Jean Swanson: Tenants need vacancy control to end renovictions

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      Do you know that there’s a new occupation in town? I don’t know exactly what it’s called.  Maybe an “eviction enabler”.

      It’s a person who gets hired by a landlord to get tenants out of a building so landlords can put new tenants in, usually at much higher rents. They’re often brought in even before the landlord has any renovation permits. Once emptied, the building can be sold for more, since the new owners can set the rent at whatever they want. Often the landlord wants the building empty so they can renovate and charge higher rents or, simply, so they can charge higher rents without renos.

      Rents in Vancouver have skyrocketed in the past few years. That has given landlords an incentive to remove long-term tenants who rent at lower than market rates. The eviction enablers are brought in to achieve exactly that. They do this by telling tenants that their building is going to be renovated so they have to move out.

      One place this is happening is at 1875 Yew Street in Kitsilano, a well-maintained, older three-story building with lots of long-term tenants, including some pensioners. Rents are about $900 to $1,250/month. Their eviction enabler is named "Jose", from VS Rentals. His job is to try to get the tenants to agree to one of three options, none of which are good if you can’t afford rents in the current rental market where a one-bedroom apartment goes for an average of over $2,000 a month.

      The options are: accept one month of free rent and get four months notice to leave; leave your apartment while renovations are done and return and pay the new (higher) market rent; or leave within 45 days with free moving (excluding boxes) and get one month free rent and $3,000. 

      Of course, if you’re a pensioner trying to survive on $1,500 or so a month, the $900 that you pay now doesn’t leave much for living on. What will you do out in Vancouver’s apartment market today? The social-housing wait list has thousands of people on it. Even if a pensioner can luck out and find a place for $1,500, that will use up the $3,000 in five months. 

      According to the VS Rentals website: “We specialize in furnished and unfurnished luxury apartment rentals.” Unfortunately, Vancouver doesn’t need more luxury rentals. We need homes people can afford. That means protecting affordable rental buildings like 1875 Yew Street from being turned into luxury commodities.

      VS Rentals has several other properties where the same thing is happening. They bring in the eviction enabler to warn tenants of pending renovations and evictions, often without having the permits they need to issue a proper eviction notice. Their message: “You can leave and take this money or we’ll force you out later with less.” Because tenants often don’t know their rights and because they’re scared, they sign and leave with a few paltry dollars in their pocket.

      How is this possible? It’s possible because in B.C. we don’t have vacancy control. Vacancy control is a form of rent control that we used to have in the 1970s. Vacancy control means that landlords can’t raise rents as much as they like when a tenant leaves, dies, is evicted, or is bought out. Because we don’t have vacancy control, landlords have a profit incentive to get rid of tenants, especially tenants who have lived in the building for a long time and pay lower rents.

      VS isn’t the only business trying to push out lower-income tenants so landlords can get new leases at higher rates. Reliance Properties Ltd. is doing the same thing at the West End's Berkeley Tower (1770 Davie Street). Jon Stovell, the president and CEO of Reliance, is also the chair of the Urban Development Institute, which calls itself “the premier voice of the B.C. real estate development industry”. Tenants there have been given a choice: take money now, leave, and end your tenancy or be evicted next year when the renovations start. The tenants at 1770 know their rights and have asked to temporarily move out during the renovations so their leases will survive. Reliance has refused to consider that option, even though the courts have said that the tenants have that right.

      Stovell said on CBC’s Early Edition on October 24 that his company will consider putting future developments on hold if we get vacancy control. Vacancy control would stop him from turning homes for ordinary people into luxury apartments and making a mint. I hope we do get vacancy control and that he does put his plans for renovicting the Berkeley tenants on hold, hopefully forever. 

      Next month B.C.’s Rental Housing Task Force is set to release recommendations about how to change B.C.’s landlord and tenant laws. If our governments keep allowing landlords to renovict and demovict tenants from affordable, privately owned rental buildings, the cost of building replacement social housing will be astronomical. Vacancy control will save governments money in the long run to protect our affordable housing stock.

      My plea to the Rental Housing Task Force: tenants desperately need protection.  Developers and landlords have lots of options that tenants don’t have. You must protect tenants with vacancy control and put an end to job creation for eviction enablers.

      Jean Swanson won office under the COPE banner as a city councillor in the October 20 B.C. municipal elections.