The Fight for Apartment Life in Vancouver

vancouver renters fight eviction threats The Fight for Apartment Life in Vancouver

By Jackie Wong

the West Ender

Vancouver apartment dwellers may have come to the conclusion that fighting an eviction at the region’s Residential Tenancy Office (RTO) is more or less a rite of passage for renters nowadays, given the increasing number of tenancy disputes across the city. Many of them have been attributed to low vacancy rates, rising rents, and landlords who try to exploit an already fragile market.

But the task of banding together with neighbours and bringing a dispute to the RTO is a time-consuming and mentally exhausting process. As a result, many tenants, such as Daryn Didyk, become frustrated and move out rather than deal with the stress of putting up a fight.

“We can’t put our lives on hold for this,” Didyk says. “It seems that the longer [our landlords]… just leave us hanging here, we’re forced to move out, because the psychological trauma of not knowing if you’re going to get an eviction notice reaches a breaking point.”

Didyk, a 27-year-old health-care administrator, has been renting a one-bedroom apartment at the Berkeley, a three-storey walk-up at 990 Bute Street, for five years.

The 36-suite building, near Nelson Park in the West End, was built in 1926. Dr. Satnam Singh Gandham, a Richmond-based physician, took ownership of the building in June 2008. Since then, tenants have learned of his plans to convert one-bedroom suites into two-bedroom suites, and bachelor suites into one-bedrooms. Gandham was on vacation as WE went to press, but Berkeley tenants say eviction notices seem inevitable.

Didyk is among the tenants of eight separate suites who are moving out by the end of March; his neighbours have started moving out at a steady pace over the last month. By April, only 16 of the 36 suites will be occupied.

“Your housing is your stability. Look what happens when people don’t have housing — you [have] the Downtown Eastside,” says Didyk. “According to the World Health Organization, defining determinants of health include stable housing. If I go on any longer trying to fight this, it affects my mental health, my physical health.”

Didyk will move into a one-bedroom rental on Commercial Drive at the beginning of April, but the move puts him further away from work and from a neighbourhood and friends he’s come to love.

“I feel as though it’s taking up the spot for someone else who lives in that [Commercial Drive] community,” he says. “I very much identify as a Westender, and I feel like I’m being displaced.”

Didyk’s neighbour, Wayne Slavin, who turns 66 next month, has been living at the Berkeley for 36 years — the longest of all current tenants. He isn’t making serious plans to move out just yet: After being forced to retire from his job at a roofing company following triple-bypass heart surgery that landed him in the hospital for three months, he would like to stay put if he can.

“It’s really frustrating to not really hear from the owner of the building, and only get little snippets of information from the caretaker,” he says. “We’ve been told by the caretaker that [an eviction]’s going to happen, so make your plans.”

Berkeley tenant Dominic Schaefer, a photographer in his forties, believes renovations would still be possible in the Berkeley without resorting to evictions.

“Our argument is not that we shouldn’t have to pay higher rents… It’s that we shouldn’t get our asses kicked to the curb,” he says. “What we think is happening here is they’re going for a permit to gut the place. If they do that, then you can’t fight the way [other] tenants have been fighting.”

One tenancy dispute that has been featured prominently in local media recently is that of the West End’s Seafield apartment building. In January, new landlords issued 73-per-cent increases to its tenants, many of whom have lived in the 14-suite building for decades, among them a 93-year-old man and his sister.

The Seafield, located at 1436 Pendrell Street, was built in 1931 and purchased in July 2008 by Chris Nelson, 33, and Jason Gordon, 37, a brother-in-law duo of former investment bankers and internet-gaming executives who formed Gordon Nelson Investments three years ago.

Tenants disputed the rent increase at a two-and-a-half-hour hearing, which was conducted over the phone with the RTO last Wednesday (March 11).

WE met Gordon and Nelson for an interview two days later at 1133 Barclay, a heritage building around the corner from the Berkeley that is currently under renovations, prior to the arrival of new tenants.

The interview took place in a newly-updated bachelor unit that will rent for $1,200 a month. According to Nelson, 21 of the 27 units in the building have been rented.

“There has been a lot of media attention on the individuals at the Seafield, and, in my opinion, it’s extremely misplaced,” says Gordon. “We’ve got [three- to] seven-thousand homeless people in this city that have true issues; they aren’t doctors, engineers, various other successful, capable people that live in the Seafield… It speaks a lot to [the Seafield tenants’] ability to shine the spotlight. And, in many cases, to liken their situation to people with drug addiction, no homes, mental illness, is, I think, ridiculous.”

Gordon says he should be able to charge what he considers market rates at the Seafield. Under section 23(1)(a) of B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Act, a landlord can increase rent above the annual allowance if the current rate for a unit is significantly lower than that of similar rental units in the same geographic area.

“We own the building and this is a free country,” Gordon says.

He and Nelson have asked Seafield tenants to pay $1,032 per month for a bachelor unit (the current average in the building is $770), $1,815 for a one-bedroom (currently averaging $1,128), and $2,275 for a two-bedroom (currently averaging $1,344).

“In a lot of ways, we feel like what the tenants at Seafield are asking for is a subsidy,” says Nelson, who adds he and Gordon determined their new rental rates through comparison research, primarily on Craigslist. For those unable to pay market-rate rents, Nelson recommends what he calls “great” government subsidy programs like the Rental Assistance Program or Shelter Aid for Seniors.

“Those are the two main programs that, based on income, based on net worth, they decide whether or not the person merits a subsidy,” he says.

Gordon attributes what he describes as the “electric energy” of the West End to the ambition of the people who live there.

“If we all say the people that have lived here forever and the people that are faced with challenges, those are the only people that can rent here, then we’ll create the Downtown Eastside,” he says. “We’re a socially just country, but we’re still a very free, ambitious country… We’re not going to throw all that out. The country doesn’t want us to.”

Ross Waring, a professional researcher, statistician, and consultant, has been living at the Seafield with his partner for 16 years. Spurred by the rash of evictions and rent increases in his neighbourhood, he recently conducted an independent study of average apartment-rental rates in buildings similar to the Seafield (built before 1940) and in the same geographic area (Vancouver’s central West End).

The study compared current Seafield rents, the increased rents proposed by Gordon Nelson Investments, data from a custom analysis by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), and results from Waring’s random-sample study of more than 300 West End renters.

Grouped together, the data suggests Gordon Nelson Investments’ proposed rents are significantly higher than both the average rents at similar West End buildings and the CMHC averages.

Waring says the increased rents proposed by Gordon Nelson would be acceptable only if the suites were not already occupied by long-term tenants.

“When there’s an existing tenancy, there are rights on both sides, and the landlord can’t simply trample on the rights of the tenants just because they want higher rent. They have to wait for that unit to be vacant,” he says.

Waring’s neighbour, Tim Pawsey, points out that one of the biggest ironies of the Seafield case is that the situation threatens a large group of long-term tenants who look out for each other — the best kind of tenants to manage in a building, he says.

“If you talk to people in the business, they will tell you that there is nothing more desirable — in many, many ways — than a stable tenancy. I think there is a type of buyer right now that’s doing this… [It] mirrors the condo-flipper. It sees this as being an opportunity to buy a rental building, kick people out, renovate, and then increase the cash flow and sell the building.”

Seafield tenants, after seven months of working together in the fight to keep their homes, will spend the next month waiting for a decision from the RTO (it is expected to be made within 30 days of the hearing).

But even victories can be bittersweet. Ten tenants of the Emerald Terrace apartment building, at 2045 Nelson Street, received a March 4 decision from the RTO that allows them to keep pets in their suites, despite pet-eviction notices issued by their landlords.

The Emerald Terrace is owned by Hollyburn Properties Limited, a company notorious for ongoing conflicts with tenants, some of whom who have brought their disputes as far as the BC Supreme Court.

Though Emerald Terrace tenant Andrew Simmons is happy to have won the right to stay in the building with his cats, which he had been given permission to keep by previous management, he doesn’t expect the tenants’ strained relationship with the landlords to improve.

“It doesn’t appear that there’s any improvement, because the behaviour of the building manager, as recently as last week, has been unacceptable,” says Simmons. “As for as the relationship with Hollyburn, at no time have they ever offered any kind of apology… We’ve since found out that most Hollyburn buildings have pets of one form or another, whether they’re grandfathered in previous agreements or if they have been allowed by Hollyburn managers.”

Spencer Herbert, NDP MLA for Vancouver-West End, has supported Emerald Terrace tenants throughout their arbitration, and has worked with Seafield and Berkeley tenants in recent months. He says B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Act needs to change in order for tenant rights to improve.

“If the government said, very clearly, through its legislation and its actions, that you cannot get away with this bullying crap, I think we would not see half as much as what we’re seeing,” Herbert says. “Certainly in Ontario, Quebec, I was looking at New York State — a whole range of people understand that in being a renter, you should be able to be respected, you’re not somebody that can get kicked around because you’re not an owner.”

Herbert has been trying to raise the issue in the BC Legislature, but with little success. “It’s got to become an election issue,” he says. “It’s very frustrating when you see people playing these games with people’s lives.”

Mayor Gregor Robertson does not expect tenancy legislation to change before the May 12 provincial election.

“With the provincial election coming up, it’s doubtful any legislation will get passed before then,” he says.

As for the City of Vancouver’s role in leveraging the balance of power between tenants and landlords, Robertson says his top priority is to build more affordable housing stock.

“Increasing rental-housing supply would decrease pressure on our vacancy rate, which would strengthen the position of renters in the city,” he says. “One reason that a landlord can push for massive rent increases is because renters have minimal or no alternatives.”

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