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.

Conference calls no way to settle tenant-landlord disputes

Easy to get that disconnected feeling:
Conference calls no way to settle tenant-landlord disputes

By Jon Ferry, The Province
December 16, 2009

It’s cold, it’s hard to get work and it’s tough to find an affordable place to rent these days, particularly in Metro Vancouver. Which is why the government must do all it can to ensure tenants aren’t being gouged.

When landlord-tenant disputes arise, B.C.’s housing ministry is supposed to resolve them through prompt and fair hearings, not leave either party on hold.

The trouble is, the vast majority of these hearings now are done by telephone conference call. And that, according to Vancouver-West End NDP MLA Spencer Herbert, is causing numerous problems — for seniors, the hard of hearing, those with limited English or those who simply get lost in the phone system.

“In some cases, they have called in at the appointed time, but have never been dialled through to the case, leading to their case being dismissed,” Herbert told me. “In many cases, the people I have spoken with have just given up or accepted rulings that might have been thrown out, had they had a fairer and more even process.”

Some landlords also find the conference calls frustrating. But it’s usually the tenants who come off worse, especially if they’re battling big property owners with seasoned staff.

Vancouver housing advocate Leslie Stern, who’s just been evicted from the False Creek townhome she has lived in for 25 years, says telephone hearings are impersonal and mechanical: “Everything seems biased towards a developer or a landlord who has staff and means.”

And Sharon Isaak, co-founder of the tenants’ rights group Renters at Risk, stresses they can be very confusing. “They say they’re making it streamlined, but it’s not,” she said, adding it’s nearly impossible for tenants who want a face-to-face hearing to get one.

Vernon mom June Ross, though, took on the system and won. Her 2007 application to recover money owed her by her landlord was initially dismissed by a dispute-resolution adjudicator on the grounds she’d failed to show up for the arranged telephone hearing.

That decision was upheld by a second adjudicator, but later dismissed by the B.C. Supreme Court.

The court found Ross had, in fact, followed instructions and had stayed on the line until it simply went dead. Indeed, Justice Joel Groves ordered the dispute to be reheard because the two adjudicators had “breached the rules of natural justice.”

Justice Groves said it was certainly not the first time in his experience that this type of problem had arisen, and he urged the Residential Tenancy Branch to provide a separate line for those experiencing call problems.

The B.C. housing ministry told me it appreciated both the court’s decision and its recommendation regarding hearing procedures. A spokesman said: “We do treat the process seriously.”

Well, if that’s the case, the ministry should make it seriously easier for folks to attend hearings in person — and not just at one Lower Mainland location.

Basic fairness is being compromised here. And tenants, as well as some landlords, are being left out in the cold.

© Copyright (c) The Province

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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

NEWS: City rental vacancies up, report says

Source: Westender

Posted By: Jackie Wong

06/18/2009 12:00 AM

If the apparent proliferation across the city of lawn signs advertising apartment vacancies seems unusual — especially given last year’s media coverage highlighting Vancouver’s record-breaking shortfall of rental accommodation — it’s part of a national trend. Vacancy rates in Metro Vancouver and across Canada have risen in the past year, according to the spring 2009 rental market report released last week by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The report suggests Metro Vancouver vacancy rates are up to 1.9 per cent, from 0.9 per cent at this time in 2008. Meanwhile, average monthly rents in the region remain the highest in Canada, with the report showing the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Metro Vancouver to be $935, up from $857 last year.

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Renters, politicians cry foul over outreach offices

Renters, politicians cry foul over outreach offices

Posted By: Jackie Wong
Christine Ackermann & Sharon Isaak of Renters at Risk, photo: Doug Shanks

Christine Ackermann & Sharon Isaak of Renters at Risk, photo: Doug Shanks

For the second time in five months, the provincial government announced the opening of two new Residential Tenancy Branch outreach offices in Vancouver’s downtown, one at 518 Richards Street and another at 390 Main Street. Openings of the same offices were first announced days before the October 29 provincial by-election last year. According to a March 18 media release issued by the B.C. Ministry of Housing and Social Development, the Richards Street office – located in a single-room-occupancy hotel, where it shares office space with BC Housing – will be open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m.; the Main Street office, which occupies free space provided by the City of Vancouver, will be open weekday afternoons. The only other Residential Tenancy Branch in the Lower Mainland is located in Burnaby, at 5021 Kingsway Street.

In addition to their unusually limited business hours, the actual functionality of the new Residential Tenancy Offices (RTOs) remains a mystery to those who have tried to access its services, including Sharon Isaak, co-founder of West End-based tenant advocacy group Renters at Risk. “The one on Richards really has no signage, and doesn’t appear to be a functioning government office,” she says, having attempted to visit the office in the past week to inquire about an eviction. “It looks like there should be somebody there, but nobody ever answers [the door].”

Christine Ackermann, who fought an eviction from her West End apartment building last May and has since been an active volunteer with Renters at Risk, encountered similar problems with the new offices. “There’s no activity, there’s no office, there’s no signs, nobody there can tell us anything about it,” she says. “This announcement does nothing to protect B.C. renters, and it’s not even a promise that’s been fulfilled. I invite [B.C. Housing Minister] Rich Coleman to meet us down at that office and show us what [we clearly] must be in error about, if he [has made] an announcement that it’s open.”

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Residents given reprieve from rental cat-nundrum

Residents given reprieve from rental cat-nundrum

By STEFANIA SECCIA, 24 HOURS

Sharon Isaak - Co-founder Renters At Risk

Sharon Isaak - Co-founder Renters At Risk

A west-end group of residents and their cats can breath a sigh of relief after B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Branch blocked the evictions that would have forced them – and their furry friends – out.

The group of cat-owners had verbal permission to keep pets, but last December Hollyburn Properties tried to evict them because of it, said Spencer Herbert, NDP MLA, yesterday.

“This should’ve never happened,” said Herbert outside the west-end apartment building Emerald Terrace.

Mary Milligan, a resident for three years and owner of one cat, said, “You can’t believe the relief I feel.”

Sharon Isaak from the Renters at Risk Campaign (RRC) said Hollyburn was aware of these pets a year ago when it bought the building, but used the excuse now to get long-term residents out in an effort to increase the rent.

“[Hollyburn needs] to be accountable for this,” she said. “Enough is enough.”

But Allan Wesley, Hollyburn general manager, said RRC is putting a spin on it.

“We will continue to consider our residents’ well-being in all policies, including our policy requiring that all residents must have written authorization to have a pet in their unit,” he wrote in a statement.

Source:24 Hours Vancouver

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