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Hollyburn 2, tenants 1

RTO upholds latest Bay Towers evictions

A third group of tenants being evicted from their West End apartments by Hollyburn Properties has lost its bid to keep their homes.

The Residential Tenancy Office (RTO) ruled against the Bay Towers’ fifth and sixth floor tenants, Jan 16. The tenants are appealing and have been granted temporary permission to stay in their suites pending the outcome of a review in BC Supreme Court, Mar 2.

Had they not secured the stay, they would have had 12 days to vacate their homes.

Meanwhile, a fourth group of Bay Towers tenants returned to the RTO for part two of its eviction hearing, Feb 9.

Aerlyn Weissman, Trent McLaughlin and Kevin Knox hope to repeat the RTO success of their ninth and 10th floor neighbors, Janine Fuller, Julie Stines and Sharon Isaak, the first group to seek arbitration and the only tenants in the building so far to have their eviction notices quashed by the RTO.

Hollyburn appealed Fuller, Stines and Isaak’s victory in November, but has been slow to set a judicial review date. After wrangling over convenient dates, counsel for both parties have now tentatively agreed on Feb 23.

Hollyburn bought the Bay Towers building, located at 1461 Harwood St, in 2005. Last March, it announced rents would be raised by 20-25 percent to bring them up to market rates. When some tenants protested, the rent increases were replaced with eviction notices.

So far, tenants in 10 of the Bay Towers’ 38 suites have contested their evictions. The RTO has now ruled in favour of one group and against two others; Weissman, McLaughlin and Knox’s ruling is still pending.

A key point of contention for the tenants is the ambiguity around the minimum time a property owner needs a suite to be vacant for renovations in order to justify an eviction. Sarah Berry maintains there’s been no consistency in determining what that time frame is, or ought to be. Berry argued that Hollyburn should not need vacant possession to lay hardwood floors in her suite and thus shouldn’t need to evict her. The RTO ruled against her, Jan 2.

“I don’t know what [the judges are] going to do with that,” says Berry, now awaiting judgment on her review from BC Supreme Court. “I don’t know what [the standard] should be for that, but at least they can say this is a problem, that we shouldn’t have been evicted on this basis because it’s not reasonable.”

The broader issue, she continues, is that the RTO and the Residential Tenancy Act it’s sworn to uphold are supposed to protect security of tenure-and “that’s not happening [and] it’s not acceptable.”

She points, in contrast, to Ontario which on Jan 31 proclaimed a new Residential Tenancies Act nullifying its 1997 Tenants Protection Act. The Ontario government also brought in a Landlord and Tenants Board with the new act, to replace its old Rental Housing Tribunal, akin to BC’s RTO.

Jed Kilbourn, of Toronto’s Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations, says renters and housing activists are holding their breath to see how the new act and board will operate. Ontario’s Liberal government is emphasizing how tenant-friendly the new board is going to be, he says.

For Kilbourn, that emphasis is tantamount to an admission that the previous tribunal was not fairly balancing the interests of landlords and tenants in the arbitration process.

“When you think about it, any admission that any kind of tribunal or court is not 100 percent neutral is terrifying,” he says.

Under the old system “landlord applications would get heard more quickly than tenants’ applications,” he alleges. “Adjudicators [were] listening to landlords more than [they were] listening to tenants,”

Sonya Rolfe, from Ontario’s municipal affairs and housing ministry, agrees the new board is an improvement, and says the new hearing process is more flexible and accessible.

Still, the new act doesn’t offer any rent control, Rolfe acknowledges. The vacancy rate is high, she explains, so rent increases have been below guideline levels.

Kilbourn is skeptical of the idea of a self-rectifying housing market and maintains the vacancy rate can be misleading. Ontario’s old Tenants Protection Act did away with rent control, he points out, allowing landlords to charge whatever rent they want on vacant units.

When BC’s Liberal government revised its Residential Tenancy Act in 2002, it too granted property owners higher allowable rent increases and reduced tenants’ access to arbitration.

Kilbourn, a former Bay Towers tenant himself, suggests that even during the Harris years, his former West End neighbours would have had more security of tenancy in Ontario than in BC, especially around the issue of renovations.

According to Kilbourn, Ontario landlords have to provide tenants with the right of first refusal, meaning once renovations are complete, the original tenants have first dibs on the refurbished unit-with only a minimal rent increase.

If a landlord wants to demolish a building or convert it to condos or do renovations, and they need to evict tenants, they have to “supply them with three months’ rent or offer tenants another suite similar to the one they had,” Kilbourn explains. “There are safety nets for tenants as far as renovations go.”

If tenants choose to return to their suites post-renovations, they can do so “at a rent that is no more than what the landlord could have lawfully charged if there had been no interruption in the tenant’s tenancy,” states Ontario’s new Residential Tenancies Act.

If BC can learn anything from [the Ontario experience], it’s to embarrass the government as much as possible, and make sure people know about what is happening in buildings like the Bay Towers, suggests Kilbourn.

“Oddly for something that affects so many people, tenancy rights [just] aren’t sexy. Climate change? That’s sexy,” he says. “There is a kind of assumption of rights. Consequently, you don’t feel you need to fight for them. We actually have a very tenuous hold on those rights. It’s not absolute. Any rights that we have, were fought for to begin with.”