Pet owners that rent suites in a complex in Vancouver’s West End will fight recently received eviction notices at a Residential Tenancy Board arbitration hearing Jan 16.
“It’s a sad day when renters are told they have no rights and they have to take it to arbitration in order to stand for something they’ve had for years,” gay Vancouver-Burrard MLA Spencer Herbert told a press conference in front of the Emerald Terrace apartment building Jan 8.
“I believe this is wrong and I believe we need real change and real respect for renters in Vancouver today,” Herbert urged.
Gathered outside the Nelson St building, a half-dozen angry tenants said Hollyburn Properties, which took over the building’s management a year ago, won’t honour earlier verbal agreements allowing pets.
But a Hollyburn representative says the rental agreement clearly prohibits pets.
“We have a strict no pets policy,” says Allan Wasal, general manager of Hollyburn Properties.
Tenants are questioning the company’s decision to only start enforcing the rule in the last few months.
“When Hollyburn bought this building, they bought it with all the cats inside it already, so what undue hardship is it to Hollyburn to allow the cats to stay?” asks Andrew Simmons, a tenant and Renters at Risk volunteer.
Simmons, who has lived in the Emerald Terrace for the past seven years, says he would never have considered residency if the manager at the time had not allowed him to move in with his three cats.
Pet owners in the complex say the fight to save their homes began at the end of November, when Hollyburn Properties gave some tenants two weeks to get rid of their cats or face eviction.
Simmons was one of three tenants to receive the warning. Seven other residents joined the fight and filed for arbitration with the Residential Tenanancy Branch in early December.
Simmons claims that shortly after the tenants began their dispute, Hollyburn delivered one-month eviction notices to a handful of pet owners in the building.
“Hollyburn is advertising apartments for 30 percent or higher than what we are paying, so they are after the higher rents,” Simmons speculates.
Under the Residential Tenancy Act, property owners of a residential building can raise the rent 3.7 percent annually for existing tenants. Some residents are alleging that Hollyburn Properties seeks to evict long-standing tenants so they can bring the now-empty units’ rent up to market value.
“I don’t believe this is about the cats,” claims Herbert. “I think this is about getting people out of these rooms so then the landlord can rent them for double the rent.”
“This is about the pets. It really is,” Wasel counters. “You can’t discriminate.”
Wasel admits that Hollyburn has now granted one tenant permission to stay with their cat because the tenant had previously obtained a written agreement allowing them to have a cat.
But Wasel says his company will not acknowledge any verbal agreements on pets and, moreover, questions whether any verbal agreements were actually made.
“What they [Hollyburn Properties] fail to recognize is that verbal agreements have just the same weight in the law as written agreements,” says Herbert.
“I think they are trying to abuse the system and people’s lack of awareness of this so they can push these people out,” he alleges.
“Under the Residential Tenancy act, if you have written or verbal approval for having pets — no matter who [owns the building] or whether it has changed hands — that is your right. I think this is wrong what has happened to these tenants,” he continues.
“The validity of a verbal agreement is very vague,” admits an officer at the Residential Tenancy Branch. “If the tenant agreement prevents the tenant from having a pet and the tenant obtains a pet without the landlord’s consent, then the landlord can provide written warning to the tenant.”
However “If the owners knew for years that the tenants had pets and didn’t do anything, that may be a valid defense for the tenants,” she adds.
Wasel declines comment when asked if his company turned a blind eye to pets in the complex during the last year. “I can’t comment on that,” he says. “That is part of their [the tenant’s] arbitration case.”
Wasel says he is seeking some sort of resolution to the issue, but would not offer any specifics.
“These people were here before Hollyburn came to the building. Just because Hollyburn has bought a building does not give them the right to push people around and arbitrarily change the rules for people who’ve been long-term tenants,” stresses Herbert.
“The provincial government needs to take action to respect tenants and to build stronger protection so that tenants know their rights so we can have a balanced legislative system which respects tenants as well as landlords,” he adds.