Tenants in two city-owned Olympic Village buildings will continue to have their heat and hot water bills suspended, amid ongoing concerns from low-income residents about energy expenses they say are unaffordable.
Vancouver will extend its coverage of the heat and hot water costs for 80 and 122 Walter Hardwick Avenue until July 2012, deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston told the Straight.
The city has been covering the expenses since some tenants living in subsidized housing units in the buildings complained last spring about receiving costly bills from North Vancouver-based company Enerpro Energy Systems.
Johnston noted the city is extending their coverage of the bills to allow more time to monitor the heating systems in the buildings, which were designed to be "net-zero" energy-efficient complexes.
“The level of concern that we’ve heard from folks that are on fixed incomes, it seemed prudent to really make sure that we’re sure that the systems are working well and that we can track the bills for a number of months to make sure that folks can deal with it,” he said.
Johnston said new metres were recently installed to measure the heat going into the buildings.
“Our intention is to have the systems up and running so we can fully monitor them and monitor them for a couple of months, so it’ll probably take the first quarter or the next couple of months to get them all up and running in a way that we can actually track them with those new metres, and then have them running for a couple of months before we start billing them again,” he said.
Pam Burge, a resident in one of the affordable housing units at 80 Walter Hardwick Avenue, said despite the extension, she’s still concerned that she will be forced to move once the billing resumes. She and other low-income residents maintain they weren't warned they would be getting separate monthly bills from Enerpro.
“It just prolongs the agony,” she told the Straight by phone. “It’s not a very nice feeling given the housing market in Vancouver to be just kept hanging, and that’s how it feels, and the longer it goes on the more stressful it is.”
A group of residents recently held a press conference outside of 80 Walter Hardwick Avenue to detail their concerns about the bills they received last spring, and to urge the city to permanently cover the energy charges for low-income tenants.One couple indicated they were billed $148 for the period of about a month last spring. The charge has since been deferred by the city.
Scott Bernstein, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, is collecting affidavits from about 20 tenants to form a legal opinion and determine potential legal steps.
Bernstein said while the extension of the city’s coverage of the Enerpro costs is positive, he claimed the residents are still left hanging.
“I think it’s good that they have another window where the city can figure out what’s going on in order to deal with the situation, but it would also be nice to have a little certainty,” he told the Straight by phone. “It’s stressful not knowing if these bills are going to show up in the future.”
The city maintains that the tenancy agreements that residents signed clearly indicated that water, heat and electricity would not be included in their rent.
But Bernstein said the residents he has collected statements from were not advised that they would be receiving bills from both B.C. Hydro and Enerpro.
“We think it’s a bit disingenuous for the city to just rely on the fact that in a quite extensive tenancy agreement, there’s a checkbox that says heat’s not covered,” he said.
“It’s such a unique system, you can’t really expect the tenants to understand that there’s going to be this system set in place that’s going to bill them separately without telling them that.”
The city's extended coverage of the energy costs follows an ongoing dispute over the issue.
Residents in the two buildings were informed in a notice last summer that the city would cover the tenants' energy costs from June until the end of August. In an October notice, tenants were told that the billing would be suspended until the end of December, or until technical issues were resolved.