Rent increase for low-income Chinatown seniors could set "terrifying precedent", says Pivot lawyer
Eighty-five-year-old Zhen Kun Feng has lived in the Chau Luen Tower on Keefer Street for 14 years.
Like most of the tenants in the 81-unit Chinatown building, his apartment is a small bachelor suite of about 300 square feet.
For the past few months, Feng, along with three other tenants, has fought to keep the units affordable for the low-income residents who live there.
The Chau Luen Kon Sol Society of Vancouver, which manages the building, is seeking to raise Feng’s rent from the $434 a month he currently pays to $570. Other tenants in the building are also facing rent increases of 30 to 40 percent, he said. The dispute is currently before the Residential Tenancy Branch, which is expected to rule on the matter soon.
“This housing is...specifically supposed to be for low-income seniors,” Feng told the Georgia Straight in an interview in one of the units in the Chau Luen Tower.
The majority of tenants in the building are in their 80s, according to Feng. He noted many of the seniors are already paying more than 30 percent of their income to cover their rent, and have to pay a significant amount in medical expenses, in addition to covering other bills like heat. The typical monthly income of Chau Luen residents ranges from about $800 to $1,100, he added.
“The seniors have a lot of stress, and some people are crying because of that stress, saying [they] don’t have enough money,” Feng stated through an interpreter. “Are they trying to kick us out, become homeless? Some are already crying.”
According to Feng, the society has indicated they need to increase the rent in order to cover the cost of repairs, and because the rent is low compared to other buildings in the area.
A message left with the building caretaker requesting an interview with the Chau Luen Society was not returned by the Straight’s deadline.
DJ Larkin, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society who is representing the group of about 80 seniors, said she is concerned that if the Residential Tenancy Branch permits the landlord to raise the rent to match other rates in the area, it could set a “terrifying precedent” for other low-income buildings.
“We have a concern that the legislation does allow for people to benefit from neighbourhood change and gentrification in a way that really pushes low-income people out of housing at an accelerated rate," Larkin said in a phone interview with the Straight.
"Because rather than only raising the rent every 12 months in accordance with the legislation normally, when a neighbourhood starts to change really rapidly, a landlord can turn around and say I would like to apply to raise the rent by $200 immediately because the rest of the neighbourhood has become more expensive."
She noted the tower has “really significant” ongoing maintenance issues, but is being compared to other buildings in the area that have been completely remodeled.
“In this building, one of my fears is that the branch may feel comfortable allowing a rent increase based on the landlord’s assertion that these people can all get the provincial SAFER [Shelter Aid For Elderly Renters] grant, because they are seniors,” she said.
“However, what fundamentally it means is that a landlord has been successful in taking a building that has not been well maintained, and getting the rent raised based on that rapid neighbourhood change, which really does open the door for a lot of other buildings, especially in the Downtown Eastside.”
Feng noted the Chau Luen Tower is 43 years old.
“A lot of the amenities here are really old—this fridge, freezer, stove,” he said. “In 43 years, they’ve never replaced the elevators, so it often breaks down. Sometimes it breaks down for two or three weeks.”
He added that services in the building have been reduced. While there used to be a building caretaker on site day and night, now it is staffed between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
“There’s a lot of stuff that could happen to seniors and no one would take care of them…and they’re still trying to raise rents, so that’s not reasonable,” he stated.
Feng, along with fellow tenants including Zhong Liu Zheng and Wen Kam Cheng, has been advocating on behalf of the building's residents, and has collected 81 signatures on a letter opposing the rent increase.
“We’re not doing this for ourselves, but for the entire building,” he stressed. “I see the seniors like this and I can’t bear [it].”
Larkin noted that the residents do appreciate that the building is operated by a non-profit benevolent society.
"But they’ve really been pushed into a corner where they feel like they’re not getting services, they’re not getting maintenance,” she said.
“How is there any fairness in putting them in a situation where their rent could go up quite a large amount, and it’s just causing so much stress for a vulnerable group of people.”