West End renters living under the shadow of threatened evictions are calling for revisions to BC’s Residential Tenancy Act (RTA).
“They’re basically destroying community if they continue to do this,” says longtime tenant Andrew Simmons, pointing to the companies behind many of the eviction notices.
“If companies like Hollyburn Properties and Gordon Nelson Investments continue to purchase more and more buildings then they are forcing out those people that are on the margins — they are forcing out young gay people.
“It’s only going to be changed through legislation,” Simmons says.
The RTA currently allows property owners to raise rents above the 3.7 percent allowable annual hike if they can demonstrate that the increase will put the units on par with the area’s market value.
The Act also allows property owners to kick tenants out if they can prove that major renovations are needed on the units.
Both sections of the Act need to be changed, renters say.
Tenants of the Seafield Manor on Pendrell St are the latest in a string of West Enders fighting for their homes. They were notified in January that their landlord, Gordon Nelson Investments, is seeking a 73 percent rent increase.
The tenants are fighting the increase at the Residential Tenancy Branch.
“Our landlords are the new Hollyburn,” asserts Brian Broster, who shares a two-bedroom apartment in the Seafield with partner Ross Waring.
Hollyburn Properties, often in the headlines over the last few years for renovation-based evictions, recently lost a case before the Residential Tenancy Branch when an arbitrator ruled the company couldn’t evict some Nelson St tenants for owning cats.
Broster and Waring worry that the proposed rent hike from their landlord — which would cost them an extra $800-plus per month — will be enough to send them packing.
“As [the West End] becomes more and more subject to these types of landlords, people from all walks of life are going to find it harder and harder to stay here,” says Waring.
“Buildings have been scattered and shattered by this type of landlord techniques,” states Broster.
“It’s not just the gay community that is going to be affected by this gentrification,” adds neighbour Donald Ransom. “It’s going to affect senior citizens, it’s going to affect people who have children, it’s going to affect 75 percent of people who work at St Paul’s and live in the West End.”
Ransom and his partner David Bronstein moved to the West End from Surrey a few years ago for the neighbourhood’s sense of community. “It’s part of what you are and who you are,” says Bronstein.
“You can’t expect a landlord not to make a profit, but in my mind there is a limit on how much of a profit you are going to get, how you are going to get it and what that profit is meant to accomplish,” says Ransom.
“These guys are implying that the market is what they can get for an empty apartment,” says Waring. But they are dictating the market, he claims.
“How can we set rents?” retorts Jason Gordon of Gordon Nelson Investments. “I wish I could set rents,” he says.
Gordon Nelson Investments, which Gordon co-owns with brother-in-law Chris Nelson, owns 114 apartments in four West End buildings.
With such a small amount of real estate it’s ridiculous to assume Gordon Nelson could set the market, Gordon says.
“I think it’s awful what they have done,” Gordon continues, referring to the Seafield tenants’ decision to dispute their rent increases.
“It’s a travesty and an extreme waste of time,” Gordon says. “In a city where we are dealing with true homelessness, they have hogged the limelight and likened themselves to people we need to help.”
The Seafield tenants made their case to the Residential Tenancy Branch Mar 11. A decision is expected by mid-April.
By not raising rents to reflect market value, Gordon claims he is paying for his upper-middle class renters out of pocket. “I subsidize their lifestyle every month,” he says, adding that he gives to a “shitload of causes” and should not have to supplement his tenants’ incomes.
Gordon suggests an exchange in ownership might be the solution. “Maybe the tenants will buy the building?” he asks.
“I would sell anything for the right price,” he says. “Except my kids.”
Prior to last November’s municipal election, Gregor Robertson actively addressed renters’ concerns in the West End. Although the Residential Tenancy Act falls under provincial jurisdiction, Robertson promised Seafield residents during a press conference that if he became mayor, the city would more carefully scrutinize renovation permit requests from landowners so as to eradicate ‘renovictions.’
“We have asked the city’s legal staff to review the building permit system to see if there is any way to prevent people from ‘renoviction’ and we’ve found that it is very difficult,” city councillor Geoff Meggs recently admitted.
“The building permit process is not equipped to deal with landlord-tenant relations,” he explains.
Meggs says residential building renovation permits were originally designed for building safety and upkeep. City staff have no way of determining what, if any, ulterior motives building owners may have in requesting renovation permits.
“The city is legally bound to honour renovation applications that pass inspection,” Meggs says.
Meggs says the city has examined the Vancouver Charter’s building codes and permits and found nothing to protect tenants from ‘renovictions.’
“We’ve come up empty,” he admits. “It’s something we’re continuing [to examine] but we haven’t found the magic bullet yet. We’ll keep looking, but we’ve failed.
“We have to change the provincial law,” Meggs concludes.
“We have to find affordable housing stock, but that’s not going to help the people facing eviction today.”
Despite repeated attempts to reach him, housing minister Rich Coleman did not return Xtra West’s calls.
But his office did issue a press release Mar 18 announcing the opening of “a new outreach office in Vancouver to give tenants and landlords improved access to information about their rights and responsibilities.”
“Affordability is key to diversity and livability in the West End,” says Brent Granby, president of the West End Residents Association.
Granby says 82 percent of the people living in the West End are renters. The threat of displacement due to rental hikes and “renoviction” is real for residents whose median income is $38,000 year, he says.
“It’s their home and they don’t know where they’ll move next,” agrees the area’s NDP MLA, Spencer Herbert.
Herbert introduced a private member’s bill in the BC legislature last November to eliminate the section of the RTA that allows landlords to raise rents above the allowable limit to the market value in a particular area.
So far the bill has not made it past first reading. But Herbert promises to re-introduce it this spring.
“This is my heart. This is one of the main reasons I got into politics,” he says.
“The landlords have tried to use any means they can. The BC Liberals have been pretty clear about not changing the RTA,” Herbert says.
“I’m very worried,” admits Simmons. “If the Liberals win in the spring election I will start looking for a place to buy.”