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Cook Street apartment tenants face ‘renovictions’

Building in poor condition, to be redone "top to bottom," owner says
Richard Gillett holds his eviction notice in front of his apartment at 2626 Cook St.

Richard Gillett says he felt sick to his stomach when he saw a notice taped to his apartment door last week, then saw the same notices on all the doors along the hall.

They were eviction notices, giving Gillett and dozens of other tenants 60 days to find new places to live so the owners of the 32-unit apartment building at 2626 Cook St. can renovate it.

“I’m probably going to end up leaving the Island and find something in a little town where I can afford to live,” said Gillett, who relies on food banks to provide groceries each month.

Together Against Poverty Society and B.C. NDP MLA Rob Fleming have raised concerns about the mass eviction.

Gillett lives on a senior’s pension and pays $770 a month to rent his one-bedroom apartment. He moved there two years ago after spending his life on and off the streets. “I’ve got a long history of being on the street and this was getting me off the street.”

He said that even though tenants have been given first right of refusal for suites once they are renovated, it will be at market rent — likely hundreds of dollars more a month.

He said another tenant facing eviction is a man in his 70s who has lived in the building for more than 40 years.

Also being evicted are two adult siblings who “were born and raised here and have never seen any home but this,” he said. “That’s because people who live in this building cannot afford to live anywhere else.”

Vancouver-based Headwater Projects bought the building last year, and said on its website that it is the company’s first in Victoria.

Headwater senior property manager Rebecca Haar said the building will be redone “top to bottom,” including the plumbing, so it will need to be empty for six months.

Haar said tenants are being offered one month free rent, plus $250, which is “above and beyond the compensation required under the Residential Tenancy Act.” Residents facing extenuating circumstances can ask for their moving costs to be covered, Haar said.

She said the building is in poor condition, a fact tenants have raised. “So it’s kind of contradictory, because in one sense, they’re complaining the building is in disarray and is a bit derelict at this point, but they’re also complaining that we’re trying to improve it.”

Emily Rogers, a legal advocate for TAPS, said the building owner is acting within the law, but the mass eviction “exemplifies the type of housing crisis we are experiencing in Victoria and it compounds that crisis significantly.”

The advocacy group is calling for legislation that better protects tenants from “renovictions,” including giving tenants first right of refusal on the same unit after the renovation at the same rent they were previously paying.

Fleming, MLA for Victoria-Swan Lake, said his office was contacted by some of the tenants on Monday.

“There’s people whose lives are being disrupted and they’re very worried about their ability to live and work in Victoria in this overheated housing market, where the vacancy rate is so low that it can only be described as a crisis.”

He said renovictions have been seen across Victoria, and it’s particularly difficult for seniors on a fixed income who have been living in the same apartment for decades.

“You’ve got different investment companies buying rental housing to make substantial profits for their investors and they’re squeezing tenants,” Fleming said. “There simply aren’t enough protections and there’s a host of loopholes in the legislation.”

When the legislature session resumes next month, Fleming said, the NDP will again propose the Protection from Renoviction Act, which would put more tenant protection into the Residential Tenancy Act. Previous attempts to make the bill law have failed.

A B.C. Housing Ministry spokeswoman said changes to the act are not needed as there already are rules about when a landlord can end a tenancy due to extensive renovations. “B.C.’s current law governing rent increases and renovations fairly balance the needs of both landlords and tenants,” the ministry said in a statement.

If a tenant thinks a landlord has ended a tenancy without a valid reason, the tenant has 15 days to dispute the notice through the Residential Tenancy Branch.