 tenants from its Gilbert Road apartment complex to make way for renovations. One of the tenants, a widow named Laara Raynier, successfully fought not only that eviction attempt, but six more over the next two years. At the time, Raynier said she was frustrated that an amendment written into the Residential Tenancy Act by Coleman wasn’t used to protect her. The clause gives dispute resolution officers the ability to fine landlords $5,000 for “vexatious” actions.
Broster says his landlords are also using tactics such as insisting on monthly suite inspections, misplacing rent cheques and then issuing eviction notices for late payment and cutting back on building maintenance, including garbage removal, as a way to push out tenants. “With the reduction in services, the loss of stability and quiet enjoyment of our home, we should be getting a rent reduction,” says Broster.
Like many other renters in the West End, Broster and Warring are strong supporters of the recently elected Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and council, who made housing a priority leading up to the November municipal election.
Despite the fact the men are facing a 73 per cent rent increase, they still believe they have a strong ally in Robertson, who stood on the steps of the Seafield days before the election, promising to safeguard renters’ rights. At the time, Robertson said he’d make it more difficult for landlords to evict tenants for renovations.
Vision Coun. Tim Stevenson says the city is doing what it can to help the tenants, but adds it’s difficult because most of the laws surrounding the issue are provincial.
“There’s really not much we can do but bring in motions urging the provincial government to tighten up the act,” says Stevenson, who also rents in the West End. “Beyond that it’s been extraordinarily difficult for the city to do much.”
One thing city council has promised to do is to scrutinize development permits more carefully. That move received much approval from renters. Stevenson also put forward a motion in December asking that council request the provincial government amend the Residential Tenancy Act to allow tenants the opportunity to reoccupy their suite once renovations are completed at the same rent. He also wants the act to limit rent increases, extend eviction notice periods from 60 to 90 days, require the Residential Tenancy Branch to approve the eviction of tenants for renovation before notices are distributed, and that landlords report rent increases, tenant turnover, number and reason for evictions annually to the Residential Tenancy Branch, which in turn must publish annual reports on the results.
“We’re trying to do what we can with the tools we have,” says Stevenson. “And we’ve asked our legal department how far we can go without landlords suing the city.”
Broster says there’s much more at stake than the potential loss of homes. In the case of the Seafield, he says, it would be a loss of community, sometimes hard to find in a large city. The tenants, who call themselves
“Seafielders” and include a 92-year-old woman and her 83-year-old brother, hold joint events several times a year, including an annual Halloween party. They also watch out for each other and celebrate milestones, such as the recent birth of a baby girl to a couple living in one of the units. “The loss of this community would be the biggest loss of all,” says Broster. “That’s why this has become so emotionally charged.”
The Courier asked Broster and Warring if they’d be willing to negotiate with Gordon Nelson and agree to a higher increase than what’s allowed, but still well under the 73 per cent hike the company has applied for. But they said no.
“We’ve collected information about rents in this neighbourhood and in buildings like ours the rents are very similar,” says Broster. “And the [Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation] confirms it. Chris Nelson might be paying $2,700 for his two-bedroom apartment, but he’s living in a penthouse on the 20th floor with a rooftop terrace.”
Nelson says he’s puzzled by the tenants’ refusal to negotiate.
“Jason and I both come from business backgrounds and are used to getting into situations where you work things out and come to an agreement or negotiate a deal,” says Nelson. “But these tenants have shown zero interest in negotiating with us. They’ve taken a real hard line and it’s been a real eye opener for us. I’m disappointed it’s turned out this way.”
Nelson denies the company has cut back on maintenance.
“They’ve tried to create examples of things in common areas that haven’t been maintained to their particular standard,” says Nelson. “But I’ve personally been over there to check and it’s in great condition. It’s just a ploy to paint us as bad owners.”
Nelson says Broster and Warring live in what’s likely one of the largest two-bedroom units in the entire West End in one of the best neighbourhoods in North America due to its proximity to the ocean, parks and downtown.
“It’s an amazing place to live,” says Nelson. “And in effect they’re living in a 1,250-square-foot apartment that’s almost as large as a house. All we’re doing is asking them to pay roughly the same as others with the same opportunity.”
Nelson disputes the tenants’ claim they’re paying fair market rent as laid out by CMHC. He explains CMHC doesn’t adjust for size when it averages out rents by neighbourhood. “An average two-bedroom in the West End is 900 square feet,” he says. “The fact the CMHC doesn’t adjust for size is a major oversight in my opinion.”
The Seafield tenants claim Nelson has been telling reporters some of the renters are doctors who can afford to pay higher rents.
Nelson says he’s aware the Seafield tenants who hold PhDs aren’t medical doctors, but adds that doesn’t mean they’re not well paid at their jobs. Warring holds a PhD in community theory and research and works as freelance researcher and statistician. “One has publicly disclosed they earn $100,000 a year,” says Nelson. “And they’re asking us to subsidize their rent.”
Nelson confirms he and Gordon are considering meeting with the tenants in person for the March 11 arbitration hearing, buts adds that decision won’t be made until they’ve reviewed the facts supplied by the renters.
He’s also not apologetic about the large increase they’ve applied for with the Residential Tenancy Office. “This is a private business and we’re entitled to roughly the market rate,” he says. “That’s spelled out very clearly in the Residential Tenancy Act.”
Nelson said if he and Gordon, who also last year purchased apartment buildings at 1057 Barclay, 1133 Barclay and 1209 Jervis, are denied their application, he’s not sure what the future holds. “If we don’t get the rent increase this building will be less of a good opportunity,” says Nelson. “But we’ll just have to wait and see and make a decision from there.”
West End resident Dominic Schaefer, who’s lived in the Berkeley located at the corner of Bute and Nelson for 17 years, says while the circumstances in his building are different, they’re as stressful as what’s unfolding at the Seafield.
Schaefer’s landlord, Satnam Singh Gandham, applied to the city last year for permission to gut the red brick, three-storey walkup for a complete renovation, including converting one-bedroom apartments into two-bedroom units. Because the work can’t begin until the application is approved by the city, the tenants have yet to receive eviction notices.
But Schaefer and the other tenants in the building say they’ve been told by the apartment manager those notices will be delivered and that it’s now a matter of not if, but when.
Schaefer says the stress of not knowing when you’re going to be evicted is tough to deal with.
“Every day I come home, especially near the end of the month, I look for something taped to the door,” he says. “And every time there’s a knock on the door I figure this is it.”
He adds the stress is pushing other longtime tenants to move because they can’t stand the waiting.
“We lost another four this month,” he says. Those suites continue to remain empty and Schaefer estimates one third of the tenants have moved out since November when the building was sold.
Schaefer said when the Berkeley was sold last year, the tenants were told to write their cheques to a numbered company, 2089 Investments. Schaefer researched the company and discovered it’s owned by Gandham, who in 2004 admitted to the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons he had engaged in unprofessional conduct by selling prescription drugs to Americans over the Internet. Gandham was fined $25,000 by the college. He did not return the Courier’s phone call.
Schaefer says when the building was sold the tenants had no idea who their new landlord was and since then have never met Gandham or heard a word from him.
“He’s an absentee landlord,” says Schaefer. “So we sent him a letter last week introducing ourselves and asking him what’s going on.”
Unlike Broster and Warring, tenants at the Berkeley say despite repeated requests, Stevenson and Robertson have done nothing on their behalf. And like other renters, Schaefer has also tried–unsuccessfully–to talk with B.C.’s housing minister.
“[Coleman's] not calling anyone back on this,” he said. “But [NDP MLA for Vancouver Burrard] Spencer Herbert spoke in the legislature in support of renters in the West End and his portfolio isn’t even housing–it’s arts and culture.”
Schaefer says not only has Herbert called him three times to discuss the tenant’s concerns, he also met with him in person on two occasions.
Herbert says though he is not the party’s critic for housing, he feels it’s his duty to stand up for his constituents.
“Eighty per cent of my constituents are renters,” says Herbert. “And it’s the West End that’s been most impacted by the drastic changes [Liberal Premier] Gordon Campbell made to the act. Those changes have led to mass evictions.”
Herbert explains MLAs are allowed “two -minute speeches” once a week in the legislature, during which they can address any issue they want. Herbert took advantage of that Feb. 18. “Some of the members use it to recognize someone in their community who’s celebrating a 100th birthday,” says Herbert, who also rents in the West End. “I used it to stand up on behalf of renters.”
Herbert says he’s beginning to hear from tenants from across the province who are also facing eviction or massive rent increases.
The plight of renters in the West End was a huge issue during the lead up to the October provincial byelection in Vancouver Burrard, a once longtime provincial Liberal stronghold. The Courier spoke to many West End residents, who blame the housing crisis on the provincial Liberals and the changes the party made to the Residential Tenancy Act.
Herbert points out that, just days before the election, Coleman announced two Residential Tenancy Branch offices would open in Vancouver, one at 390 Main St. and the second in a single-room-accommodation hotel owned by the provincial government at 518 Richards St. The B.C. Liberals closed the Vancouver Residential Tenancy Branch Office in 2002, a move that forced renters to travel to the closest available office in Burnaby.
Herbert says the timing of the announcement wasn’t lost on anyone, voters in particular, many of whom said it was too little too late. Herbert adds one of the offices has yet to open while the other is nothing more than a storefront open only several hours a week. “As far as I know the one office is open half days twice a week, but when you call the Residential Tenancy line they don’t know anything about it,” says Herbert. “They can’t even provide arbitration. It’s nothing but a place for pamphlets.”
The Courier called the Residential Tenancy office on Kingsway Street in Burnaby to inquire about the two new offices, but was told neither of them is open yet. When the Courier visited 390 Main St. the doorway was permanently gated. After several phone inquiries the Courier discovered that a residential tenancy officer works Tuesday and Thursday afternoons out of the Pathways Information Centre, which has an entrance around the corner on Hastings Street. Pathways is an information resource centre for residents of the Downtown Eastside.
Garlick, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, says the Berkeley is close to St. Paul’s Hospital, which he visits weekly to see his doctor and receive medication. Garlick, who was living on long-term disability until he recently turned 65, also speaks to men and women living with HIV at meetings held at St. Paul’s.
Garlick doesn’t want to move, but is preparing for the worst.
“I have this feeling of impending doom all the time,” he says. “It’s just this huge weight hanging over us. Besides having to deal with what life throws at you, now we have to deal with this.”
In an effort to avoid the stress, Garlick applied to B.C. Housing hoping to find a subsidized rental in the same neighbourhood. But, he points out, with the housing market so tight right now, he has no idea how long that might take.
Garlick says everyone in his building is feeling the stress. One of the tenants was recently laid off from his job, while another moved into the Berkeley last fall after going through a similar experience at their previous rental building.
“I’d like to stay where I am,” Garlick says. “This is my community and this has been really hard on everyone.”
© Vancouver Courier 2009
Tags: Geographic Rent Increase