Val Stewart’s 500 sq ft apartment is a testament to her life. The cozy space is filled with overstuffed furniture and pictures of her family that line the walls.
Stewart has been in her apartment on Beach St. overlooking the ocean for 15 years.
“To get this apartment facing the water was everything to me,” Stewart said. “To me, living by the ocean is peace; it’s calm. When I can see the water, I’m content.”
Stewart has cancer on her diaphragm. Being by the ocean helped her through the long months of chemotherapy when she couldn’t leave home.
But all this could soon change.
Stewart’s building manager informed her in June that there are plans to renovate all units in her building by the end of March.
Construction would be cosmetic and include things like new carpet or flooring, new kitchen cupboards and mirrored closets.
Stewart hasn’t gotten a notice, but there are only a handful of units left in the building not renovated. Most belong to seniors and older adults. Stewart’s is one of them.
The manager told Stewart that when the time comes, she will have to vacate her suite and move into one that has been renovated. When the renovations finish, the manager said, she will have three options:
- Stay in the new suite at a higher rent
- Return to her original suite at roughly $300 more per month than she is currently paying
- Vacate the building
This type of scenario is common in Vancouver’s West End, which is comprised of 80 per cent renters. Many buildings are older, and are in need of such work.
In 2004, the B.C. Liberals revised the Residential Tenancy Act to give landlords more authority on the rents they could legally charge. However, the new clauses have created inequities leaving renters vulnerable.
The most common problems renters face in the West End are evictions or increased rent resulting from various renovations, and overall rent increases beyond the standard two per cent plus inflation.
Landlords can apply to increase rent beyond this limit if they can prove similar suites in the area are renting for more.
“Your rent is only supposed to be 30 per cent of your income,” Stewart said. “This is going to be way more than that.”
Related: Rental rights in the West End
About four years ago Sharon Isaak and members of Renters At Risk, a grassroots citizens group, began a list of the buildings where these types of tenancy issues were playing out.
Isaak said this list is now roughly 40 buildings in areas throughout Vancouver. The largest concentrations are in Kitsilano and the West End.
One building on the list is the Seafield Apartments in the West End. Tenants are currently in court battling their landlord over a 38 per cent rent increase, which he argues is in line with other suites in the area.
In April, landlord Jason Gordon of Gordon Nelson Investments defended his lawful right to increase the rents of his properties during an interview with CTV.
“All I can earn is what the market will pay me,” Gordon said. “How can I be greedy? How can I charge more? The people in the West End determine what the rents are.”
This past summer the residents of 990 Bute St. were evicted from their building after the owner successfully obtained permits to perform structural renovations.
Among those forced to leave was 66-year-old Wayne Slavin who had called the building home for 37 years. At the time, Slavin had recently undergone triple bypass surgery.
“It wasn’t very pleasant,” Slavin recalled of dealing with losing his home. “It was very stressful. After you’ve gone through a triple bypass you don’t need that kind of stress. But there’s nothing I could do about it.”
Seniors at risk
Many longtime residents of the West End, especially seniors in poor health or on fixed incomes, are unsure of how to deal with the situations such as these.
When tenants are served with a notice to leave or that their rent is being raised above the legal limit, they have 15 days to file a dispute.
However, the closest office to do this is in Burnaby. The dispute resolution hearing is now done over the phone and it can take up to 30 days to get a resolution.
Sharon Isaak, a housing counselor, said many seniors just leave when they are served with these notices because dealing with it is too overwhelming.
“It’s logistically complicated,” Isaak said. “It’s beyond what people want to do. It’s beyond what people can do.”
“We have a model that’s working here,” Isaak said of the West End, “and what’s happening is it’s getting destroyed by rising rents.”
Through a counseling program at the Gordon Neighborhood House, Isaak helps seniors connect with the proper networks regarding their housing concerns.
But Isaak said seniors effectively disappear after initial contact. She speculates they have either moved in with family, or to a cheaper part of the city.
Val Stewart refuses to accept this option. “I feel safe here,” she said. “To me this location is everything.”
Once a nurse, Stewart is now on long-term disability. Like many older adults, living in the West End has allowed her to be self-sufficient.
She’s close to St. Paul’s hospital for medical emergencies. There’s a bus stop outside her doorway, and the grocery store and pharmacy are both within walking distance.
“To move from here would be devastating for me because I could not afford another place in the West End,” she said.