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Mr. Sigurdson in his apartment. He has been on the waitlist for permanent BC Housing for seven years. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Mr. Sigurdson in his apartment. He has been on the waitlist for permanent BC Housing for seven years. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Vancouver rental crunch threatens to squeeze out vulnerable tenants Add to ...

Ron Sigurdson says his new landlord had informed him he’d have to move out of his West End apartment at the end of this month because of safety concerns.

Mr. Sigurdson, who lives on a pension, was informed that his unit wasn’t authorized to be lived in. Not wanting to make problems for the landlord, he agreed to sign a mutual agreement to end tenancy, he says. Mr. Sigurdson, who is 69, has lived in the 400-square-foot apartment for five years, and he does not want to leave. The unit has a low ceiling and no kitchen, but he’s outfitted it with a refrigerator, hot plate and toaster oven, which are all he needs, he says. He said he wasn’t told why it was considered unauthorized, even though tenants had lived there before him.

Last week, he discovered that his apartment is advertised on Craigslist. The photos show Mr. Sigurdson’s apartment, with his furniture in the pictures, as part of an advertisement to rent the suite for $1,500 a month. The minimum lease, it says, is for three months.

When he saw the ad, he requested that his owners, Plan A Real Estate Services, give him a letter in writing that explains why he’s been asked to leave. He received a letter that said, “As per our discussion in August 2016, you need to vacate 11B-1425 Haro Street as it is an unauthorized unit. The unit does not meet the required standards that make it safe to inhabit.”

Mr. Sigurdson says he feels foolish for signing the agreement to leave his apartment now that he knows the plan was to re-rent it for a higher amount. A self-described “fighter,” he went to the Residential Tenancy Board and applied for a dispute resolution hearing.

“This will be a slap on the wrist for this guy. I have no place to go,” says Mr. Sigurdson, who’s been on the waitlist for permanent BC Housing for seven years. “I’d be couch surfing or go to a shelter or something.”

Mr. Sigurdson has had to go to a homeless shelter before, due to a renoviction.

When reached by phone, Plan A owner Anoop Majithia said that Mr. Sigurdson wanted to vacate the apartment, to go live with his daughter.

“He said, ‘If I’m leaving, I should get something. I’ve been here a long time.’ We said, ‘okay, we can offer you one month rent-free. And then there has to be something signed.’ He was willing to sign this document.”

Mr. Sigurdson is on a month-to-month rental. When asked why Mr. Sigurdson would not have simply given one month’s notice instead, Mr. Majithia said that it was a strange situation.

“I know, but Ron is 70. And the whole interaction with Ron is very … strange.”

When asked why Mr. Sigurdson was given a letter that said he is required to leave the suite because it is unsafe, Mr. Majithia said a staff member of his had written the letter in error.

He said he was not aware that Mr. Sigurdson did not want to vacate the property.

“You are the first person to tell me that Ron does not want to leave.

But if Ron has changed his mind, and if Ron wants to come forward, the unit hasn’t been rented, I’d be happy to discuss that with him. I don’t have a problem with that. If Ron wants to stay, if he lets us know he wants to stay, I am happy to reinstate his tenancy today at the same rent.”

That’s good news for Mr. Sigurdson, because with a vacancy rate at less than one per cent, his options are few.

The province announced this week that it will spend half a billion dollars towards the creation of 2,900 subsidized rental units for Metro Vancouver. The pre-election announcement includes housing for seniors who can’t afford market rate rental.

Mr. Majithia says he sympathizes with tenants. However, he has costs, and he has every right to rent his apartments at market rate.

Mr. Majithia was in the news two years ago, involving his rental property at 1168 Pendrell St. Tenants won a series of disputes after jointly filing complaints against Plan A with the Residential Tenancy Branch. They fought evictions and other violations of the Residential Tenancy Act.

West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert held a press conference at the time, calling for new provincial legislation that fines landlords that break the rules in order to make a profit.

“Regulation is next to nothing, and enforcement of the rules is pretty non-existent, so it’s a bonanza,” Mr. Chandra Herbert said last week.

Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs also calls on provincial intervention to protect tenants.

“I think the Residential Tenancy Act is proving inadequate on a number of fronts,” he says.

It’s a time consuming process, fighting a landlord. Mr. Sigurdson says he spent two hours at the Residential Tenancy Branch in order to apply for the dispute resolution. He then had to return to pick up documents a few days later.

Another tenant, Isabelle Grue Lee, 28, says she and the other tenants have received several notices since the new landlord took over.

“He said he’s hired a private investigator to inform him of people who are smoking out front.”

Tenant Melissa Nielsen, 27, says they’d received notification that they’d be fined if they disposed of garbage improperly. A camera has been installed by the garbage cans.

They say tenants’ names have been removed from the directory at the front of the building, making it harder for people to buzz them.

Plan A also asked tenants to sign fixed-term leases with a vacate clause, giving the landlord authority to make them leave at the end of the term.

Mr. Majithia applied to the city to do a major renovation on the building. According to the city, the renovation has a cost of around $500,000. The permit is currently under review. Plan A has given tenants a letter that outlines a tenant relocation plan. It says renovations could begin in the next 12 months. If it happens, they will join the growing numbers of Vancouver renters to be “renovicted.”

Mr. Majithia responds that work needs to be done because the apartment sizes right now don’t make sense, what with the city’s need for more rental space.

“It’s an older building, and like a lot of older buildings, there is inefficient floor plans,” he says. “And we are making floor plans as efficient as possible. There [are] 900-square-feet one bedrooms so that could be used for example as two-bedroom units. We are reconfiguring it, modernizing it, in terms of improving the finishes, and making it so more people can stay there.”

Mr. Majithia says he is adding density to the area. A block away, at 1540 Haro St. is another Plan A building. It has a development sign out front for a slightly higher density building.

“I think that there’s a much larger problem and that is that there is not enough rental supply in Vancouver, in general … it’s worrisome.

“This displacement is something that’s a concern to all building owners, including myself, but not something that can be tackled by a property owner alone. It’s really the city of Vancouver that has to allow enough densification of the West End so there is enough supply of rental accommodations. If enough supply, the vacancy rate wouldn’t be what it is.”

Mr. Majithia says it is not his intention to displace anybody, but he can raise rents on apartments that become empty because that is simply what the market will bear.

“It’s no secret that there is a supply problem in the West End, and that’s what it comes down to. I can understand how building owners and developers can be vilified very easily but the truth is that I don’t think it’s right to say, you know what, if somebody owns a property that they should deliberately achieve returns below what the market is ready to pay.

“This building is designated as being a purpose-built rental, that’s the formal designation by the city of Vancouver and they are intended to be rented at market value. This is not social housing. I think it’s important that this distinction is clear.

“As a building owner, we spent a lot of money on the building. Our property taxes keep going up every year, our costs keep going up, it’s an older building. We have to pay our expenses. We are not doing anything wrong, advertising a unit at what somebody will pay for it.”

Critics argue that the city needs more tools to intervene when tenants are facing harassment because they’re getting in the way of redevelopment.

“There needs to be a law that the city has the authority to take into account the behaviour of the landlord when issuing a permit,” says NDP housing critic David Eby. “Because as soon as they get the permits, there’s very little to protect [tenants] from an eviction.”

Mr. Sigurdson appears to be safe for the moment. But the tenants are uneasy.

“At the end of day, you’re stressed out wondering if there’ll be another little ‘love letter’ on your door,” he says. “This is not a safe, secure place to live.”

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