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.