Melody Ma: No time for silence on Berkeley Tower renoviction

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      By Melody Ma

      The West End is a quintessentially working-class Vancouver neighbourhood with its seawall, leafy green streets, walkability, and affordable rental apartments—that is, until recently. Now, the West End is becoming more like Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s past MP constituency, Burnaby, also known as ground zero for mass renovictions and demovictions over the past years.

      The latest renoviction target in the West End is the iconic green and yellow Berkeley Tower, a 58-unit apartment building on the edge of English Bay. In the coming weeks, the City of Vancouver will decide whether or not to issue a development permit to the developer, Reliance Properties, for renovations that will trigger tenant evictions.

      Headed by development lobby group Urban Development Institute Chair Jon Stovell, Reliance Properties purchased the 60-year-old apartment tower in 2016 for $43 million likely with plans to increase return by increasing rents. It is even reducing the total number of units from 58 down to 52 units without one-to-one replacement of the difference in a city where the vacancy rate is near zero.

      This May, the province issued new guidance for the Residential Tenancy Act stating that a tenancy may not be ended if “it is possible to carry out the renovations or repairs without ending the tenancy” including “if the tenant is willing to temporarily empty and vacate the unit during the renovations or repairs, and then move back in once they are complete”. Although the Berkeley Tower tenants offered to accommodate the renovations at their own expense, the developer refused their offer and issued notices to end all tenancies instead. After the renovations, the tenants can choose to lease back the same units, but at future market rental rates anticipated to be considerably greater than current. At the end of the day, even with the relocation packages offered, tenants will be economically displaced in favour of higher income earners.

      Some observers, such as former city councillor Gordon Price, draw an analogy between the Berkeley Tower case and the recent 105 Keefer development proposal for Chinatown, which I was personally involved in advocating against. A year ago, the Development Permit (DP) Board rejected Beedie’s development permit for 105 Keefer, a gentrifying building at the cultural heart of historic Chinatown. The decision was significant because it was the first time the DP Board ever rejected a development permit in this development-friendly city. During the DP Board’s public hearing process, it was evident that existing policies did not serve the neighbourhood. The City of Vancouver clearly lacked policy levers to adjust individual development projects to align with neighbourhood-level goals. The valuable insight gained from the hearing process informed the directions of larger neighbourhood-wide zoning changes that city council eventually implemented less than a year later.

      Like 105 Keefer, the Berkeley Tower development permitting process may help the city identify missing policies in its toolkit for dealing with renovictions, and re-evaluate whether the 5-year old West End plan is meeting its original intentions. How the city handles the Berkeley Tower decision publicly will send signals to the development industry and residents on the future of West End and how business will be done at city hall going forward. Despite the importance of this decision, the city has not triggered a DP Board hearing for the public and tenants to raise their grievances in person. This means that the weight of this permit decision and the fate of 58 rental households rest solely on the Director of Planning’s evaluation, privately and in silence, unless he deems there is sufficient “community controversy” to justify a hearing. Given the nature of this project, it is imperative that the Director of Planning makes his decision in the open for the public to witness. The Berkeley renters deserve to hear the rationale behind the decision that will impact their lives. The decision should not be made in silence.

      During the Vancouver election campaign trail, there was no shortage of aspiring politicians attending the Berkeley Tower renoviction rally in loud protest. Even Mayor Stewart who was silent on Burnaby renovictions while he was their elected MP, issued a series of messages on Twitter offering “full support to renters in the West End being renovicted from their homes”. The Mayor and Council is unable to directly vote on this development permit, because that decision-making power has been devolved to Director of Planning under the Vancouver Charter. Nevertheless, this does not preclude Mayor and Council from taking a public stand against renovictions. Now that Kennedy Stewart has been elected to serve, will he actually offer full support to the tenants by speaking out, or will he continue to remain silent on renovictions impacting his constituents?

      To take action against renovictions at Berkeley Tower, click here.