The Star Vancouver: Burnaby renters ‘pressured’ to leave in city’s ‘self-made housing crisis,’ report alleges

Posted October 16, 2018

As housing continues to hound the Burnaby election race ahead of Saturday’s municipal vote, the developer of a 42-storey Metrotown condominium highrise has denied it’s pressuring tenants to leave their homes before the proposed tower is even approved.
 
Anthem Properties confirmed to StarMetro it has hired a company that specializes in “tenant relocation specialists,” and that it is offering help to the 92 tenants who call a low-rise home — in both advice and money — if they move out early.
 
“It’s a really hard situation,” said Siwar Ben Anes, a resident of a Maywood Street apartment who has so far been unable to find a new home in her family’s budget. “To be honest, this is a new thing for me, I’ve never faced this situation before.
 
“I’m not happy to move; I don’t know if we’ll be able to find another place. We’ve looked at many apartments already but we found they’re all too expensive for us — $1,500 or even up to $1,600 — compared to our old rent, $900 a month, that’s why it’s so stressful.”
 
The 25-year-old recounted moving into the building more than two years ago, where her husband has lived since around 2013, when she arrived from Tunisia.
 
Now, since receiving a letter from the building’s new owners earlier this year and attending an April meeting explaining the plans to demolish the building, the couple are worried about finding a place for them and their nearly two-year-old daughter that is close enough to the English classes, children’s programs, and local neighbourhood house that she’s come to rely on regularly.
 
“This situation is going to be difficult — we empathize with the tenants,” said Rob Blackwell, senior vice-president of development with Vancouver-based Anthem Properties. “It is a really tight rental market, and moving, even under regular circumstances, is stressful and takes time and effort.
 
“The more time you allow it to happen, the easier that process is … Starting early in the process allows us to take advantage of time to relocate people and allow (them) to see what their optionts are, as opposed to doing it at the last minute and rushing it.”
 
To that end, Blackwell said Anthem has contracted the firm LPA Development and Marketing Consultants, which liaises with tenants including handling what the company has offered: multiple months’ rent proportional to how long a tenant has been in the building, additional money for movers, and staff to help fill out rental applications, B.C. Housing forms, and other services.
 
Blackwell said that roughly 60 per cent of Ben Anes’ renters have already taken up the offer, and that it’s “completely voluntary” and available even for those who may decline assistance or refuse to vacate before any eviction notice is officially delivered.
 
That’s not how some tenants or local renters advocates see it, according to a report released Monday by the low-income advocacy group ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now).
 
The pressure to vacate willingly — instead of being evicted later — is just one more symptom of “Burnaby’s self-made housing crisis,” the member-based organization said.
 
The report said that 769 rental units lost to developments in Burnaby since 2011, and another 893 units are currently in the process of what ACORN called “demoviction,” or evicting tenants by demolishing and re-developing their properties. Blackwell denied that Anthem has issued eviction notices to tenants there, but was simply informing them of the plans and timeline early.
 
On Monday, a letter posted in the 4241 Maywood St. building lobby, and provided to StarMetro, said: “Due to the fact the Council Hearing had to be rescheduled, your current eviction date is no longer Feb. 29, 2019 … Depending on the outcome of the hearing, this may push back or cancel the date you officially received on your notice to end tenancy.”
 
In an email to StarMetro, ACORN organizer Murray Martin said communications with tenants have created the “misleading appearance that tenants are being legally evicted.”
 
In fact, he noted, the building hasn’t been approved for re-development — or even passed its third reading at City Hall. And instead of smoothing the moving process, ACORN argued the process is “pressuring” tenants to sign a deal, essentially “forcing” them to move out early.
 
ACORN’s report took aim at the long-ruling Burnaby Citizens Association council, which is currently fighting an election campaign that’s seen rivals repeatedly criticize the evictions and developments at Metrotown.
 
“At a time when most municipalities are developing policies that will build affordable housing, the BCA policy of mass demoviction in Burnaby is destroying the city’s supply of affordable housing,” the report said, “… leaving much of the Metrotown area’s affordable housing stock vacant during an unprecedented housing crisis.”
 
But BCA city councillor Colleen Jordan said in fact the city has listened to tenants’ and advocates’ concerns over the re-development of the Metrotown area — and has implemented new rules earmarking dedicated zoning for new rental units, and ensuring evicted tenants have a chance to move back into completed buildings. That’s why the city postponed Anthem’s required next public hearing.
 
“Before, they were saying we didn’t give them enough notice,” she said in a phone interview. “You just can’t please some people.
 
“Those developments will be subject to a (rental) replacement policy when they come back to us, whenever we get the rental zoning in place. Any current renters will be given the notice that they will have to vacate … but they will be entitled to come back to the new building.”
 
For Anthem, the project already planned a second, three-storey building to offer rental units operated by a non-profit society, and has vowed to also encourage more affordable rental in addition. The firm also disputed ACORN’s claim that the existing units are “rent-controlled,” stating they are simply market units with allowable annual rent increases.
 
And bringing in “relocation specialists” is, Blackwell countered, the opposite of “forcing” anyone to move.
 
“We thought having a third party that specialized in this would be a better course,” he said. “One of the reasons we picked them is their track record of never leaving a tenant behind, and approaching the difficult task of relocating tenants in an ethical way — really working with everybody on a one-on-one basis.”
 
According to Ben Anes, what hope she had that tenants could rally to save their homes faded when she discovered much of her building was already vacant.
 
“If we the tenants are together, maybe we could have hoped to solve this problem,” she said. “But when we found so many apartments around us are empty, now we’re just hoping to find another place in an area like this: one that’s safe, calm, with the programs and services we need.
 
“We’d have to start from the beginning.”
 
 
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Article by David P. Ball for The Star