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Burnaby's low-income residents face evictions amid development boom

Martin Lenin Fernandez’s property manager has stopped by again to make sure that he and his family are out of their apartment by the end of the month.

I’ve come by to interview Mr. Fernandez, and the property manager, who’s all business, has shown up at the same time.

Mr. Fernandez pulls notes from his backpack to show his landlord that he’s been looking in vain for an affordable apartment.

With a vacancy rate of less than 1 per cent, he’s up against fierce competition for units that are renting for around $1,400 to $1,800 a month.

Mr. Fernandez makes $2,500 to $3,000 a month as a tiler and granite installer. He is currently on disability due to surgery for a hernia.

Martin Fernandez and his sons Isaias, 6, left, and Samuel, 5, stand in the hallway of their apartment building. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

“I don’t want you to think I’m not looking,” Mr. Fernandez tells the property manager. “But it’s been a bit of a problem.”

Amacon Developments took over management of the three-storey building at 5025 Imperial St. when they bought it a year ago, with plans to redevelop.

This spring, the tenants were given eviction notices, and most have already moved out of the building. There is a pile of discarded books by the front entrance. The building feels empty. The developer needs the remaining 10 tenants out by June 30, so they can keep on schedule with plans to launch presales for a 26-storey condo tower.

The developer also purchased nearby 6729 and 6789 Marlborough Ave., and tenants in those buildings have also received eviction notices.

All around Mr. Fernandez’s apartment block are buildings under construction or “Coming Soon.”

Developers are lured by Burnaby, B.C.’s development process, which, compared with Vancouver’s, is a streamlined one. And while the displacement of hundreds of low-income people has generated some community pushback, critics say the city has not taken meaningful steps to protect its most vulnerable citizenry.

In fact, the City of Burnaby is looking at officially rezoning the entire Metrotown area for buildings of 12 storeys and taller – a plan that goes to council in August and could displace hundreds more. Public consultation is under way.

Inside his cluttered apartment, Mr. Fernandez tells me it’s the third or fourth time the manager has come by to ensure they’ll be out. He needs a large one-bedroom or small two-bedroom apartment that he will share with his mother and two sons, ages five and six. He does not own a car, so he’d prefer to be near transit, schools and shopping, as he is now.

Mr. Fernandez has been living at the three-storey building on Imperial Street for eight years. He pays $725 a month for the one bedroom, plus utilities.

His mother, who also came to Canada years ago as a refugee from Nicaragua, sits at the kitchen table. She has a bad cough, and he believes it is the result of a bathroom leak and possible mould.

Mr. Fernandez and his family have until the end of the month to vacate their apartment. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

The only other resident remaining on their floor is a woman in her 90s, who’s in frail health, Mr. Fernandez says. A few days ago, a war veteran moved out of his apartment and in with a friend.

Burnaby has the second-biggest rental market in the region, with one-third of its housing stock used for rental.

People such as Mr. Fernandez are wondering: Why would council consider a plan to rezone the area for more development when so many people are being displaced?

Councillor Colleen Jordan, who’s in charge of housing, did not return my calls. On Wednesday, I was told that Mayor Derek Corrigan was not available for an interview.

Mr. Corrigan has argued that the buildings are at the end of their life span. He’s also blamed the provincial and federal governments for not providing more social housing. And he’s cited the city’s growth.

Growth is the oft-used rationale for rezoning. It’s forecasted 125,000 more people will move into Burnaby within the next two decades. More supply, the argument goes, will solve the affordability crisis. But from the viewpoint of those at the low end of the pay scale, it is exacerbating it.

There is a segment of the population that is paying dearly for the money-making machine that is Vancouver’s real estate market.

University of British Columbia academics Craig Jones and David Ley released an article in the spring edition of The Canadian Geographer about Burnaby’s rampant demolitions along the SkyTrain corridor, causing the displacement of low-income workers, many of them immigrants and refugees.

Because transit-oriented development is a policy embraced by many as the panacea for affordability, those older apartment blocks are now seen as acceptable targets for gentrification.

For example, in 2011, Burnaby introduced “S” zoning around its SkyTrain stations to target low-rise rental housing. The new zoning opened the doors for developers to negotiate for maximum density – in exchange for amenity contributions to the community, or cash in lieu, or non-market housing. That one move changed everything, according to Mr. Jones.

In the decade prior to “S” zoning, there had only been 50 apartment units demolished. Following the zoning change, between 2012 and 2014, demolitions rose to about 300 units, and they are rising each year.

Mr. Jones has followed the Burnaby situation closely. He says the “S” zoning basically doubled Metrotown’s redevelopment potential, which was the rocket fuel for land prices.

Mr. Fernandez, who is currently on disability, has been struggling to find affordable housing. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

“One of the things I have found frustrating about Burnaby’s response to criticism is that Colleen Jordan is on record saying the city can’t say ‘no’ to demolitions under the existing zoning. And Mayor Corrigan also says land around transit stations is very valuable and landlords realize this, and they want to sell. But all of that is ignoring the fact that in 2011, through ‘S’ zoning, they fundamentally changed the nature of the land market in Metrotown.

“They created the conditions to which they are now saying they are helpless to do anything about.”

A non-profit housing group argues that Burnaby could, at the very least, implement Vancouver-style policies to replace its rental stock.

A group called Stop Demovictions In Burnaby Campaign released a report last month called A Community Under Attack. It says the 234 units demolished on Mr. Fernandez’s block represent about one-third of total units to be demolished in Metrotown. If we assume an average of two people per unit, that totals a potential 1,400 people looking at eviction. But that’s just the start, they say, especially if council approves the update to rezone the entire area for mid-rise development.

Housing activist Ivan Drury says the “demovictions” are driving a form of homelessness, which is the growing group of displaced people that is sleeping on the couches of friends and family. Those who are depending on others this way often over-stay their welcome and eventually turn to shelters. Burnaby doesn’t have a permanent shelter.

“We’re asking for them to just refuse to consider rezonings for density bonuses on any rental residential property until there is a community planning process that will plan development, without displacing the existing community,” Mr. Drury says.

Another argument for redevelopment has been the old buildings are not safe, which in some cases is true. There have been fires. Maintaining the old buildings has not been a priority.

Mr. Fernandez’s walls need a coat of paint and the carpets cleaning. But the apartment is a five-minute walk to the SkyTrain and within walking distance of shops – a major benefit when you’re pulling in $2,500 to $3,000 a month for a family of four. Mr. Fernandez’s mother brings in about $1,300 with her pension. The family has had to rely occasionally on the Food Bank for help.

Mr. Fernandez, who is collecting disability, says he will be back at work again soon.

“Then I won’t feel bad getting this allowance because I will be working and contributing to Canadian society and I will feel good and give my two sons an example,” says Mr. Fernandez, who dropped out of school due to his former country’s political strife. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mr. Fernandez, who fled Nicaragua's political strife, encourages his sons to work in school so they can become professionals, such as a doctor or lawyer. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

“I tell my sons every day, ‘Go to school, learn English, because I don’t want you to experience what I am experiencing. I want you to become somebody in this country. I want you to become professionals, lawyers, doctors.’”

His mother interjects: “They have a dream. They say, ‘Oh grandma, when I am big, I will be a builder.’ I said, ‘You have to study first. After that, you have to work. They say to me, ‘I want a car.’ I say, ‘You have to study and work first.’”

Mr. Fernandez considered applying for one of BC Housing’s social-housing units, but he was told the wait is long. Mr. Drury says there are around 10,000 people on the list for housing. He is helping Mr. Fernandez apply for a rental subsidy program, which could reduce his rent by around $200 or $300.

With the increased evictions, more people are seeking rental assistance. And that means the taxpayer is subsidizing housing for people that have been displaced by development.

“In my opinion, this is a complete disaster because government pours money into landlord pockets and we end up with nothing out of it,” Mr. Drury says. “That money goes into landlord pockets and there is no public good coming out of it. Purpose-built social housing is a long term investment.”

Acting director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program Andy Yan says the displacements speak to us as a society.

“Those who’ve counted on the Canadian dream of economic and social mobility are now at risk of experiencing a housing nightmare.

“In a society built upon immigrants, if they are stuck at the bottom rung, what does that mean for our future? Housing and access to transit plays a huge part in that.”

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