Source: Westender 10/15/2009
By: Jackie Wong
Since the landmark mass eviction of tenants from the West End’s Bay Towers apartment building three years ago, the advocacy work of local organizations such as Renters at Risk and the West End Residents Association has resulted in stronger public awareness of the precarious housing situation facing renters, who make up 80 per cent of households in the West End. But awareness of the issue hasn’t stopped mass evictions and volatile landlord-tenant relationships from continuing in the neighbourhood.
The stress of finding and keeping affordable rental housing takes a particular toll on seniors, says Sharon Isaak, who co-founded Renters at Risk after taking her Bay Towers eviction notice (issued by the now notorious Hollyburn Properties) to B.C. Supreme Court, where she and other tenants fought for — and won — the right to continue living in their apartments during renovations Hollyburn claimed would necessitate eviction.
“One of the seniors that got thrown out of my building… had been living in the building for years. She was the first one to go,” Isaak recalls. “Watching her move out and move into her daughter’s place in Kamloops was heartbreaking.”
Since her Bay Towers experience in 2006, Isaak has counselled and educated numerous tenants on their rights under B.C.’s tenancy legislation. Seniors, she says, continue to be among the most vulnerable tenants she meets. Fixed incomes and limited resources can put a cap on their ability to advocate for themselves, which often results in their being displaced and moved around, especially when they face an eviction notice that other tenants choose to fight. “The first people to leave are the seniors, because of the stress of the situation,” Isaak says. “They quite often have no other option but to move in with family in another city, another province, and they have to leave everything behind.”
As part of efforts to raise awareness of tenant rights and to address the many affordable-housing concerns facing West End residents, Isaak has started holding weekly outreach sessions at Gordon Neighbourhood House under the title of Senior Housing Outreach Coordinator. The position is the product of a $25,000 United Way Seed grant that partners Gordon Neighbourhood House, the West End Residents Association, Women in Search of Housing Society (WISHS), and the West End Seniors Network. Isaak will be available to assist renters with their tenancy concerns on Thursdays from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
When WE interviewed Isaak on her first day of outreach work last week (October 8), she already had two appointments. “There has been a real increase in evictions over the last three years because of the tight [rental] market, and because other companies are recognizing the opportunity to make significant profits by evicting tenants to do renovations [and then] increase the rent,” she says. “We need to have a review of the [Residential Tenancy] Act on certain issues to stop and solve these problems.”
John Lucas, executive director of the Gordon Neighbourhood House, says he has seen many seniors come through the neighbourhood house in search of advice on disconcerting rumours they hear about the rental buildings in which they live. “A number of seniors are in the position of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen to them,” he says. “A lot of seniors become stressed because they hear rumours about their apartments, [such as that] they’re going to be sold and it’s going to be renovated.”
Moderate- and low-income renters over the age of 40 are a vulnerable population that Leslie Stern, of the Women In Search of Housing Society, has been working with for years. “If we don’t help people at 45 and above to start earning more money and saving money and doing personal planning, they’re going to go into their senior years with even less,” she says. “Landlords don’t want these people anymore, because they don’t have the ability to pay the high rents that they think the market can take. That’s where I think we’re at a crisis in housing.”
In addition to Isaak’s weekly work at Gordon Neighbourhood House, the project, called the West End Seniors Affordable Housing initiative, will host public forums this winter and next spring on tenant rights and affordable-housing concerns. The first forum, called “The Right to Rent: Aging in Place,” happens November 22 at 2 p.m. For more information, contact Sharon Isaak at firstname.lastname@example.org