Low-income residents in Vancouver's Olympic Village fear they will be forced to move from their social housing units due to utility bills they say they can't afford to pay.
At a press conference in front of 80 Walter Hardwick Avenue today (December 8), Pivot Legal Society lawyer Scott Bernstein outlined the concerns of some of the residents in what has been touted as a “net zero” energy-efficient building.
Bernstein said when the tenants moved in to the social housing units at the Olympic Village, they were assured that their utility bills would be “next to nothing”.
According to Bernstein, the residents received a $28 bill from North Vancouver-based company Enerpro Systems Corp for an account activation fee. In addition, they were also billed by the company for heat, and for both hot and cold water, with some residents receiving bills of over $120. The energy costs were on top of a separate bill from B.C. Hydro for electricity consumption.
“For many of these residents, those bills represent upwards of 10 percent of their monthly income of what they’re actually living on,” said Bernstein, noting that the tenants in the social housing units consist of seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income residents.
“For many people, having a bill like that means that they’re going to have to go back on the street, or they’re not going to be able to afford to live here any longer,” he added. “Many of them are having to give up food and nutritional supplements and such that support them.”
Connor Mikkonen and his wife Ritta, who are both disabled, were homeless for 14 months before they moved to the Olympic Village in March.
“Coming here was…like winning the lottery,” he told reporters. “My wife was in tears. We finally had the security we hadn’t had in quite some time.”
The couple soon received a bill for $148 from Enerpro. Mikonnen said that while they were told when they moved in that 30 percent of their income would cover their housing, their costs including the utility payments would translate to 50 percent of their income. They're concerned that if they can't pay the energy bills, they could face eviction.
“We cannot afford Enerpro,” he said. “We already go to the food bank once a week.”
“If we were forced to pay this Enerpro bill, we’d have to move,” he added. “Where to, I have no idea, because there’s nothing out there cheaper than this.”
The City of Vancouver suspended the Enerpro bills for tenants in the affordable housing units when complaints were raised last spring. Residents received notification in October that billing for heat and hot water would resume in January if "technical issues" were resolved.
Bernstein said Pivot is collecting affidavits from tenants to determine what legal avenues they may have for the future. So far, they have gathered over 20 statements. In the meantime, Bernstein said they are urging the City of Vancouver to continue covering the Enerpro bills for the low-income tenants.
According to Bernstein, the residents were not aware when they moved in that they would receive a separate bill from Enerpro.
“Many of the people were very concerned about what their costs would be,” said Bernstein. “They were told repeatedly that these bills were going to be next to nothing, and this was touted as being net zero, environmentally sustainable...so based on these assurances, these residents entered into the tenancy agreement.”
Deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston said the bills for heat and hot water will continue to be held through to the end of December 2011, or "beyond if necessary”.
“Tenants have not had to make payments for their hot water or their heat during this time, while the systems continued to be assessed and tenant concerns are investigated, and any payments that were made prior to the payment freeze will be credited to the tenants,” he told the Straight by phone.
“We will not start billing until we have that assurance, and we expect that to be in the first quarter of 2012 for sure,” he said.
According to Johnston, residents did sign a standard tenancy agreement with building manager Coho Property Management when they moved in to the affordable housing units, indicating they would pay for utilities.
“If there was a lack of communication on that verbally, that is something that we remedy in the way that Coho speaks to tenants when they’re signing leases,” he said.
“It is unfortunate, and we do want to work with those tenants to make sure that they’re in a satisfactory housing situation, but we can’t subsidize their energy bills indefinitely."
Steven Roka, the vice-president of sales at Enerpro, said the company doesn’t set the utility rates but provides the billing for energy consumption.
He noted the company has been asked to check various metres in the 80 Walter Hardwick Avenue building, and that they were “all calibrated properly”.