Portrait of a Renoviction: Ellen Woodsworth’s story

Former city councilor Ellen Woodsworth speaks about her experience not only as a personal loss, but also as another casualty in Vancouver’s diminishing affordable housing stock

When former Vancouver city councilor Ellen Woodsworth saw the For Sale sign go up in front of the row house that she and her partner had occupied for over 30 years, she saw an opportunity. It was August 2011, only shortly before the municipal election, and Woodsworth thought that she might get some friends together in order to buy and maintain the six units of what she describes as “really good affordable housing.” The house had been built in 1918 and Woodsworth wanted to fix it up. “Not much work has been done on it, it’s pretty run down.”

However, by October, the owner of the row houses was seriously negotiating with another buyer, and the sale was completed in December. Due to the time constraints and the pressures of campaigning, Woodsworth was unable to enact her plan.

Shortly after the sale in December, the new owners began fixing up some of the other units, and Woodsworth began asking what their plans were, as she was concerned about the future of her home.

Finally on June 19th , two days before she and her partner had planned to leave on vacation, Woodsworth got an answer. “They put an eviction notice through our mailbox, which is actually not the legal way to do it… legally you have to give it to people in person.”

Immediately, Woodsworth launched an appeal. She left on her vacation as scheduled, but her partner, who was to follow later, had to cancel her tickets altogether.

Woodsworth suspected that what was happening was a renoviction— where landlords renovate a unit in order to raise the rent and put the unit back on the market. “That’s what they were doing with two other units beside us and when I checked on craigslist I discovered that they were going to take the rent from very low rent to quadruple the rent up to $3000 [a month],” Woodsworth says. The unit was previously rented for $825 a month, the same as her own. For this reason, she says “I decided it was really important to stand up against the eviction notice.”

Woodsworth worked with the Renters Union and a group of tenants who had fought Hollyburn renovictions in the West End to prepare a case for the appeal. When the time came to present the case, they were given a short time frame by the Residential Tenancy Board. “We were told that they wanted to get it done as quickly as possible,” Woodsworth says, “We said, well, we have a lot of evidence to introduce.”

Their case centered on arguing that the repairs could be done while the couple still occupied the unit, and that for this reason it wasn’t necessary to evict them. “We were able to get [as a witness] someone who’d worked fixing up houses and in construction and development for a long long time,” Woodsworth says. He confirmed that indeed it was unnecessary to force Woodsworth and her partner out.

“He said, if necessary we could move out for a week or so and we’d already offered to be out for six weeks during the summer, so it was perfectly clear that they could have done the repairs…. while [we were] remaining there,” Woodsworth says “but they were clearly trying to get us out because it was only by getting us out that they could quadruple the rent— that’s what makes it a renoviction.”

Woodsworth says that their case was as thorough as possible. They even spoke about the amount of work she and her partner had put into the property. “Our landlord advertised it for sale as a landscaped complex; in fact we had been the ones who had been doing all the purchasing and the maintaining of the landscaping, plus continuing to do all the garbage,” she says.

The new owner was unhappy at the amount of attention the case had received. “It’s clear he was just really angry at me for doing an article in the Vancouver Observer,” Woodsworth says. “He said that I’d maligned his family name, but I hadn’t even used his family name, so I don’t know exactly what he was upset about.”

In the end however, it seemed like the hearing had gone favourably for Woodsworth and her team. “The landlord in the end said they needed six months of work and even the arbitrator said that she’d seen a house go up in a month and how could this take six months?”

Woodsworth was told by the RTB that the decision would arrive shortly, and three weeks later they found that they had lost the hearing. “By the time we had the final decision we had about a month to find a place,” Woodsworth says.

“The final decision was based on evidence that wasn’t included in the hearing,” Woodsworth says “[It was based on] the possibility of health and physical dangers as they did this work, and the possibility that the work could take some time and there might be lost revenue for the landlord.”

The only chance to appeal the decision was to take the case to the supreme court of BC. Unfortunately, at that level, a tenant may be charged with all of the landlord’s legal fees and associated costs such as lost revenue. “So clearly … the laws were completely stacked in the favour of the landlord,” Woodsworth says. “I think we could have won if we had gone to the BC supreme court, but I couldn’t take the chance of going that far and then losing.”

She is not alone. “Very few tenants are going to be able to take that chance of appealing,” Woodsworth says.

Woodsworth says she learned a lot from what she calls a “very very painful, troubling, outrageous process.” She feels as though the rights granted to tenants aren’t proportionate to the personal importance of their housing. “There’s none of the sense of being a worker… [where] there’s a standing you have in society with which you can appeal an abusive boss,” she says. “Because it is your home and it’s something you really care about and you have so little time to appeal it’s very emotionally stressful.”

Woodsworth points to her case being emblematic of a larger issue. “What’s happening in Vancouver is we’re becoming a city just for the wealthy,” she says. “I’m very concerned with the new mayor’s task force report on affordable housing. It doesn’t have anything about how we can support existing low-income stock housing and give support for tenants so that they’re able to stay in their housing.” She also feels that the Residential Tenancy Act needs to be strengthened, as well as more funding for renters’ advocates.

“We’ve all contributed to Vancouver, we’ve all paid our taxes for amenities in this city and we need the city to build real affordable housing.” Woodsworth defines this as housing which costs a no more than third of an individual’s income. “So for someone who’s a pensioner, or a low-income worker, or on income assistance— that doesn’t mean a thousand a month.”

And definitely not three thousand.

“We need to change our attitudes about housing. Housing is a right,” Woodsworth says. “Canada signed the UN charter that housing was a right, like healthcare, like education.”