March 14, 2016 1:58 pm
Updated: March 14, 2016 5:16 pm

Renovictions still a ‘huge problem’ for Vancouver renters, says MP

Vancouver renters face mounting challenges due to low vacancy, rising rents and renovictions.

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Vancouver is home to Canada’s lowest apartment vacancy rate (0.08 per cent at last count in Oct. 2015) and highest average rent ($1,368 for a two-bedroom). They are two issues that so-called “renovictions” may have exacerbated.

The term was coined by former Vancouver renter Christine Ackermann and her neighbours in 2008, during a battle with their landlord who wanted to evict 20 suites in the building.

“Corporate landlord companies were evicting, en masse, tenants in order to do what they called renovations but what were actually very basic cosmetic renovations. And then they were jacking up the price of the rent, in some cases to double,” the 45-year-old, who has since moved to Ontario, explained.

At the time, Ackermann lived in a 350-sq. ft. bachelor suite in downtown Vancouver, nestled between Stanley Park and English Bay. Her rent had been $750, but her landlord wanted $400 more. The justification given for the renoviction was that new bathtubs and kitchen cabinets were needed.

MORE: Should you rent or buy? This real estate calculator will help you decide

Ackermann felt she could live through the renovations and wasn’t about to leave without a fight.

“I really didn’t want to move because someone wanted to make more money.”

Neither did residents from 11 of the other evicted suites. Ackermann managed to get a month’s leave of absence from work to lead the group’s battle in court.

‘It broke up a lot of people’s homes’

“So many people don’t fight because they can’t take time off… They can’t handle the stress,” she said.

The whole ordeal involved a lot of paperwork and took roughly four months. It ended with the tenants being allowed to stay in their units.

As for the massive planned renovations? They turned into only a retrofitting of bathroom pipes.

After everything, the landlord raised the rent by $60.

“We had a couple seniors on fixed incomes who couldn’t afford to pay that,” Ackermann said. “We had a gentleman who was living with full-blown HIV/AIDS who couldn’t afford it either and he couldn’t handle the stress so he gave up and moved out… It broke up a lot of people’s homes.”

“The system is not set up to help tenants at all.”

A group of other tenants who took an “identical” renoviction fight against the same landlord all the way to the B.C. Supreme Court lost the case, she said.

One decision isn’t binding on another, Ackermann added.

“So you get a dispute resolution officer who sides with the landlord just on the way he feels,” she argued. “It’s completely and fully up to the discretion of the officer what decision they’re going to give up.

“They’re not bound by anything. They’re not bound by previous judgments, previous decisions, nothing. They can do whatever they want. Even if it makes no sense.”

WATCH: The lone holdout of a Vancouver renoviction had to leave his home last summer, even though he won a key battle with a developer. 

‘The Act needs to change’

Eight years later renovictions continue to be “a huge challenge and a problem” in the city, according to Vancouver East MP Jenny Kwan.

“The impact tends to be on long-term tenants,” she said.

“Their rent, because they’ve been there a long time, tends to be lower than the crazy hot rental market of today. So the landlords will often find a way to get rid of these tenants so they can jack up the rent.”

“It is definitely a problem.”

She’s advocated for countless tenants renovicted for cosmetic fixes during her nearly 20-year tenure as a Vancouver MLA.  The provincial Liberals are the only ones with the authority to address the issue, the NDP MP said.

“We’ve been advocating for [change] for a very long time and we have even tabled private member’s bills to call on the government to do something around this. But the government has not acted,” Kwan argued.

“When they came into office, the Liberal government substantially changed the Residential Tenancy Act and, in my view, brought in a lot of provisions that benefit the landlord and not so much the tenants.”

Kwan would like to see B.C. bring in Ontario’s right of first refusal rule. It stipulates that “a tenant who receives notice of termination of a tenancy for the purpose of repairs or renovations” has essentially first dibs on the rental unit when the renos are complete. The tenant’s post-reno rent should also be “no more than what the landlord could have lawfully charged if there had been no interruption in the tenant’s tenancy,” the Ontario Residential Tenancies Act states.

‘This problem is not one specific to Vancouver’

The B.C. government told Global News it has no plans to make any changes to its Residential Tenancy Act regarding evictions due to renovations. It also pointed out that when undertaking extensive renovations, landlords must:

  • have necessary permits before issuing a notice to end tenancy;
  • give two months’ notice; and
  • compensate the tenant with one month’s rent.

Tenants who think the lease has been ended without a valid reason can dispute the notice. The fee to file a grievance was recently doubled to $100.

Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs says the renoviction problem isn’t the “epidemic” it was a few years ago, but that the city continues to advocate for changes to the Tenancy Act.

“We’re also enforcing standards of maintenance,” he said. “We don’t want landlords keeping substandard conditions in a building if it needs an upgrade… What we do is try to make sure there’s no case in which people are simply profit-grabbing by sending people out and raising the rents.”

Meggs added, “I think that this problem is not one specific to Vancouver.”

WATCH: The City of Vancouver introduced new rules in December designed to protect renters. It’s hoped they will help people displaced by renovations, known as “renovictions.”

And he’s right. Montreal has its own high-profile case.

An 82-year-old man recently tried to come home after a few months in the hospital only to be greeted with an eviction notice.

“The moment I came here, I opened the door and it was not possible because they changed the locks,” he said.

His landlord wants to subdivide the apartment he’s lived in for 40 years.

“We have lots and lots of elderly tenants who are being evicted of their apartment, just because the owners want a little bit of money, just because they want to do a few dollars more per month,” said Martin Blanchard, from La Petite Patrie housing committee. “It is not acceptable.”

WATCH: Montrealers rally behind elderly man facing eviction

Ackermann is happy to see light shed again on the issue that’s close to her heart, and hopes her story will help fuel the fight of others.

“There’s a lot of people who need… to know that others have fought and won. And it’s important that they know they can do that too.”

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