Increased vacancy rates offer little relief for renters

Westender:  By Jackie Wong
12/23/2009 12:00 AM

Although rental-housing vacancies in and around Vancouver have risen during the past year, finding affordable housing and navigating B.C.’s residential tenancy legislation hasn’t gotten easier, according to housing advocate Sharon Isaak. In her first months working as a seniors’ housing outreach worker for Gordon Neighbourhood House, a multi-use facility that has been a hub of the West End community for decades, Isaak has been swamped with visits from people in search of affordable or subsidized housing, both of which are in short supply in many neighbourhoods.

“Public awareness [of tenancy issues] is much higher than it was three years ago,” says Isaak. “The market was so tight three years ago that it triggered a whole wave of reno-victions” — evictions for the purpose of renovations, after which rents are often significantly increased — “to capitalize on market forces. Tenants are aware of that now. What hasn’t changed is the number of tenants who challenge their evictions at the [Residential Tenancy Office]. Most tenants still find the system far too complicated, and they give up.”

Isaak’s weekly drop-in sessions at Gordon Neighbourhood House have drawn unexpectedly high attendance since they began in mid-October. “They don’t have a lot of resources to turn to,” she says of the attendees. “There’s a few tenant-help groups, there’s a few advocates out there, but it’s largely an underground community that’s hard to access for the average tenant.”

While the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Fall 2009 rental-market report shows that Vancouver-and-area vacancy rates have increased to 3.6 per cent (up 1.7 per cent from last fall), rental rates are still higher than in 2008. In addition, few purpose-built rental units have been added to the total housing stock. “People aren’t finding affordable places, even though the vacancy rate is up,” Isaak says, adding that the market is now skewed towards short-term renters. “People stay a year, for their lease, and then move out because they can’t afford the rent.”

When addressing an unfair eviction or a tenant-landlord dispute at the Residential Tenancy Office (RTO), tenants continue to face process-related difficulties, particularly since most hearings now take place over the phone. In a February 2008 B.C. Supreme Court case between a tenant and Dispute Resolution Officers under the Residential Tenancy Act, Hon. Mr. Justice Joel Groves recommended that B.C.’s RTO amend its policy regarding telephone conferences. Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Herbert’s staff has been privy to a number of cases in which a dysfunctional phone-conferencing system at the RTO has cost tenants a fair assessment of their dispute.

“What’s concerning for me is this [Groves] case was last year, but we’re still hearing about people with the same problems,” Herbert says. “It’s something we’ve been hearing for years from tenants, and from landlords, too.”

Most recently, with the Olympics less than two months away, reported disputes have led to renewed discussion about Olympics-related evictions. Earlier this month, a group of East Vancouver tenants went to the media to claim their eviction was related to their landlord seeking Games-related profits. But for renters like Katrin Lohuaru, the motives for her own eviction from a shared Cambie Street heritage house are less clear.

“The landlord is intending to completely renovate the house we’re living in… We received a letter from him on the first of December, asking us to vacate by the end of February, possibly sooner,” Lohuaru says. “The notice he gave us wasn’t on the official form; he’s not actually allowed to ask us to go unless he has all of his building permits in place.”

Even so, the landlord’s explicit intention to evict his tenants for renovations was enough to motivate Lohuaru to move, but she says it was impossible to find a new rental with comparable location and price. “I’d been looking on Craigslist for a new place, [and] I’ve found that the sublet category particularly is saturated with Olympic rentals, which are grossly more expensive than the suites would be otherwise,” she says.

Since Lohuaru’s eviction has not been made official by her landlord, she can’t dispute it at the RTO, and is not eligible for a break on her final month’s rent to cover the costs of moving. “Unless a landlord gives us legal notice, it puts us in a very vulnerable position,” she says.

While Lohuaru is extremely knowledgeable about her rights as a tenant, wisdom, unfortunately, comes with experience: This is the third time she’s experienced an unofficial eviction for home renovations. More proof, perhaps, of Isaak’s assertion that B.C.’s residential tenancy system needs revision.

NEWS: Reaching out to senior renters

NEWS: Reaching out to senior renters

Source: Westender 10/15/2009
By: Jackie Wong

Sharon Isaak, co-founders of tenants’ rights group Renters at Risk, says many seniors would sooner move out of their home than deal with the stress of fighting unfair eviction. Credit: Doug Shanks

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 isaaksharon@gmail.com

Watchdog group files human-rights complaints over 2010 Olympics

Watchdog group files human-rights complaints over 2010 Olympics

Am Johal of Impact on Communities Coalition says democracy and human rights shouldnt be suspended during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Photograph by: Jason Payne, The Province, The Province

Am Johal of Impact on Communities Coalition says democracy and human rights shouldn't be suspended during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Photograph by: Jason Payne, The Province, The Province

Source: The Province

Aug 12,2009

A 2010 Olympics watchdog group has filed two human-rights complaints with the United Nations against the governments of Canada and B.C. and the Olympic organizing committee, VANOC.

The Impact on Community Coalition say hundreds of renters will face the threat of eviction prior to the Olympics because of “loopholes” in tenancy legislations.

“Hosting the Olympic Games doesn’t mean we suspend democracy and human rights for a period of time. It’s completely unacceptable in our view,” said Am Johal, chairman of the IOCC.

Johal warned more than 1,000 renters could be evicted before the Games.

“People are being evicted for renovations, rents are skyrocketing and the Olympics is definitely an issue that is creating this environment,” said Janine Fuller of Renters at Risk.

The IOCC is also complaining about the violation of civil liberties after Vancouver City Council passed bylaws preventing leafleting and protest signs during the Olympics. Access to public space will be permitted after security screening. Megaphones will not be allowed and posters “must include information that celebrates the 2010 Winter Games.”

David Eby of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said VANOC boss John Furlong is breaching a promise, understood that protests would take place and knew that protests were part of Canada’s democratic traditions.

VANOC spokeswoman Renee Smith-Valade said the bylaws were created to prevent posters that advertise or promote commercial products.

“If you want to hold up posters that are against the Games, not only is that OK, but we have set up zones where you can protest the Games safely,” she said. “You can protest anywhere in the city except in the venues.

Smith-Valade said security checks are necessary as a safety precaution.

cchai@theprovince.com

TRAC to handle Olympic-related tenant disputes

TRAC to handle Olympic-related tenant disputes
By:  Jackie Wong

Source: The Westender
08/06/2009 12:00 AM

As part of its efforts to prevent unfair evictions during the lead-up to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the City of Vancouver has hired the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre (TRAC) to help renters deal with Olympic-related tenancy issues. The City had originally set aside $40,000 for a tenant-assistance worker to start work this past spring, with the position remaining active through Games time. The position will now be shared among TRAC staff, who will hire additional part-time workers to help run a drop-in office at an as-yet-undetermined location.

Games-related tenant-assistance work will focus on helping tenants understand and exercise their rights under the Residential Tenancy Act, help them prepare for dispute resolution hearings at the Residential Tenancy Branch, and assist them with landlord-tenant disputes. TRAC will also have a supervising lawyer on hand to act as a resource to tenants. TRAC has set up a special tenant-assistance phone line and e-mail address for dealing with Olympic-related tenancy issues (604-255-5102; help@tenants.bc.ca).

TRAC spokesperson Judy Johanson says she expects an increase in tenants contacting her as the Olympics draw nearer, and as one-year leases signed in December or January come to an end. “The whole idea is to foresee that this is happening,” she says. She also expressed confidence that the City and local advocacy groups have done a good job in spreading the word about increased tenant-advocacy services during Games time. The City has set up an online tenant registry (Vancouver.ca/OlympicsTempAcc_Net) for renters who are concerned about unfair displacement during the Games.

The West End, a neighbourhood in which 80 per cent of households rent, has been the site of a number of eviction cases that have been hotly disputed by tenants, some of whom have taken their cases as far as BC Supreme Court. West End Residents Association (WERA) director Christine Ackermann fought an eviction in advance of renovations — known as “renovictions” — at the Glenmore building (at Barclay and Nelson) last May. After disputing the eviction at the Residential Tenancy Office, she was able to keep her apartment. Since then, she has been heavily involved with tenant advocacy in her neighbourhood. Given what she has learned in the past year about dealing with B.C.’s tenancy laws, she’s not sure if TRAC is the right organization to be dealing with Olympic-related evictions.

“Based on my own eviction, and through my volunteer experience gathering feedback from Vancouver tenants, I am very skeptical that TRAC will be a true advocate for Vancouver renters during the Olympics,” Ackermann told WE. “Answering phones to simply answer questions from a rule book will not provide any lasting legacy for Vancouver renters who lose their homes because of Olympic greed. It certainly will not provide any increased support to Downtown Eastside residents who are dealing with a completely different renter’s ball game in the SROs.”

Instead of the current TRAC model for Olympic-related tenant-assistance work, Ackermann would like to see a more community-based model, in which volunteers who have personally experienced evictions hold education forums in neighbourhoods with high renter populations, such as Mount Pleasant, Kitsilano, and Fairview. “Educating tenants in a meaningful way now would provide benefits beyond the March 2010 end point of this [tenant advocacy position],” she says. “WERA will be watching and monitoring this new service from TRAC to measure its effectiveness for West End tenants.” 

B.C. government refuses to prohibit Olympic evictions in Vancouver

B.C. government refuses to prohibit Olympic evictions in Vancouver

By Carlito Pablo
Georgia Straight –  June 24,2009

Vancouver-area tenants who are afraid of being kicked out by landlords out to make a quick buck from visitors during the 2010 Olympics may have a reason to fear some more.

The B.C. Liberal government isn’t budging on a request by the City of Vancouver to amend the Residential Tenancy Act to prohibit evictions between June 1, 2009, and March 31, 2010, other than by reason of tenant default.

In a letter received by the office of Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson on June 15, B.C. housing and social development minister Rich Coleman stated that the existing provisions of the law already make it difficult for landlords to evict tenants.

Coleman also pointed out that “making changes that affect one group of landlords as distinct from another based on geographic location creates a policy that may be seen as discriminatory”.

“Affecting the rights of property owners in the manner suggested may also be seen as unfair to those property owners,” the minister wrote. “In a time where housing is scarce and private landlords are providing a valuable housing alternative, it is important to encourage them rather than discourage them.”

On April 9, Vancouver council passed a motion by Coun. Geoff Meggs that asked the province to amend the Residential Tenancy Act to prevent Olympics-related evictions.

Also included in the motion was a request that the province open a full-time staffed office of the Residential Tenancy Branch in the downtown core or along the Broadway corridor for one year, encompassing the period before and after the Games.

Coleman told Robertson that he is “mindful of the challenges landlords and tenants will experience in the time surrounding the 2010 Winter Games”.

However, Coleman stated, there are no plans by the provincial government to make changes to the act “at this time”.

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