View Towers tenant wins case to claim possessions

After a months-long fight, a former View Towers resident has won the right to have access to her personal belongings, after the Residential Tenancy Branch ruled her landlord was wrong in keeping them locked up in her suite.

Rebecca White, 51, was told she had to move out of her eighth-floor apartment suite because of damage following a major fire on May 15. She was told her personal belongings were contaminated by asbestos and she would have to pay up to $20,000 for professional cleaning. White did not have the money but wasn’t willing to forfeit all her possessions.

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With help from Together Against Poverty, White filed a complaint with the Residential Tenancy Branch and was granted a hearing on July 29. At the hearing, White faced landlords Terry Vanden Berghe and Phyllis Highfield, who work for Westsea Construction, the Vancouver-based firm that owns the building. White said Julie Trache, who runs both Westsea and Edmonton-based Capital Management Ltd., was on a conference call during the hearing.

The arbitrator found that the landlord violated Section 25 of the Residential Tenancy Act, which states that a landlord must store the tenant’s personal property in a safe place for 60 days after it’s removed and keep a written inventory of the property.

“I find that the landlord violated the act by denying the tenant access to retrieve their personal property without undue delay,” wrote arbitrator J. Yuen.

The legislation does not permit a landlord to confiscate or withhold the tenant’s property unless the property is abandoned, Yuen wrote. She ruled that the landlord had to give White access to the suite between Aug. 5 and 8.

White said even that became difficult as the landlord tried to let her into the suite only when she needed to get in and out, instead of giving her the keys for the full four days. White complained and finally got unfettered access for her move.

“It’s been insanely frustrating,” White said. “I was counting the days for it to be over.”

White said the ordeal still cost her about $1,500 for movers and she now pays $840 a month at her new apartment compared to $619 at View Towers.

The fire 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 politicians, including Victoria-Beacon Hill MLA Carole James, raised concerns about “renovictions,” in which longtime, low-income renters are forced out so the landlord can upgrade the suites and increase the rent.

One resident of 25 years, Herb Volker, was told he had to move out because his ceiling had collapsed, but he later found out that wasn’t the case.

Together Against Poverty has been advocating on the tenants’ behalf. One other displaced resident in a similar situation to White was able to retrieve his belongings after complaining to the Residential Tenancy Branch, said Victor Ryan, a public-interest law student working with the agency.

Ryan said while TAPS is happy with the outcome, it’s frustrating that renters face such a complex process to get what’s rightfully theirs.

“It’s indicative of how stressful it can be for low-income renters that they had to file this very complicated application for a resolution,” Ryan said. “To show up at a hearing can be very complicated for people with mental-health issues.”

Ryan said many displaced residents have found new places but still hold a lot of anger over how they were treated.

“The anger is still simmering and the frustration is still present,” he said.

White said she hopes her small win will empower other View Towers residents who think they were treated unfairly. “I want other people to know they can go to court and win,” White said. “If they don’t, [the landlord] will just keep stomping on people.”

Vanden Berghe at View Towers did not return calls for comment, nor did Trache in Edmonton or anyone at the head office in Vancouver.

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