The Residential Tenancy Branch has turned down a request from a Victoria poverty advocacy group to investigate the landlords of View Towers, despite numerous complaints from tenants that they were forced out of their low-income rental suites after a major fire in May.
The Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS) filed a lengthy application asking the branch to investigate Westsea Construction based on alleged “systemic contraventions” of the Residential Tenancy Act, said the society’s executive director, Stephen Portman.
The branch turned down the request, saying in a letter: “While you have brought a serious matter to our attention, I note that the concerns you have raised on behalf of the tenants have been resolved through the dispute resolution process.”
Two tenants who filed complaints with the Residential Tenancy Branch about not being allowed to retrieve their belongings from their suites were eventually given access by the landlord. Portman said there were many more displaced tenants with concerns who don’t have the resources to file formal complaints with the branch.
The fire on May 15 displaced 70 people, many of whom complain they were coerced into signing a mutual agreement to end tenancy, despite the fact that there was no damage to their suites.
Poverty advocates and local and provincial politicians raised concerns about “renovictions,” in which long-time, low-income renters are forced out so the landlord can upgrade the suites and increase the rent.
Shortly after the fire, it was revealed that nearly 100 suites were vacant but were not offered to displaced residents.
“You note that several rental units in View Towers are vacant and feel the landlord should offer these units to the displaced tenants, however, the landlord is under no obligation to do so,” wrote Cheryl May, the branch’s executive director. May said displaced tenants can resolve matters through dispute resolution.
Portman said he’s baffled by the decision not to investigate.
TAPS is concerned that a landlord was able to deal in bad faith with such a large number of tenants without any formal investigation or penalties, Portman said.
The Residential Tenancy Branch has only launched one investigation into a landlord, Gurdyal Singh Sahota, who owns properties in Surrey. Sahota was fined a record $115,000, but in 2012, the fines were waived after Sahota agreed to meet several conditions.
Neither Westsea Construction nor its sister company in Edmonton, Capital Management Ltd., has replied to numerous media requests or questions from TAPS.
“Where’s the obligation of the landlord to deal fairly and openly with the people who are hurt by this event?” Portman said.
One of those people is Herb Volker, 64, who lived in View Towers for 25 years before he was told his suite was damaged in the fire. His family later found no signs of damage.
Volker is now living in Cobbon House in a much smaller suite that costs $100 a month more than the $535 he was paying at View Towers.
The suite is too small to hold the bins Volker uses to collect bottles and recyclables, so he’s also lost a major source of income.
“I can’t set up with my bins because it’s too small,” Volker said. “If it wasn’t for the fire, I’d still be at View Towers because it was nice and convenient and cheap.”
Volker’s son-in-law Chris Rogerson summed up his reaction to the lack of investigation in one word: “Unreal.”
“I still feel he got screwed,” he said of his father-in-law.
TAPS is considering all legal options, including requesting a judicial review from the B.C. Supreme Court.
The society is working with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Vancouver, which is providing pro bono legal work.
“It can’t be expected of people living in poverty to be championing these causes,” Portman said. “They’re just busy surviving.”