Tenants win fight against BC Housing: Government cancels eviction notices at Little Mountain

Today the pending eviction of the remaining four households at Little Mountain Housing was officially cancelled. As stated in a press release signed jointly by BC Housing, the City of Vancouver and Holborn Properties, 50 of the planned 234 units of social housing will now be built on the site prior to any rezoning process. This change of plans, after a protracted fight with tenants and organizers, includes the guarantee that the tenants currently living in the four remaining households will be allowed to stay in their current units and move directly into the new housing when it is built.

This announcement closely reflects the tenants’ demands in a campaign that has been escalating since the serving of two-month eviction notices on July 27th, 2012. Tenants, joined by the Vancouver Renters’ Union, neighbors, filmmaker David Vaisbord, as well as members of COPE (Coalition of Progressive Electors), joined together to carry forward the struggle initially waged by CALM in 2009.

Tactics by tenants and organizers in recent months have included a planned rally at the eviction hearing on October 29th, a petition with hundreds of signatures, presentations to city council, a press rally in September, and a September-October film tour hosted by the Renters’ Union with David Vaisbord. More important than these events, however, has been the basic refusal of the tenants to leave their housing.

When hearing the news this morning, long-time resident Ingrid Steenhuisen said that it has not been easy to fight against the eviction. Steenhuisen expressed relief at the victory: “how was I going to do all the things I need to do, to resettle, to manage my health?” She also expressed frustration that the process had taken so long, and that she and the other tenants have been put through such high levels of stress in their struggle.

Last month the tenants appealed the eviction notice to the Residential Tenancy Branch, arguing that they should be allowed to “stay on site until a redevelopment plan is in place and the new housing is built.” Steenhuisen told supporters at a rally, “There’s nothing wrong with the building. We were told that this latest eviction was served because of the time frame of starting construction early next year. As we know from being active in the meetings, there’s a minimum ten to twelve months before the rezoning, and a minimum six months for the enactment.”

A tenancy branch hearing was scheduled for September 18, 2012. There Dale McMann of BC Housing insisted that the tenants needed to be evicted by the end of November at the very latest — in order to satisfy BC Housing’s agreement with the developer Holborn. However, the tenants and their representative at the hearing, David Chudnovsky (former MLA and current COPE Executive member), refused to accept these terms. In the absence of a settlement, a second hearing was organized for Monday October 29, 2012.

The tenants and their allies did not sit back and wait, however. With the October 29th hearing looming, tenants and the Vancouver Renters’ Union began preparations for a large support rally at the Tenancy Branch office.

To get the tenants’ message out to the broader public, filmmaker David Vaisbord of the Little Mountain Project joined forces with the Renters’ Union, combining film and activism. First, they completed Vaisbord’s short film The Eviction of Sammy and Joan, about two blind tenants and their struggle to stay in their home at Little Mountain. They then took the film on the road, organizing screenings and speakers panels at UBC with Cinema Politica, the Purple Thistle, Spartacus Books, Emily Carr (tonight Thursday October 25th), and finally Little Mountain Gallery (tomorrow Friday October 26th). A media blitz this week, landing articles in the Province and Sun, also increased pressure on the government.

When City Hall released its Housing Affordability report on October 3rd, the film was played directly for City Council. Steenhuisen was also there. “I looked the Mayor in the eye and said ‘If you really want to protect remaining affordable housing stock, then you need to start by protecting this building.'” Finally, at the bequest of tenants, former City planner Nathan Edelson wrote a letter to the Mayor, Council, and City staff, imploring them to heed the tenants’ demands.

Looking back on the large-scale evictions at Little Mountain in 2009, Steenhuisen said, “I remember seeing a placard that I liked on our march down to 25th ave and back which read ‘eliminate fear and uncertainty’. That’s what it was like — lives of the tenants were enshrouded completely in fear and uncertainty. The authorities painted a picture that was bleak and vague.” If today she is feeling less ‘fear and uncertainty’, it is only because of the courageous fight the tenants waged for justice. Credit for this victory belongs not to provincial and municipal governments — who have been slow and intransigent at best and reckless at worst — but to those who have been working tirelessly to protect Little Mountain Housing over the years: activists, allies, and tenants. The true victory belongs to the tenants themselves, who, in a time of eviction, gentrification and displacement, are a model for us all.