Commercial Drive seniors fight back against eviction

Yesterday morning, tenants of non-profit housing near Commercial Drive held a press conference to support two of their neighbours currently fighting evictions. In collaboration with the Vancouver Renters’ Union, the tenants called on the Residential Tenancy Branch to strike down the evictions. They also spoke out against lack of repairs, inadequate pest control and rent increases.

Their landlord is the Housing Foundation of BC, a registered charity which owns and operates 24 buildings across the city with a mandate to provide “income-based, rent-controlled housing to mature Vancouverites in need.” HFBC tenants sign a lease stating that their “rent is based on income,” yet many tenants pay rents above 55% of their income. Most tenants also receive a subsidy from HFBC that keeps their out-of-pocket rents affordable.

Recently HFBC began revoking subsidies from still-eligible tenants, making apparent the problem of landlords ‘subsidizing’ tenants instead of simply setting rent at affordable rates. Suddenly these elderly renters were faced with rent increases upwards of $185, or 28% of their original rent. Even with SAFER grants (Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters) from the province, they could not afford to start paying 60% of their meagre fixed incomes on rent.

Several of the tenants fought the rent increases earlier this year, but the BC Supreme Court ruled in June that while the removal of a subsidy is a de facto rent increase – seven times the legal limit – it does not constitute a breach of the Residential Tenancy Act’s rent control clause. The foundation’s executive director, Barbara Bacon, was quoted yesterday, “Even though a tenant’s income might not increase, we have to meet our budget and increase rents.”

However, HFBC’s financial statements show that in 2010 their revenues exceeded their expenses by $600,000. They also claim that “[our equity] is growing each year and our cash flow situation is healthy.” Subsidies to tenants of Wallace Wilson House cost about $2200 each per year.

Steve Rakic is a 68 year old retired machinist and millwright who has lived in the building for nearly five years. When he received an eviction notice he began talking to more of his neighbours about their tenancy issues. They too spoke of bullying, lack of maintenance, rent increases and threats of eviction. With less than a week before the RTB is to decide his fate, Rakic invited the Vancouver Renters’ Union to help organize his neighbours’ resistance by door-knocking and putting on a press conference.

Rakic’s recent eviction notice was issued for “non-payment” of $1665 in rent, more than his entire monthly income. This amount is the accumulated difference since February, a month after the extraordinary rent increase came into effect. He paid the full $845 in January 2012 and went hungry. Then he and other tenants who were denied subsidy continued to pay the same rent as they had in 2011, which is all they could afford. Rakic and his neighbour have been fighting the increase at the RTB and the Supreme Court of BC for nine months.

In August 2011 he submitted his subsidy application forms five days after HFBC’s deadline, because he needed help them filling them out. In years past, HFBC helped him complete the application, but due to their recent bullying he felt he had to get help elsewhere. In January 2012 his subsidy ended.  Bacon defends HFBC’s decision, saying, “We have a certain amount of money we can use for subsidy every year, and we ask people to apply, and there are deadlines that must be met to keep it a fair process.”

This is not an isolated incident. Other charitable housing providers have also been issuing seniors extraordinary rent increases. Earlier this year, tenants of the Lion’s Manor in Mount Pleasant worked with the VRU and successfully fought a building-wide 45% rent increase.

Especially in light of the Canada-wide social housing crisis, non-profits such as HFBC are integral to Vancouver’s low-income housing stock. They provide the last refuge before homelessness for many renters, especially seniors. The dire shortage of affordable housing makes every eviction for non-payment of rent a sentence to homelessness. 1791 ten-day-eviction notices were issued in 2011 within the City of Vancouver, while 15% of Vancouverites are paying over 50% of their income towards rent.

Non-profit housing providers are inevitably accountable to their private and public funders; however, it is up to the individual directors of these societies to hold themselves accountable to their tenants as well. By evicting these tenants for non-payment of rent when they have consistently paid all they can afford, HFBC is betraying its mandate.

Rakic’s and his neighbour’s eviction hearings take place tomorrow, Wednesday November 7th, at 11am and 3:30pm.