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.”
Feb 10, 2014 at 5:31pm
There are no winners here. This isn't a story about a greedy company or landlord trying to get money out of poor seniors. The building is run by a non-profit society that will go bankrupt and have to close (and then sell the building) if they can't pay their bills. The non-profit society probably kept rent artificially low by skimping on the repairs over the years and now that repairs have to be done, it is looking at a huge bill and therefore large rent increases to cover it. The province should be helping non-profit housing providers by providing low interest loans that would allow them to spread the cost of the repairs over a number of years and therefore not ding the current residents too badly. The non-profit might have had reasonable yearly rent increases to create a surplus for when they did need to do repairs (perhaps they did and those funds simply were not enough). No one wins here. If these seniors win their application to keep rent as it is the hammer will have to fall at another time and their housing might be pulled out from under them because the non-profit cannot afford to operate it.
Rick in Richmond
Feb 10, 2014 at 7:09pm
The owner of the building is the Chau Luen Kon Sol Society of Vancouver. It is a non-profit mandated to provide low-cost housing for Chinese seniors. They opened the Tower on June 6 1971.
The Society is not a developer. It does not operate for profit. It is ludicrous to try to paint the Society as a 'gentrifier'.
They lack the money to bring the building up to modern standards. What to do?
The lawyers at Pivot need to petition the Minister of Housing to provide the same kind of money for building improvements that has been spent at the Pennsylvania, the Washington, and the Marble Arch. That's the way to solve the problem.
Bad-mouthing a non-profit run by Chinese elders is just childish.
Feb 10, 2014 at 8:36pm
One of Vision's main promises was to create affordable housing. So this is their chance to come through with that promise, considering it was one of the one's that got them elected. Perhaps they can drop their obsession with being 'the greenest city in the world' and put some of that money towards these seniors. This just seems so incredibly cruel.
This is where
Feb 11, 2014 at 1:21am
The Chinese community and all the wealthy Chinese people living in Vancouver should be donating and helping their non profit organization to take care of their seniors.
also, where are these seniors families (and children)??
All the wealth they have in this city and these poor men have to live like this...how sad.
Feb 11, 2014 at 9:21am
RE @"This is where": not all Chinese people come from rich families. Like with any nationality/race, there will always be vast inequality within the nation itself. And in that inequality means there will be people who are so poor they are always on the edge of being homeless.
Feb 11, 2014 at 11:15am
This building to stay affordable will have to become part of BC Housing like all the other affordable building in the area, now to live in the DTES you either have to be a millionaire or a destitute, even if you only make the bare minimum to survive that is still too much for BC Housing you have to be sleeping on the sidewalk begging for change to be approved.
Sad to say but I am sure these poor seniors will be another casualty of this neighbourhood gentrification and it's not the landlords fault either everybody in the neighbourhood feels the push, all these old buildings being torn down and replaced with new ones populated by young wealthy tenants it's only a matter of time before the DTES becomes another Yaletown.
Feb 11, 2014 at 12:26pm
"... only a matter of time before the DTES becomes another Yaletown"
Woohoo!! It's about freakin' time!!
Feb 11, 2014 at 1:37pm
This situation reflects the catch22 of rent increases.
There are guidelines but a landlord can apply for exemptions if it can be proved that rents are higher in buildings around you. Okay, let's say you get the exemption - then the next building can prove that the rents are higher, and then the next and before you know it, there are no guidelines, only exemptions and rents skyrocket.
It's a bad policy and needs to be changed.
Feb 11, 2014 at 2:23pm
It's ridiculous to blame the non profit, which has been doing it's job the best it can. I also find it kind of ridiculous to ask the government for more money.
There are plenty of Chinese who are wealthy and can donate money to help this non profit. Problem is, the new immigrant Chinese don't care much about the society here,they only want a place to park their assets and for their kids to use public services without paying any income taxes.
Feb 11, 2014 at 2:56pm
Why hasn't this 'benevolent society' explored 'SAFER' subsidy for these seniors ages ago?! For that matter, why haven't the DTES and Chinatown advocacy services, including PIVOT done so?!!
If the seniors are over 60, have the 'residency' requirements, and verifiable low incomes then as tenants in a non Gov't subsidized rental situation they'd be eligible for subsidies at a level that would leave them better off than they were before the proposed rent increases, for heavens sake!
NOTE TO THE EDITOR: If this factor has been explored by the journalist in question and ruled out as not applicable, why was this not part of the article? Many 'not for profits' seniors' housing providers factor SAFER into their housing charge for each of their senior tenants..eg PALS. it has to be calculated and applied for annually.