A former tenant of a Squamish Nation trailer park has been ordered to pay more than $10,000 in back rent and damages after a year-long battle over land rights.
The nation sued Wendy Linton for rent owed after she was evicted from Riverside Trailer Park in Squamish on Sept. 30, 2017. A band chief was operating the trailer park, which was expanded onto disputed land on the Seaichem 16 Reserve.
Linton refused to sign an agreement issued last September that would have given her one year rent-free if she left the trailer park without a fight.
She was one of 19 former residents ordered to leave. Seventeen others eventually did. One other woman who went to court, Jennifer Rivalin, has reached a confidential settlement.
Linton was ordered to pay $11,734.89 in damages by B.C. Supreme Court Judge Mark McEwan earlier this month.
“The defendant has no lawful right of possession of the lands,” the judge ruled.
The park closure left many of Riverside’s 19 former residents priced out of housing in Squamish, since the trailer park had been the cheapest option in a rapidly growing city where rents have risen significantly in the last three years. Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman acknowledged the town’s ongoing housing problems.
“The biggest factor in our affordability is Vancouver,” said Heintzman. ”We’re seeing a significant exodus from the metro Vancouver area, looking to find something more affordable.”
A years-long dispute
Riverside started operating on private land owned by the Williams family, members of the Squamish Nation, in the 1960s. Later, the park was extended past the family’s certified possession onto reserve land owned by the nation. Chief Bill Williams was operating the park in recent years.
The nation regained control of that land in 2012, informing Riverside residents their previous rental agreements were void.
The tenants paid monthly trailer pad rent directly to the Squamish Nation, and all tenants The Thunderbird contacted alleged they never signed a new lease. Linton said in court that her rent increased to $400 per month from $300 when the nation took over.
In 2016, the nation decided to close the park, citing health and safety concerns and infrastructure costs estimated at $500,000.
“In the end, closing the park was the only option left for us,” Squamish Nation Coun. Chris Lewis said in an email statement recently.
Tenants were issued a move-out agreement on Sept. 16, 2016, to sign before Sept. 30, giving them a year to leave. Residents who signed the agreement were allowed stay in their trailers rent-free until the park closed. Tenants who left early were offered incentives ranging between $4,800 and $9,600.
Linton argued in court that tenants were not given enough time to read over the agreement or seek legal counsel. She claimed many tenants signed the agreement under duress.
Linton had been living in the trailer park for 14 years. She said that she refused to sign the agreement because it eliminated her rights to pursue a lawsuit.
“I met every requirement of the termination agreement … with the exception of agreeing to sign a statement to forgo any further legal action,” she said via email.
Lewis responded that “[the] Squamish Nation has treated all tenants fairly and respectfully by providing one full year’s notice of the park’s closure.”
Rivalin, the defendant who settled confidentially, did not respond to requests for comment.
Gabriel Lee, the operator of nearby Spiral Trailer Park, confirmed that five former Riverside residents had moved to his complex but could not verify if the defendants were included citing privacy concerns.
“I’m basically homeless”
Tom Green, a former Riverside resident, wasn’t among them. He moved back to rural Ontario at the end of September, leaving behind his $200,000 trailer and senior engineering job.
Green did acknowledge the tenants had a responsibility to find out who owned the land before they built on it. But Green maintains he was driven out of B.C. by the high house prices.
“I’m basically homeless at this point,” Green said. “I’m living in a three-season cottage trying to burn some wood to keep warm.”
He accused Squamish’s mayor of favouring new high-density housing, while ignoring existing low-cost options like mobile homes.
“This is affordable housing, the kind of affordable housing that Heintzman does not want.”
Heintzman said the price of land makes it difficult to get developers interested in building low-density housing. She said trailers are an important housing option in Squamish. But she acknowledged that city council is focusing on other options like condominiums.
As of October 2016, Squamish had the lowest vacancy rate in British Columbia at 0 per cent. The 19,500-person town has only three purpose-built rental buildings.