West End Renters Triumph Against Landlords

By Jackie Wong

The West Ender

After more than a year of tenant-landlord conflict, residents of the West End’s Seafield apartment building were relieved last week to learn that the rent increases applied for by their landlords were overturned by the B.C. Supreme Court.

The January 12 judgement by Supreme Court Justice Linda Loo called the landlords’ application for 15- to 38-per-cent increases in the 78-year-old building “patently unreasonable.”

Madame Justice Loo ordered the landlords — a brother-in-law duo who own Gordon Nelson Investments, a property management firm that purchased the Seafield in summer 2008 — to refund tenants the difference of the increased rents they had paid since April 2009, the month in which a dispute-resolution officer at the B.C. Residential Tenancy Office (RTO) controversially approved Gordon Nelson’s application for the increases.

The landlords argued the increases would bring the Seafield, a 14-unit building located at 1436 Pendrell Street, up to market value.

The Seafield’s close-knit community of long-term tenants banded together to bring the dispute before the Supreme Court in November 2009, in the hope of drawing attention to what they and other tenants’ rights advocates saw as unfair legislation.

Seafield tenants will likely start receiving refunds in the form of deductions on upcoming months’ rents, although this has not been confirmed. But the tenants aren’t sure when or if they’ll be back in court, in the event that their landlords appeal the judgement. Property manager Chris Nelson told WE in an e-mail that he and Gordon Nelson Investments partner Jason Gordon will make a decision within the 30-day time frame allowed for appeal.

A statement on Gordon Nelson’s website says the company is confident that the Seafield rent increases will be restored in a re-hearing or “quite possibly result in a larger market-supported rent increase, as rents in Vancouver and the West End have continued to increase in the face of tough economic times.”

A representative from the B.C. Ministry of Housing and Social Development, who asked not to be named in this article, told WE the ministry is currently reviewing the Supreme Court decision, and that a new hearing will be scheduled in the near future.

The rent-increase issue is the last in a long line of disagreements between Seafield tenants and Gordon Nelson Investments.

In fall 2008, WE reported that Seafield tenants felt threatened by Gordon Nelson’s intimations that tenants would be evicted to make way for building renovations.

“After only a month of living here, I was being told I was going to get kicked out of my own home,” recalls Seafield tenant Melissa Mewdell. “I had no idea what to do about it. If these guys weren’t around to help me,” she adds, gesturing to her neighbours, who have supported each other through the conflict, “I probably would have left.”

Even though the disputes have resulted in Seafield tenants becoming extremely well versed in residential tenancy procedure, the lack of transparency they’ve experienced at the RTO has been troubling, says Mark Moore, who lives at the Seafield with his family.

“You can’t find out how many of these cases there are [at the RTO]. You can’t find out how they were decided. There are no transcripts kept of any hearing. If this is where things are going to be adjudicated… it would at least be nice to know what’s going on here. This is notwithstanding the fact that we never know how many people are evicted who never go to the RTO because they don’t complain.”

Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Herbert has been working with Seafield tenants and other local renters during their lengthy struggles with the province’s residential tenancy system. As part of efforts to resolve what he sees as gaps in B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Act that leave long-term renters vulnerable to unfair rent increases, Herbert brought forward a private member’s bill in November 2008. It has not yet been reviewed in the B.C. Legislature.

“I really hope that Housing Minister Rich Coleman will look at [the Seafield] decision and will look at the evidence, which is piling up, and decide that the Residential Tenancy Act needs to be reformed,” Herbert says. “B.C. renters owe a huge debt of thanks to the Seafielders for their perseverance, but think about the huge number of people out there who don’t have those resources, who don’t have that sense of community to support each other.”

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