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Ian Martin in his rental apartment in Vancouver on July 20, 2017.BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

Renters who are facing eviction should think twice before signing agreements to vacate, say the former tenants of an east side apartment block.

Ian Martin says last year the property manager of his three-storey walk-up at 2065 Triumph St., Vancouver, told him that the new owners had plans to redevelop the property and that he should take an offer to vacate his 800-square-foot unit. The new owners never said anything about redevelopment, but Mr. Martin and several other tenants quickly believed they would soon be without a home.

Mr. Martin had lived in the one-bedroom unit for more than three years and was paying below market rent, at $1,100. He wanted to stay in a neighbourhood close to his work at a printing shop. After some back and forth with the new owners, he negotiated for three months rent as compensation and was given three months notice, to vacate by May, 2018, he says. He signed a mutual agreement to end the tenancy. Through friends, he was able to find a 300-square-foot co-op studio unit nearby and he moved into it a month earlier.

He never felt any pressure to sign the agreement, he says. He just wanted to ensure he got proper compensation for having to leave.

“Everybody was working on the same basis that the building was going to be torn down and probably have extra stories added to it, or townhomes, something like that. If I owned the place, that’s what I would do because density is the way to go. And the only way to do that is putting more suites on the property.”

But some time in the fall he ran across a Craigslist ad and saw his old apartment for rent.

“They had replaced the cabinetry in the kitchen, the appliances, slapped some paint on the walls. It had gone from $1,100 a month to $1,850.”

There is now a website for the Grandview-Woodland apartment block, featuring one bedrooms for $1,850 and “residences designed to make the everyday extraordinary.”

Mr. Martin was one of 10 tenants in the 15-unit building to vacate within a few months. Two of the units were already empty. A couple of tenants declined to sign an agreement and they remain in the building.

Shira Malamud left the building because she too believed it was going to be demolished.

“The property manager e-mailed me and said someone had bought the building, then he called and said, ‘They are going to demolish the building, that it was bought by a big development company, and basically saying we don’t have a chance, we should find a place. We would get two months compensation,’ and that was basically that,” she says.

The former property manager declined to comment.

Ms. Malamud and her partner decided to leave because they didn’t want to deal with a new owner. She says she received two months compensation and they now live in the West End where they pay $300 more in rent. She says she’s happy in her new home, but she wasn’t expecting the extra expense.

“The only thing I regret is not talking to enough neighbours before it happened,” she says. “And maybe doing it so fast.”

Businessman Andrew Collins works with the owner of the building, registered as 2065 Triumph Street Ltd. A title search shows the address for that company is registered to Chris Evans, executive vice-president for Vancouver-based real estate developer Onni Group. When contacted, Mr. Evans said he does not have “day-to-day involvement” in the building, and could not comment.

Mr. Collins said that there was “significant deferred maintenance” on the 45-year-old building, including plumbing and roof repair, corridor upgrades and exterior clean up.

“Given the substantial work that needed to be completed, each tenant was offered the opportunity to accept and sign a voluntary, mutual agreement to terminate their existing lease, which included a competitive buy-out,” he said in a text message. “No tenant was sent an eviction notice and tenants were welcome to stay and remain in their existing lease.

“Some tenants chose to remain in the building and are still tenants today.”

Mr. Collins did not address claims that the tenants had been told the building would be demolished. And Andrew Sakamoto, executive director of the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre (TRAC) says it’s a moot point anyway. If a landlord says he plans to demolish the building and the tenant signs an agreement to end the lease and leave, there’s no recourse if the landlord does a reno instead, Mr. Sakamoto says.

“Because they ended their tenancy that way as opposed to an official eviction notice, there’s nothing in the law that says the landlord has to follow through with demolishing the units,” he says.

It’s different if they force the landlord to evict them, which means they can go to arbitration, he says. But a lot of tenants would rather not take it that far, which means they are often in the position of quickly taking offers instead.

“They could have forced the landlord to issue an official notice, which would have given them the chance to dispute it through the Residential Tenancy Branch and the landlord would have to show the arbitrator that they obtained permits and prove they were going to demolish,” says Mr. Sakamoto, who did not know the details of the Triumph building situation and hadn’t spoken with tenants.

Once they sign, however, “they forfeit the compensation they are entitled to.”

Tenants do have new rights, although not as many as some advocates had hoped. As of May 17, 2018, the laws for eviction due to renovation, demolition or conversion allow the tenant four months notice and one month’s rent as compensation. The tenant then has 30 days to dispute the eviction notice. As well, if the tenant lives in the city of Vancouver, they might be eligible for the tenant relocation plan (TRP).

The TRP kicks in if the owner applies for a development permit on a purpose-built rental building that is more than six units. Renters who’ve been in the building for at least a year are given between two and six months rent, depending on the length of rental. They also qualify for moving expenses and help from the landlord in finding a place to rent, if they ask. They might also qualify for the chance to return to the redeveloped building, at a minimum discount of 20 per cent off the new rent.

But a landlord is fully within their rights to offer tenants buy-outs to get them to vacate, Mr. Sakamoto says. And if a tenant can get better compensation, it might be in their interests to negotiate for more, he says.

“It is legal for a landlord to try to negotiate with a tenant in order to get them to leave – that’s a totally legal approach to take as a landlord,” Mr. Sakamoto says. “We’ve heard stories of landlords who are so desperate to get people out they offer upwards of $20,000. I’m a renter. If someone offered me $20,000, I would probably take that.”

He understands why tenants might opt for the agreement to leave rather than push for an eviction. A lot of tenants might feel pressure to sign an agreement to leave if the offer is better than the one-month rent they’re entitled to, he says. They might worry that they would lose at arbitration, which can be a stressful process.

Mr. Sakamoto says he did not represent the tenants at the Triumph building. But he knows of other cases where the mutual agreement to end tenancy form is abused. What he hates seeing, he says, is when vulnerable tenants, such as elderly people, or people whose first language is not English, sign agreements without realizing that they are entitled to compensation. The document is a Residential Tenancy Branch form, but it doesn’t make it clear what the tenant is entitled to.

“There’s a danger in the form,” says Mr. Sakamoto, which is why his organization is appealing to the province to include a tenant’s rights to compensation, on the form itself.

Part of the problem is that tenants who aren’t aware of the law often don’t hit pause to consider their options, says Liam McClure, tenant advocate for the Vancouver Tenants Union (VTU). It might be worth it to stick around and get an eviction notice that would enable them to challenge the landlord.

Also, Mr. McClure says the offers are inadequate when you consider what the tenant is giving up. He cites San Francisco’s regulation of buyout agreements between landlords and tenants. Landlords must file a notification form to the Rent Board before beginning negotiations, and all agreements are posted in a public database, including the amounts. Tenant identities are protected. The database shows compensations in the tens of thousands of dollars and some six-figure buyouts.

“People here aren’t getting a very good deal,” says Mr. McClure, who is an articling student. “We don’t discourage people from taking buyouts, but we often ask them to consider carefully what the consequences will be. In San Francisco, buyouts aren’t occurring in the grey zone like they are here. People have been paid around $100,000 to be bought out, and if you think about it, that’s the real value, if you expect to live somewhere the rest of your life.”

He advises that when approached by a landlord or their representative to sign an agreement that tenants ask for everything in writing, and say they will need time to think about the offer. Then they should consult a tenant advocacy group like the VTU or TRAC.

“Organizing your building and speaking with neighbours and keeping a line of communication open is very important to keep individual people from being taken advantage of,” Mr. McClure says.

As well, when mobilized as a group, there’s less intimidation. Speak to your neighbours, he says.

Mr. Sakamoto concurs. TRAC represents groups at arbitration.

“If you have an entire building that’s received an illegal rent increase or renoviction notice, those are the types of cases we take on,” he says.

Mr. Martin is of two minds about his new home. It’s new, and it’s secure housing, with shared outdoor space. But he says he would have stayed in his old place if he’d known that it was going to undergo a renovation.

Tenants are in a tough place when faced with these agreements to vacate. He says even having an eviction to one’s name can feel stigmatizing, which is why some will just accept a deal. He’d like to see more protections in place to help them with that choice.

“Moving is the most stressful and calamitous thing a human can do. It’s work and emotional effort,” Mr. Martin says. “So the idea of standing firm and fighting this amorphous well-funded faceless entity that is the landlord – gosh how do you even start working out what to do first, never mind what is involved?

“It’s a daunting task. I don’t blame people for shrugging and taking what they get and walking away.”