Hollyburn Properties, a Vancouver-based property management company, has repeatedly come under fire in recent years from West End renters who claim the company has issued unreasonable rent increases and implemented unfair “renovictions” (eviction for the purpose of renovations). Last month, tenants of another Hollyburn apartment building alerted WE to rent increases that exceed the annual limit allowed by the provincial government. Yet while the manager of the building says those increases are “an isolated circumstance,” a similar situation has taken place at the same building twice in the last nine years.
In 2001, tenants of the Windsor apartment building, at 1924 Barclay Street, disputed rent increases at the Residential Tenancy Office; in 2004, landlords began evicting tenants with the justification that unoccupied suites would be necessary during renovations.
Most recently, two Windsor tenants received a letter from Hollyburn, dated January 8, asking them to sign off approval of a rent increase that would bring their suites up to market value. While the requested increases are at least three times the 3.2-per-cent annual allowable increase set by the B.C. government for 2010, Hollyburn cites a provision in the province’s Residential Tenancy Act that allows for increases above the annual allowable amount if those increases serve to bring the a suite up to market value.
“These residents are paying rent that is substantially below market value,” Hollyburn property manager Allan Wasel told WE. “We are committed to working with these residents to ensure they understand that the increases will be put toward the cost of general maintenance to the building. I can confirm that we do not plan to adjust the rents of any other residents at this time.”
Wasel’s claim that there are no plans to increase rents for other Windsor tenants is cold comfort for Sharon Isaak and Janine Fuller, residents of the Hollyburn-owned Bay Tower apartment building, at 1461 Harwood Street. Both Isaak and Fuller received controversial rent-increase requests in 2006, similar to those recently issued at the Windsor. The Bay Tower increases eventually led to floor-by-floor evictions that Isaak and Fuller brought to a historic B.C. Supreme Court ruling the following year. After a lengthy battle, Isaak and Fuller won the right to stay in their suits, where they still live.
The Bay Tower case also sparked the genesis of Renters at Risk, a West End-based tenant advocacy group, of which Isaak and Fuller are active members.
“[Signing off on] the additional rent increase [letter] in good faith does not mean you are safe,” Fuller says. “I signed the rent increase and I was the first tenant evicted a few months later for renovations.”
“Companies count on the fact that people don’t know their rights, don’t know their neighbours, and are not aware of the rental history at a building,” adds Isaak.
The history of rent increases at the Windsor was news to 24-year-old Kate Kunicky, who has lived in a bachelor suite in the building for four years. She received a letter asking for a $128 increase on top of her $872 monthly rent. If Kunicky consented to the request, the letter specified that she would be entitled to a reduction on the proposed increase to $75.
For a young person living away from her family home for the first time, Kunicky already considers her current rent at the Windsor to be more than she’d like to pay. “As a single person, one income, trying to support yourself and start off in the world, it is a lot to pay,” she says. “For someone who’s been such a faithful, low-maintenance tenant, to have this [increase] show up out of the blue — it’s really shocking to me.”
Kunicky and the occupant of a one-bedroom unit were the only Windsor tenants to be issued the increase letter last month. But West End Residents Association director Christine Ackermann, who lives in a Hollyburn-owned building across the street from the Windsor, and who disputed a “renoviction” notice she received from Hollyburn in spring 2008, is frustrated by what she sees as repeat behaviour on the part of Hollyburn — and troubling complacency on the part of the provincial government, which oversees housing and residential-tenancy law.
“Usually, in society, when the courts start to hand down decisions… society reacts and new laws are made… In this case, the government completely ignores the court,” Ackermann says of what she and other tenant advocates view as necessary changes that need to be made in B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Act. “They are not changing the legislation… Laws have been put in place to allow [landlords] to be greedy.”