On Monday, March 19, current and former tenants of Richard Watson Court, 577 East 8th Avenue, gathered for a press conference on the sidewalk outside their building. Of the approximately 50 people who lived in the building last year, only four remain.
When Richard Watson Court was built in 1983, all of its 39 suites were constructed with accessibility in mind, and 9 were specifically designed for wheelchair and scooter use: lower-set stoves and sinks, wheel-in showers, and five-walled bedrooms, allowing for easier movement around a bed. The property’s mortgage was held by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation until 2006, when it was transferred to BC Housing; up until that transfer, the building was managed by the Voice of the Cerebral Palsied. According to Tristan Markle of the Vancouver Renters’ Union, the building was then neglected under BC Housing’s management. Before the building was sold to a private developer in November 2011, the balconies were rotted and tenants were ordered to stay clear of them.
Holding a placard that reads “I’ve lived in Mount Pleasant for 39 years, don’t force me to move,” current tenant Sharon Mahoney details her search for accessible, pet-friendly housing in Vancouver. Sharon, who uses a scooter and has a dog, has looked at 10 or 12 apartments in the area; she asserts that a man hired by BC Housing to help residents of Richard Watson find new homes provided her with one potential lead. In the end the lead proved unsuitable and inaccessible. “It only had three steps to go down,” Mahoney said, describing the foyer of the building, “but I couldn’t get down the steps.”
Peggy Wilson, another current tenant, says that those who remain at Richard Watson court receive regular calls from the property manager. “They tell us it’s time to move, that we have to move,” she says, “but we don’t know where we’re moving yet.”
Elan Ehman, a former tenant, was able to find housing in the area. Like Sharon and Peggy, Ehman was paying $630 for a one-bedroom unit at Richard Watson; she’s now paying $950 for a smaller place further east.
The Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book (last revised in April 2011) identifies 42% of Vancouver renters as low-income, and proposes an affordable rent rate of $750. Unfortunately, this proposed rate is nowhere close to market rentals available in the city. According to the 2006 Census, the average rent in Vancouver was $893; in 2010, rent for purpose-built apartments in Metro Vancouver cost an average of $995 (in Vancouver proper, the number crests the four-digit mark at $1,059).
For Sharon and Peggy, the solution is simple: the new owners of Richard Watson Court should allow them to stay in their suites during the renovations; alternatively, they should get first rights to move back in once the renovations have been completed.
Sharon, who has lived in her suite for 22 years, was told by the new owners that if she was allowed to move back in after the renovations, she would be moved to a different suite, her rent would be at least double, and she wouldn’t be able to keep her dog.
“The company who is doing this,” says Tristan Markle, referring to Nevin Sangha and Carrera Management, “is very good at renovictions. They know that if they let you return to the same suite, you’ll have a better legal case for keeping the same rent.”
Mahoney claims that while some parts of the building are clearly in need of repair, her suite doesn’t require any upgrades. “In 1998, we had a really bad fire, and my apartment was totally destroyed,” she says. “I was able to move out for three months, and go back to my apartment, and everything was brand new. I mean everything. After the fire, I had no floor, no ceiling, no walls. What do they need to replace?”
Terry Martin, a contractor, former Chair of the Vancouver Board of Variance, and 2011 city council candidate for Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver, says he looked at the renovation schedule the developer put together. “It’s not necessary to renovate an entire building at once,” he says, “You can do individual suites very easily. The extra cost of doing a few suites one at a time would be more than covered by the rent that would be lost if the whole building is empty for months.” Terry went on to describe methods in the renovation schedule he said weren’t normally used. “This is obviously being done in the most destructive way possible,” he says.
On Wednesday morning, the remaining tenants, supported by the Vancouver Renters Union and advocates from St. Paul’s, will fight their eviction at a Residential Tenancy Branch hearing. They will also demand compensation for the adverse conditions they have endured since December of last year. If the tenancy branch allows their eviction, Mahoney and Wilson will be forced out by 1pm on April 30th.