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Residents and supporters gather at 1177 E 14th Ave., in Vancouver, on Feb. 11.James Lloyd/James Lloyd

Tensions between tenants and landlords could worsen if robust regulations aren’t introduced as the push for density continues, say housing experts and advocates. B.C.’s moves to boost density around transit hubs and throughout so-called single-family zoned areas of the province must be introduced in tandem with better tenant protections, heard a panel at the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) last week.

Those protections are just not there, and with all the redevelopment under way in the next couple of decades, displacement will increasingly become a fact of life for many Lower Mainland renters, in particular.

In Vancouver, the city has policies to advance density along the Broadway corridor, north to 1st Avenue and as far south as 16th Avenue, bordered by Clark Drive to the east and Vine Street to the west. That 500-block area contains one-quarter of the city’s rental stock, the majority of which is more than 50 years old. Within that area is a seven-unit, three-storey structure built more than 100 years ago, on a 50-foot residential lot that is about a 15-minute walk to the Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain station.

For the past few months, there’s been a battle under way between the nine residents of the apartment building at 1177 E. 14th Ave., and the new landlord, who has plans to convert their building into four strata units. The residents have formed as “the 1177 Tenants Collective,” and acquired more than 500 signatures on a petition to save their rental homes. They recently created a mock version of the familiar city rezoning application sign, but theirs said, Save Our Homes and featured a large illustration of the tenants. They plastered posters throughout the neighbourhood and unveiled the sign at a ceremony a couple of weeks ago, with about 60 people in attendance. Later, they received an e-mail from the property manager asking them to remove the sign. Shortly thereafter, someone tore the sign down.

Another e-mail from the property manager stated that the owner could either renovate, demolish, or take over the building for personal use and they could face a two month eviction notice and only a month’s compensation, without the compensation owed to them under the city’s tenant relocation and protection policy.

“If I were in your position, I would, for example, be determining what the market rents are for your suites and offer the owner to raise rents rather than redeveloping this site,” said the e-mail. “With each week that passes and your attempts to derail the project, I feel that the owner is less likely to consider any other option and will simply continue with his plans.”

The tenants forwarded the e-mail to the city, who informed them that the landlord was obligated to follow the requirements of the tenant relocation and protection policy. The city also informed them that landlord Andrzej Kowalski filed an application in January for a development permit.

“After careful review, we have determined that the proposed renovation application can comply with the city’s zoning and development bylaw and building bylaw,” wrote Gurv Brar, senior manager of business services and strategic compliance. “Additionally, rental to strata conversions are allowed under the Strata Property Act, provided that a tenant relocation plan is completed. As such, we are legally obligated to process the application and issue the necessary development and building permit.”

The city did not mention its own guideline, that at least two-thirds of households occupying the building must give written consent.

Once the landlord has received a permit to renovate, he can serve the tenants with eviction notices. Under the tenant relocation and protection policy, which is enhanced for the Broadway Plan area, the landlord must provide financial compensation and assist with finding alternate homes. Some tenants evicted from other buildings have claimed that the relocation process is followed loosely and landlords often simply refer them to Craigslist ads. Even if they can find homes in the area, they end up paying much higher rents.

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A sign unveiled by the '1177 Tenants Collective.' The residents say their rental homes are under threat from redevelopment.Autumn Dickinson/Autumn Dickinson

If the landlord were building replacement rental units and the tenants were interested in moving back in, he’d have to offer them temporary rent top-up on alternate accommodation and right of first refusal on the new units, at below market rates. But at 1177 E. 14th Ave., their affordable rental units are being replaced by condo units.

Their predicament is just the sort of situation that the city and the province need to address if communities are to be protected, says Syd Ball, a tenant advocate for the grassroots organization Vancouver Tenants Union. Ms. Ball, who works for the Mount Pleasant division, is working with the tenants collective to help them fight the redevelopment.

“The provincial government has been launching plans and brushing off tenant protections as something that’s a city jurisdiction. And when I hear that, what I hear is, the lives of working-class tenants in this city are going to be sacrificed for your plans,” Ms. Ball says.

As for the city’s tenant protections for the Broadway Plan, she believes that rules such as the tenants having the option to return to the new building at an affordable rent will likely not happen.

“I’m very skeptical of city tenant protections taking place or having any teeth, or the city enforcing them,” Ms. Ball says.

When it comes to 1177 E. 14th, the city appears to be ignoring its own policy, she says. The strata conversion guidelines require the consent of two-thirds of all residents to move forward with the conversion of a building, if more than six units. In that case, the application must go before city council.

But there appears to be a loophole: if evicted before conversion to a strata, the owner does not have to comply with guidelines for two-thirds consent, says Ms. Ball. By the time the building is renovated, it will be reduced to only four units.

The group is also concerned that the conversion will set a precedent for renters.

After condos became a legal entity in the early 1970s, so many rental apartments were being converted to condos that city policy was enacted to protect rentals. For many years, conversions were non-existent, says real estate lawyer Ron Usher.

The building at 1177 E. 14th. which is, ironically, an existing example of the multiplex style housing the province and city support, is a test case for tenant protections. It’s also potentially precedent-setting because – although nobody keeps track – there are likely hundreds of these small, older, nonconforming apartment buildings in low-density zones throughout the city that offer affordable rental but are not protected as proper purpose-built rentals. If the city allows one conversion, others are certain to follow.

“We are asking the city to make it clear to us and the landlord that the strata conversion policy will be applied in full in this situation, and we are asking them to use legal tools now at this stage to make it binding in the future,” says tenant Autumn Dickinson.

“It’s pretty common for the city to issue a permit with conditions attached, and one of our asks to the city has been, is it possible to attach a condition to the development permit that says you must go through these strata conversion guidelines?” said Mx. Dickinson.

So far, they haven’t had a response.

The landlord declined to comment because the city is working through the application process.

Instead of tightening renter protections, the city has defunded the renters’ office, which had overseen the protection process for renters.

At the UBCM housing summit, Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog pointed out that 47 per cent of their housing needs are for residents who can’t afford the rates of the private market. He said there is a need for a more efficient and effective residential tenancy branch so that good tenants and good landlords “can get access to really speedy justice.”

Andy Yan, director for Simon Fraser University’s City Program, said the province should have included a tenant protection plan in its legislation sooner rather than later.

“The first buildings to be redeveloped are not going to be the mansions of Shaughnessy or the west side – it’s going to be on the east side, the same population you are desperately trying to house,” said Prof. Yan.

“With the best policy intentions around multiplexes by both the province and city, what’s happening to these tenants threatens to mutate from one story of displacement to a viral, ongoing cautionary tale about the unintended consequences for housing policy here in B.C.”

He said instead of leaving tenants at the “mercy of the market,” we need robust tenant protections and data, and redevelopment strategies at both levels of government.

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