Friday, November 14, 2008
By: Mary Frances Hill
Tenants of a Fraser Street apartment complex are looking for answers — and homes — after their landlord announced plans to demolish the building and replace it with condominiums and townhouses.
The 78 affordable rental units at 4550 Fraser sit above a block-long retail strip at 29th Avenue and are owned by Fraser Villa, a company headed by local entrepreneur Sergio Cocchia.
Cocchia informed tenants more than a year ago he was looking to demolish the building, along with a building behind it, at 4545 Prince Albert, and replace them both with a townhome complex.
The news left many tenants in the building stuck for affordable accommodations. Most are low-income and struggling lowermiddle-class residents, who pay no more than $800 for two-bedroom suites. And though the reasons differ widely, the Fraser Villa evictions reflect a trend in displacement of lower-middle-class and middle-class renters that has galvanized housing advocates and civic election candidates.
At $725 a month, the rent for a two-bedroom apartment at 4550 Fraser suits Haroon Asadullah, who came to Canada from Afghanistan seven years ago. Asadullah supports his wife and four children, aged 10 to six months, with his income as a driver for an organic produce delivery company. He and his family have been looking for other housing, with no luck.
“It’s very hard to find a place. You can find an underground basement apartment with lots of problems, but they want $1,400 a month for rent,” he said at a protest in front of the building Thursday, where he joined fellow tenants, affordable housing advocates and civic candidates Ellen Woodsworth (COPE) and the NPA’s Michael Geller. “My children go to school here, and everything is affordable here.”
Ledingham McAllister Developers, which is working with Cocchia, has yet to secure demolition permits, but is expected to begin work in a few months.
“Everybody in that building has had great rent for many years,” Cocchia said.
Rob Whitlock, Vancouver’s senior housing planner, said a low vacancy rate and a dearth of new rental units is leading many owners to take advantage and renovate their properties so they can charge higher rents.
“There is no funding for new purpose-built rentals and the existing rental stock is a
precious commodity,” Whitlock said. “The vacancy rate is almost zero in parts of the city that are attractive for renters, like South Granville, Fairview Slopes and the West End.”
Tenants and housing advocates have charged that property owners are abusing the Residential Tenancy Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants when major renovations require a vacant space. Such evictions have become more commonplace in the last two years, said Martha Lewis, executive director of the Tenants’ Research Advisory Centre.
“The reason is that property values have shot up, and new people have bought at the top of the market,” Lewis said. “The only way to get tenants out other than raising the rent 3.7 per cent a year is to use the legislation to evict them for renovations, and then increase the rent.”
Sharon Isaak, co-founder of the tenants’ rights group Renters at Risk, estimates that landlords of about 30 Vancouver apartment buildings have evicted tenants due either to renovations, or simply because residents are paying below market value for their suites.
This week, tenants at the Seafield Apartments in the West End learned they would be evicted while the owners renovate the Pendrell Street building.
In September, Hollyburn Properties sent out eviction notices to 13 tenants in the 39-unit Reid Manor complex in Kitsilano so it could undertake plumbing repairs.
Some tenants in the 70-unit Marine Gardens complex at Cambie and S.W. Marine Drive received eviction notices this fall because the landlord wanted to replace a heating system.
Cocchia said he thinks the issue has surfaced now because of Saturday’s municipal elections.
“The tenants were given their first written notice a year ago,” said Cocchia, who with his wife runs a chain of spas and the Century Plaza Hotel, among other businesses. “We thought the best thing to do for these tenants is to give them as much notice as possible because they need to plan their lives.”