Toni-Leah Yake is calling on the provincial government to make changes to the Residential Tenancy Act so tenants aren’t caught in the crossfire of a housing crisis.
For five years, Yake has enjoyed living in Maple Manor at 240 Third St., a 15-unit apartment complex in the Queen’s Park neighbourhood. When new owners purchased the building, she said they started talking about doing renovations, ultimately serving tenants with notices to end tenancy.
“We have absolutely no protection in this. This is all legal what they are doing, apparently,” she said. “As renters we have absolutely no protection with what’s happening. So not only are we being evicted, we are subject to everything that is going on – having our water cut off, having incredible noise every day for eight hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.”
While some tenants have moved elsewhere, Yake is disputing her eviction notice with the Residential Tenancy Branch, saying the owner told her on Aug. 31 that it was fine if she stayed longer, only to be served with an eviction notice the next day.
“He’s telling me one thing and he’s doing another – that’s why I am disputing it. I am hoping that I cannot be pushed out of this place until I am able to find a place that I can go and live in. I have two pets as well – this also narrows the margin of what’s available for me drastically,” she said. “It’s very tough.”
Yake said she understands the apartment owner’s reason for renovating the building.
“They are going to rent it to other people for double the price,” she said.
Yake hopes the provincial government will make legislative changes that help prevents renovictions. She said the building was home to a diverse group of people including Syrian refugees, people on fixed incomes and residents who had lived in the building for 20 years.
“We should have rights and protections to not be feeling so vulnerable. Housing is so important. It’s built into the human psyche that we need a place to feel safe and then people like this come in and threaten that. It is very stressful,” she said. “A lot of people in these low-income situations, they are suffering from mental health or health issues. Then on top of it they are being displaced. We need people in government who can be the voice of change for us, to speak up against this. That’s what I want to see.”
Selina Robinson, B.C.’s minister of municipal affairs and housing, said it’s clear that not enough has been done over the past 16 years to protect B.C. renters. She said the government has already taken some steps to improve protection for renters by increasing funding for the Residential Tenancy Branch to reduce unacceptable wait times and to implement a compliance unit to take action against landlords and tenants who are repeat or serious offenders.
“We are also preparing to close unfair fixed-term lease loopholes that allow bad landlords to bypass rent control. That legislation is imminent,” she said in a statement to the Record. “I have also directed ministry staff to review the Residential Tenancy Act and prepare additional options to strengthen protection for renters facing other challenging situations, including those being evicted due to renovations and demolitions. While we take some immediate first steps to protect renters, we are committed to ongoing improvements to address the many challenges facing renters in our tight rental market.”
Low vacancy rates
The most recent data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation suggests there’s a 0.4 vacancy rate in market rental units in New Westminster. As of October 2016, that included a 0.4 per cent vacancy rate in bachelor units, a 0.5 per cent rate in one-bedrooms, a 0.1 per cent vacancy rate in two-bedrooms and a 0.0 per cent vacancy rate for three-bedrooms.
“There is nowhere to go for people. We are in a housing crisis right now,” Yake said. “Where are people going? Where are people expected to go? What this guy is doing should be illegal right now. He should not legally be allowed to be displacing people from their affordable housing.”
Yake is set to make her case at the Residential Tenancy Board in mid-November. Until then, she continues to search for affordable, decent housing.
“I haven’t found anything yet. I am still looking,” she said. “It’s really expensive. Prices are double here in New West.”
‘We gave them options’
Frank Young, a member of the Maple Manor Apartment’s management team, said the new owners purchased the building about a year ago. He said the company has a permit to do the renovations and gave tenants ample notice about the work.
“We told them about six months ago that we are doing renovations,” he said. “We gave them options to either stay at market rent or take a buyout and look for a place.”
Young said the company has been flexible with move-out timelines for tenants who have had trouble finding new accommodations. In addition to offering each tenant $3,000 to move out, he said the company also paid for their moving expenses and returned their damage deposits.
Young said he’s personally driven people around to help them find a new place to live, searched Craigslist with them and offered people units in one of his company’s other nearby buildings.
“We have gone over and beyond to help people,” he said. “I can give you reports from people who have been very happy with what we have done.”
Young said the owner is “paying a premium” for the building and can’t afford to subsidize rents that were established five or 10 years ago. He said buildings purchased by his company often have asbestos, rats and bedbug issues that need to be addressed.
“We are not in the business of evicting people; we don’t do that,” he told the Record. “We end up buying these buildings that are really expensive at market rents. The rents aren’t market rents, so what happens is we end up putting money in every month. If we don’t get the money after the renovation, we are going to end up going bankrupt because we can’t subsidize the mortgage and the property taxes.”
According to Young, the renovation budget for Maple Manor is $1 million.
“We are getting rid of the asbestos problem. Before we start anything, we have to get an asbestos report,” he said. “All the piping in the whole building is getting redone. New electrical, new floors, new cabinets, new countertops, new washrooms. The whole nine yards.”
Prior to the renovation, Young said one-bedroom units rented for $800 to $1,100, and when the renovation is complete they’ll rent for $1,300.
“I make sure that everyone is happy. I have got a heart. I care about people. The company I work for goes over and beyond. They give me an endless budget just to make sure that person is not in any way, shape or form in a stressful situation. If there is anything we can do as a company to make their life easier, even if that means giving them more time, sometimes I have given people as much as six months, they have just been great.”
A longtime New West resident, Yake is pleased to see the positive changes taking place in the city and building owners making improvements to aging rental stock. But, instead of mass evictions, she’d like to see renovations done as tenants move out of buildings so current residents aren’t displaced.
“For a really long time, New West didn’t have a good reputation; people didn’t want to live here. It was kind of a ghost town downtown. So I like seeing this change, but the thing is this change isn’t for the people,” she said. “This change is for these dudes who have lots of money coming in and they are making money off of it.”
City takes aim at renovictions
Renovictions are becoming more commonplace in the Royal City – and that’s troubling the folks at city hall.
John Stark, the city’s acting director of planning, said the city is currently tracking five to seven buildings in New Westminster that are experiencing renovictions. Renovictions are when a property owner evicts tenants to do renovations, while demovictions are when they evict tenants so they can demolish the building.
“Demoviction has not been an issue in New Westminster, but renovictions definitely have become more of an issue,” he said. “I think it will continue until the incentive is taken out. There will have to be changes to the Residential Tenancy Act or new powers given to cities. Right now, we just don’t have the ability to withhold a building permit.”
The city recently put forward a resolution at the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) that aims to address the issue of renovictions.
“It’s been on our radar for a few years in the city,” said Mayor Jonathan Cote. “Unfortunately, at the local government level, there’s not a lot that we have the ability to do. If you are going to truly deal with the issue it is going to require some changes to the Residential Tenancy Act and that’s going to require the province to get involved in that issue. We are hoping the motion at the UBCM can start a fairly quick conversation with the new provincial government.”
The resolution, approved at the UBCM convention, urges the provincial government to undertake a broad review of the Residential Tenancy Act. Specific requests include allowing renters the right of first refusal to return to their units at a rent that is no more than what the landlord could lawfully have charged, including allowable annual increase, if there had been no interruption in the tenancy.
In 2016, New Westminster city council endorsed a Renovictions Action Plan that included a number of actions including: incorporating information on the city’s website related to tenant rights and resources; Developing a renoviction fact sheet; working with tenants to determine if the landlord has all of the necessary approvals and permits; employing stop-work orders and tickets when the necessary approvals and permits aren’t in place; and hosting information sessions related to tenant rights and resources.
“We have been very involved in this issue, probably more involved than most municipalities,” Stark said. “As a first step, what we try to do is inform tenants of their rights and responsibilities. We have been sending out the Tenants Survival Guide.”
If the city becomes aware of a change in ownership in a rental building in New West, he said it sends a copy of the guide to tenants to make them aware of the requirements under the Residential Tenancy Act.
“We are aware of a few developers who have purchased multiple properties. I am not saying all of them are renovictions, but we have noticed there is definitely, with the tight vacancy rates, market rental housing is being seen as an investment,” he said.
Stark said tenants who have lived in rental buildings for 10 or 15 years may be paying rents of $700 to $800, which is quite a bit below today’s market rents, and often can’t afford today’s market rents. He said seniors have been “disproportionately impacted by renovictions” because they’ve lived in their suites for years.
The city’s resolution to the UBCM also asked the province to require the Residential Tenancy Branch to elite or amend fixed-term tenancy agreements to prevent significant rent increases upon renewal, and to require the Residential Tenancy Branch to amend the dispute resolution application process to accept one application representing more than one affected tenant.