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Vancouver renters being squeezed out by landlords’ ‘renovictions’

Renter Daryl Morgan sits outside one of the many homes he has been evicted from in Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Daryl Morgan has been a renter in Kitsilano for 40 years. In the past 10 years, he has been evicted five times.

The 64-year-old was served his most recent eviction notice because the landlord plans to redevelop his small, nine-unit apartment building at 1969 Waterloo Street.

Mr. Morgan, who's taken two previous landlords to arbitration, doesn't want the stress of another battle, so he's already found a small basement apartment to rent. He's packing up his books and getting ready for yet another move.

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"Arbitration takes energy," he says. "It's something I don't like going through. It's stressful, living like this," he says of his many moves.

The landlord's plan is to increase the number of apartment units from nine to 17. Only Mr. Morgan and one other tenant remain in the building. The other tenant is fighting the eviction on the grounds the landlord evicted them without building permits in hand, which is required by the Residential Tenancy Act. Mr. Morgan says the landlord had been upfront with him when he moved in three years ago, so he knew that eviction was a possibility.

It used to be that you were evicted for being a bad tenant. Today, you're more likely to be evicted because you're in the way of someone maximizing their profit. Evictions have become a common scenario in Vancouver, where owners are either no longer interested in renting or they want to remove existing tenants to increase rents.

With the near-zero vacancy rate, landlords can double or triple the rents in many cases. Basement suites are also disappearing as wealthy investors snap up homes to redevelop them into bigger homes for bigger profits. In the days when a house on the west side cost less than $2-million, a buyer relied on a secondary suite as mortgage income. Today's buyer doesn't need a mortgage helper.

While so much fuss is made about an average house price of $2.23-million, and growing homeowner equity, the story that gets overlooked is the low-income renter who's simply struggling to stay in their community. People who've managed for lifetimes are now unable to find affordable housing, and when they do, it doesn't last.

"It's a story that isn't being told, and the impact it's having on people like myself is extraordinary," says Mr. Morgan.

If today's wealthy buyer does rent out a house, it's to capitalize on it while they await development permits, says MLA David Eby, who's seen a spike in evictions in his Point Grey constituency. But a lot of those landlords are offering only a fixed-term lease, which means that after a year, the tenant will likely be facing a major rent hike or have to move. The fixed-term lease is increasingly being used instead of the month-to-month rental, which makes it harder to remove a tenant. And because tenants are so desperate, they are agreeing to fixed-term leases.

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"I'm seeing it in investor-held, single-family homes, where the overseas buyer is renting out homes on a fixed-term basis to families," says Mr. Eby. "That's where I'm seeing it, and it's a serious issue.

"The problem with a vacancy rate of less than 1 per cent is the tenants have no bargaining power and it gives landlords many opportunities to abuse the system. In this environment, you don't get to say, 'I don't want to sign this fixed-term lease.' The landlord will say, 'Tough luck. I'll rent it to the people in line behind you.'"

In semi-retirement, Mr. Morgan now works part-time, on call, in a mental health group home on the North Shore. He is also a musician who plays with his band at local legions. As a back-up plan for his future, he has applied for low-income housing, in case his days of chasing rental accommodation no longer pan out.

"After this many years and at my age, I now have my name in at BC Housing, and there is a five-year waiting list," he says, referring to government-assisted housing. "When I told them, 'I'm living on a minimal amount of money and I'm being evicted,' they said, 'You'd better be prepared to go to a shelter. An awful lot of people are in your situation.'

"I am not unique. I personally know of five other people who've just been evicted."

Lawyer Joshua Prowse, who works for Community Legal Assistance Society, says month over month for the last year, applications for dispute resolutions have increased. Ironically, Mr. Prowse and his roommates are also facing eviction from their east side home, which was recently sold. The new owners want the house for their own use, which is a legitimate reason for evicting tenants. Landlords can also evict a tenant if they want the space for a close family member, or to do a major renovation. But they are required to give the tenant two months notice as well as one month's free rent. The tenant also has the right to vacate early, and still be compensated, he says.

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And if a tenant moves out and discovers the landlord did not do any renovations – a common occurrence – they can apply to the branch to receive two months worth of rent for their trouble.

"It's intended as a penalty to try to deter landlords from breaking the law," says Mr. Prowse.

A "renoviction" is when a landlord uses a renovation as an excuse to evict tenants. But the renovation has to be major enough to require the tenant to move out.

A woman who did not want her name used said she moved out of her west side apartment when the new owner claimed he needed to do major renovations on the whole building. She was given the option of moving back afterward, but her rent would have gone from $1,900 to $3,000. Only two of the tenants fought the eviction. They won and are still living in the building.

Most people, however, don't want to go through an exhaustive battle.

"One by one, the new owner put notices on people's doors and evicted everybody – it was awful. The stress was just terrible. We had all been there for over 10 years."

About a year and a half after Darcey Diehl and her husband had settled into their Kitsilano duplex with their three kids, their landlady evicted them because she said she wanted to gut the place. Ms. Diehl and her husband offered to move out for the summer, but the landlady insisted they'd have to go. She gave them the required two months notice, and they found another place nearby that cost a lot more money on a one-year fixed-term lease.

A couple of months after they moved out, they learned that their former landlady had not done significant renovations. Instead, she'd jacked up the rent by $1,050.

"There was an opportunity to get rid of us and make a ton of money, and they did," says Ms. Diehl.

Another byproduct of the rental crisis is that people are living in subpar living conditions. Mr. Morgan says his last landlord had hooked up his washing machine so the water emptied into Mr. Morgan's kitchen sink.

"I would be making a salad, and this filthy black water would rise up in my sink. There are some places out there that you wouldn't let your dog live in. Everyone knows how difficult it is, so you just put up with it."

Sarah Richardson, 39, is living on disability and was evicted from her comfortable apartment when the elderly owners sold the house. She was given two weeks notice and a settlement that had been negotiated with the help of the real estate agent. Today, she's living in a 250-square-foot, one-bedroom basement suite in Kitsilano. The flooring is thin carpet over concrete and her bathroom countertop is bare plywood. The space lacks proper heating and it smells like mould.

"It should be condemned. It's uninhabitable," she says. "Honestly, I've looked for affordable places to live [in] from Balaclava to Commercial Drive. This is all I could get on disability."

As for Mr. Morgan, he considers himself lucky, for now. His new place is a one-room basement suite in a house for $900, and he's grateful it includes WiFi, heat and hot water. He's managed to stay in Kitsilano. But with property values the way they are, he's worried his new home may also be a temporary stop.

"I'm hoping and praying that these people aren't planning on selling, but you just don't know what will happen in two or three years. There are real estate agents constantly knocking on the doors, offering [homeowners] $3-million.

"I'm just collateral damage here."

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About the Author
Real estate writer

Kerry Gold is a born and bred Vancouverite, and knows her city well. More

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