Life at Cityviews Village, a low-rise apartment in Maple Ridge, has been hell ever since private investment firm Columbia Wealth Investments purchased the building in September 2020. Since then, the landlord and building manager have instituted a new “intimi-evictions” management style, using intimidation, harassment, and abuse to push low-income tenants out of their homes.
Timea, a resident of Cityviews, explained the conflict at a tenant-organized press conference on January 19th. “Me and my mom have lived here for three years. We have made it a home,” she said. “Ever since this new company took over, all we hear are rules and rules and rules. I’ve got violation notices under my door at least four times in the last two months.”
The rules Timea described, like one pertaining to “exactly what size your flower pots can be,” are unenforceable under the Residential Tenancy Act, but intimidating nonetheless. As Timea said, “They know it is not legal, but they think, ‘Okay, let’s just bully them into leaving because they’re going to be scared. They don’t know what to do.’ That’s their power.”
“Life is already hard. People are afraid of being on the streets,” said Timea. “These are scare tactics, very emotional and very abusive.” Her neighbour, Heather, agreed. “I’m afraid of getting kicked out myself. I’ve gotten violations for ridiculous things, such as painting my unit, when it was done prior to them taking over the building.”
Heather explained that CWI is doing whatever it can to drive out longtime low-income tenants, so that they can raise rents above the maximum allowable annual increase, which the BC government has paused entirely for 2021. “Most of the people in here are seniors. They have been here ten years, plus. A lot of them have been grandfathered in, so they’re not paying much. They can’t afford much,” said Heather. “Myself, I can’t afford much either, being on disability. Trying to find other rentals, there is no way I can spend $1,600 or $1,800 for a two-bedroom.”
Heather’s claims are backed up by comments from Columbia Wealth Investors executive, Bill Mitsui. In response to an email inquiring about how the company can offer investors such high returns, Mitsui wrote, “tenant groups have been replaced with a substantially higher class, resulting in a great increase in revenue,” leaving out that it is only through evictions and harassment that low-income tenants are leaving.
Curtis, who has lived at Cityviews for a decade, has been a special target of abuse, said his mother Joyce. She believes her son is being singled out because he has a disability. Curtis’ rent is paid directly through welfare. When there was a mix-up with the payment of his rent in November, CWI immediately moved to evict him. Even now that his rent has been paid in full, they are continuing with his eviction. “They just want him out, so they can fix up the suite and rent it out for higher rent,” said Joyce.
Ron, another longtime tenant with a disability, has had similar experiences. “I have been living here for ten years. The first years, it was really good,” he said. “Then I started getting harassed.” In Ron’s experience, Cityviews’ building manager, Josie, is a willing footsoldier for CWI. “She constantly harasses me about smells,” he explained. “Putting up with abuse from her and giving me notices all the time about everything, it’s like I was in the corner… I feel like I live in a cage.”
The Eviction Defense Network has been organizing with Cityviews tenants since December, when they received a call from someone asking for help. “She was overwhelmed with anxiety and stress, convinced her eviction was inevitable. She had not received a formal eviction notice, but her sense of precarity was not baseless,” said organizer Listen Chen.
“The reason the landlord wants to get people out by any means necessary is because any time a tenant leaves, that’s a windfall for a landlord, whether or not it happens through a legal eviction or through intimidation,” Listen explained. “Intimi-victions are the easiest way landlords can raise rents above the rent increase set by the BC government every year.”
While landlords like CWI are the ones who throw lower income tenants out into the streets to grab higher rents, it is Provincial tenancy law that enables them. Tenants in Cityviews are fighting against their landlord’s exploitation of a loophole in tenancy law, but it will take a bigger fight to close that loophole, applying rent control to rental units rather than to individual tenancies, to end the government incentive for landlords to arrange evictions.
Joyce’s message to CWI is also a message that the BC government needs to hear. “Back off and let these people live here at the price they are paying,” she said.
The tenants who spoke at a January 19th rally against CWI’s harassment and evictions are the face of those most likely to be attacked and thrown in the streets by rent seeking landlords. Out of the four tenants who spoke, two were Indigenous, two were people with disabilities, two were seniors, and one was a racialized immigrant. Three-quarters of them were women. They were low-wage workers and people on disability welfare. It was the unity between these tenants, and the others standing behind them, that gave them the confidence to fight back against their abusive landlord.
Joyce’s message to CWI is also a message that the BC government needs to hear. “Back off and let these people live here at the price they are paying,” she said. To her neighbours, Heather said, “I want everyone to know we are in this together and that we can fight this. We are going to fight Cityviews back. You can’t get us out without a fight.”
“They’re pushing us all out!”: Low income tenants speak out against landlord’s evictions and abuse
MAPLE RIDGE, OCCUPIED KWANTLEN & KATZIE TERRITORY: Residents of Cityviews Village, a low-rise apartment building that was recently purchased by a private investment company, are speaking out against rampant abuse and intimidation by their landlord and building manager. Their landlord is using any means necessary to begin clearing out low income tenants so that rents can be raised.
In response to an email inquiring about how the company can offer investors such high returns, landlord Bill Mitsui explained, “the class of tenants has changed significantly, increasing our [rental] income,” leaving out that it’s only through evictions and harassment that poor tenants are leaving.
Tenants will speak out against an unlawful eviction that has already been served and share their stories of their landlord’s attempts to intimidate tenants into leaving by instituting expansive, unlawful rules.
What: Press conference
When: Tuesday, January 18th at 12 PM
Where: Cityviews Village, Maple Ridge
Who: Eviction Defence Network and tenants of Cityviews
Tenants are all low income and include many seniors and people with disabilities. One tenant was served an unlawful eviction notice for having a flower pot on her balcony deemed too large. Another was told she cannot leave through the front door on her scooter. A tenant in his 80s was coerced into signing a new lease agreement and pressured to move into an old people’s home. Tenant advocate, Listen Chen, was twice told they were banned from the property and that the police would be called if they didn’t leave, despite being an invited guest of multiple tenants.
Tenants have told the Eviction Defence Network that they are terrified of being evicted into homelessness and feel like they live in a prison with no privacy, subject constant intimidation and to extensive rules that fall outside the bounds of the Residential Tenancy Act.
As governments announce the roll-out of vaccines in the new year, both politicians and corporations are promising a return to normal as quickly as possible. This is especially true when it comes to housing, where after a brief pause the eviction machine is whirring back into life once again.
In September the BC NDP announced an end to the temporary moratorium on evictions, despite communities entering the second wave of the pandemic. Tenants who did not pay their rent during the evictions moratorium of April to August now have until July 2021 to pay it back. Tenants are required to negotiate directly with their landlords through binding repayment plans, which effectively institute a government-legislated rent increase during a time of acute economic hardship. The government has also set July 1st as the date landlords can begin to raise rents again.
What this means for tenants is the temporary relief from eviction that they received at the start of the pandemic is now over. Instead, the government is giving landlords the green light to start recouping their lost profits and begin displacing tenants once again.
The Pandemic State of Exception
For a short time at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic it seemed as if the rule of the market, which sees maximization of profits as more important than human lives, took a back seat to the needs of human health. People who had lost work due to the virus could apply for CERB, with little hassle and wait. In some cities unused hotels have been leased by governments as shelter for people without houses. Evictions, the thing that every tenant dreads, were put on hold in BC. And all the while, amidst the 7pm cheers, was the reassurance that “we are all in this together!”
Looking at all these developments we can see the government’s Covid relief program for what it really was: an attempt to keep the market afloat until things are ready to go back to normal, to protect the profits of landlords and retailers by pouring money into the economy.
However, if we look a bit closer, we can see that this story was a joke. Despite the obvious health risks, the government allowed oil and gas development to continue the exploitation and destruction of Indigenous lands. Migrant workers concentrated in congregate settings on farms or in slaughterhouses and meat packing plants, either without status or on temporary visas, have been some of the hardest hit by the virus. Many of these “essential workers” were not eligible for CERB or other benefits due to their immigrations status.
Money offered through CERB totally excluded people living on disability, income assistance or pensions. The federal government has announced clawbacks and even jail time for alleged “fraudsters,” deterring people from applying for the program and criminalizing poor people’s struggles to survive.
Looking at all these developments we can see the government’s Covid relief program for what it really was: an attempt to keep the market afloat until things are ready to go back to normal, to protect the profits of landlords and retailers by pouring money into the economy. That this money sometimes passes through the hands of working class and Indigenous people in the journey from government to private bank accounts doesn’t change the government’s order of priorities. We can see that both in who was excluded from these programs as well as how quickly they have been taken away.
Federal and provincial emergency measures for housing make sure landlords get paid
A perfect example of the true nature of the federal and provincial emergency measures is their strategy towards housing. The loss of jobs due to Covid put millions of tenants at risk of not being able to pay their rent. In normal times this is no problem for landlords. Tenants who can’t pay are simply thrown out and replaced with those who can. A whole building full of tenants not being able to pay, however, becomes the landlord’s problem. And a whole city of buildings full of tenants unable to pay becomes the problem of mortgage banks whose loans risk default, of retail employers whose evicted workers may be unable to make their shifts, and therefore of the government that oversees the health and viability of capitalist circulation. With millions unable to pay rent, landlords’ ability to make money, and the overall stability of the capitalist system were at risk.
The major political risk, other than losing votes, is that in these moments of crisis, refusal to pay rent could go from an individually experienced effect of the pandemic business closures to a collective act of resistance. When tenants realize that through collectively withholding rents they threaten the power of landlords, organized struggle against the private housing market becomes possible.
It was with this overall situation in mind that the government stepped in, not on the behalf of tenants but to help landlords. By giving money to tenants, either in the form of direct subsidy or through the emergency benefit, they made sure rent continued to be paid. In halting evictions they prevented a potential crisis from emerging, while promising landlords that, down the road, their power of evictions would be restored.
LandlordBC admits “evictions make us rich!”
Towards the end of the summer, landlords began to push for this state of exception to end. LandlordBC, a lobbying group that represents the interests of private landlords, called on the BC government to end the moratorium on evictions. According to their CEO, David Hutniak, “If [the moratorium]’s going to continue indefinitely that’s going to be hugely problematic for our sector.” He said their opposition to the moratorium was strictly economic: “There’s a huge amount of unpaid rent. We’re concerned, obviously, about the impact on renters because they’re going to have a rent deficit, but also on landlords.” He went on to note that landlords reported to his association that 10% of their renters didn’t pay rent in April or May, with even more tenants paying less than 50% of their rent.
Housing is not a service that tenants buy from landlords as equals in a fair and democratic marketplace, it is a necessity of survival that tenants are forced to pay for under a system of property.
In his statements, Hutniak made clear what evictions actually are. They’re not a means to keep buildings safe or liveable. They are about making landlords rich by forcing tenants to pay rent. Housing is not a service that tenants buy from landlords as equals in a fair and democratic marketplace, it is a necessity of survival that tenants are forced to pay for under a system of property. The rental housing market is the legalized theft of working class people’s wages. For Indigenous tenants rent is double theft as they are forced to pay for housing built with stolen land wealth, on land stolen from Indigenous nations.
Rent and real estate is a cruel system, maintained by violence, most notably the violence of evictions. The exact reason why a tenant is evicted is beside the point. The bigger issue is that landlords have the power to evict any tenant almost at will. The grounds for contesting an eviction are few and the adjudications that judge them are overwhelmingly stacked in favour of landlords. To be a tenant is to fear eviction, to know that your home is not secure, that you could be forced to leave at any time. For tenants who are racialized and deal with racist landlord discrimination, have precarious migration status and face deportation as well as eviction, are disabled or low-income and cannot afford market rents, this insecurity is heightened even further.
It is the threat of eviction, whether conscious or not, that forces us to accept the rent increase that we cannot afford, to not say anything about the dangerous mould in our apartment or the electrical system that looks like it’s ready to blow. We accept dangerous and humiliating living conditions because we are afraid of the power our landlords have over our lives. Even our interactions with the few landlords who maintain their properties are underpinned by this power imbalance and anxiety.
Organizing against evictions in a pandemic
In theory the temporary moratorium provided tenants with a window to organize rent strikes without fear of immediate eviction. In doing so they could have transformed the individual struggle for housing into a collective one. These collective actions would also have created a political crisis in which the government would have to decide whether to evict thousands of tenants from their homes or take housing outside of the market. But in practice, these mass rent strikes did not take place.
In response to pressure from landlords the BC NDP moved quickly. On June 24th, the government announced that some evictions, such as the landlord saying they want to move into the suite, would be allowed again at the end of June. In the same announcement the Province extended their ban on evictions for unpaid rent only until the end of August, promising that it would also be lifted as part of a “safe and reasonable return to normal processes.”
In response to the re-legalization of evictions, the newly founded “Eviction Defence Network” began to organize. We postered neighbourhoods in Burnaby, Surrey, and Maple Ridge with large concentrations of rental housing, and held eviction defence workshops online. We soon got calls from a number of tenants who were facing eviction, either for unpaid rent during the eviction moratorium or immediately after. In some cases tenants were able to block their eviction through the RTB while in other cases they have been evicted.
What we have seen so far however, has not been the mass eviction of the thousands of tenants who could or would not pay rent during the pandemic. Instead what we have seen is return to normal, in which tenants are evicted or threatened with eviction, on a small-scale but daily basis. Rather than a wave, in which thousands are thrown out onto the street all at once, it is a cruel and unrelenting stream. These evictions are treated as unspectacular by the media and are often seen by the general public and sometimes by tenants themselves as individual cases. However, what they amount to is the devastation of hundreds of people’s lives and a threat to all who depend on the rental market for housing.
To what extent this will change come the summer is hard to know. However, what is clear is that many will be out of work and unable to pay rent after EI runs out. What is also clear is that when July comes many will not have paid, nor will be able to pay the back rent from the period of the moratorium that their landlords will demand. How exactly these twin crises unfold depends both on the government’s response and, more critically, on the organized struggles of tenants themselves.
Getting prepared for the end of emergency measures
The pandemic has presented real challenges to organizing; from not being able to meet in person to the uncertainty of a constantly changing global crisis. However, it has also been clarifying in a number of ways.
We have learned that governments, both federally and provincially, are willing to intervene in the market so long as it is to preserve social stability and the profits of the rich.
We have also seen how central evictions are to landlord profits. When tenants were unable to pay their rent during the moratorium, landlords immediately called for a return to evictions on economic grounds.
Finally, we have seen the way in which the government has been able to use temporary subsidies and repayment plans to prevent mass evictions while still permitting the throwing out of the most vulnerable tenants from their homes.
With this knowledge in mind we can now begin to develop an anti-eviction strategy for the post-Covid era.
Alongside RTB claims we need to organize eviction defence squads that are willing to stand with tenants when the bailiffs come, in order to keep people in their homes.
First we must adopt the principle that every eviction must be fought because an injury to one is an injury to all. If evictions are the main tools landlords use to discipline tenants, everyone who relies on the rental market for housing has an interest in opposing them.
The Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) is our first line of defence in stopping evictions. Many landlords are so convinced of their right to evict any and every tenant that they sometimes don’t even bother to show up to hearings or issue blatantly illegal eviction notices. These cases are winnable and should never go unchallenged. Even in situations where we have less of a chance, filing a claim puts the burden of proof on the landlord and buys us time to organize other forms of defence.
However, the truth is that the RTB alone will never put an end to the power of landlords, while the organized activity of tenants can. That is why alongside RTB claims we need to organize eviction defence squads that are willing to stand with tenants when the bailiffs come, in order to keep people in their homes.
Despite what politicians or landlords tell us, evictions are not an individual problem unique to specific tenants; evictions are essential to the systems of capitalist exploitation and colonial land theft. That is why alongside fighting individual evictions we need a broader tenant’s movement that can expose and fight out the political struggles represented by every single eviction. This movement would not only defend neighbours from eviction but organize public demonstrations targeting landlords, developers, and politicians. These are the people and institutions, not tenants who can’t pay their rent, who are responsible for the eviction crisis. As well, such a movement can organize political education to look at how the housing crisis is connected to broader issues such as capitalism, colonialism and imperialism.
Finally, we must begin preparing for what happens in July when the moratorium back-rent deadline comes. We can begin to organize ourselves now so that when that day comes we can refuse to pay and stand with our neighbours if they’re threatened with eviction as a result. As a movement our slogan should be “Abolish the repayment plan! No back rent, no rent increase and no evictions!” LandlordBC and the BC NDP are hoping that once the pandemic is over things will return to normal. However, as tenants facing the constant threat of eviction we know that normal means homelessness. By organizing now we can stop evictions and break the power of landlords over our lives.
What: Tenants take action against a Surrey slumlord
When: Sunday, December 6th at noon
Where: In front of 8142 11th Avenue, Burnaby
Jonathan is a long-term resident of the low-income neighbourhood of Whalley in Surrey. His health has deteriorated through years of fighting against his slumlords, Sam Ng and Siu To Chau, for renting him a cockroach-infested suite without a working shower or oven.
He’s now fighting his third eviction notice, while his landlords are in breach of a Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) arbitrator order to maintain their building in a livable condition. The Compliance Enforcement Unit, which the BC NDP established in 2019, supposedly to give the RTB “teeth,” has yet to help.
On top of this stressful situation, Jonathan’s electricity was cut off by BC Hydro last week. In the middle of winter, without receiving any previous notice, he now owes them over $400 before he can get his electricity back.
And on Thursday, Jonathan tested positive for COVID-19.
We’re holding the Province of BC, the City of Surrey, and his landlords responsible for the hardship Johnathan has endured. How can tenants stay safe from the pandemic when they are harassed in their own homes, living in untenable conditions while some profit off their need for shelter? Who is there to protect tenants when the City’s Standards of Maintenance bylaw regularly goes unenforced?
Landlords are a threat to our safety. The City of Surrey and the Province side with them by allowing them to evict tenants and neglect buildings with little to no consequences.
We will hold a picket in front of Sam Ng’s home, 8142 11th Avenue in Burnaby, on Sunday December 6th at noon. We are demanding that Ng and Chau make the RTB-ordered repairs to Johnathan’s suite immediately. Jonathan was able to seek refuge in a hotel room available for people with COVID-19 to quarantine, and we need to ensure he will come home to a habitable suite, so he can recover fully.
Most importantly, we demand that the eviction moratorium be reinstated now. We can’t allow more people to be thrown into the streets to face a heightened risk of death due to the pandemic, violence, overdose, and the cold. No one should be homeless while a few people make millions by commodifying the land.
That the Province of BC reinstate the MORATORIUM ON EVICTIONS, NOW!
That the Province of BC stop cuts of electricity or water for low income tenants.
That Johnathan’s landlords make the necessary repairs to his suite and pay him restitution for the hardship he’s endured living in their building.
Johnathan has been living in his suite since 2014. In seven years, his landlord has only come to mow the lawn, collect the rent… and hand over eviction notices.
The first time I visited his small two storey building a block away from King George Blvd, Johnathan gave me a tour. He showed me the broken front door, next to shattered windows, the uneven stairs which, if you don’t walk carefully, might get you down quicker than you plan. The back stairs are held together by a 4 by 4 resting on the adjacent building. In the suite across the hallway, the ceiling collapsed a couple of years ago. Thankfully, the tenant at the time had stepped out of his apartment.
To finish the tour, Johnathan showed me his suite: cockroaches, a shower (unusable since a leaking pipe destroyed the floor and walls years ago), broken plugs keeping him from using his oven… the sadly usual picture of living under the rule of a slumlord in downtown Whalley, Surrey.
But this isn’t only a story of despair and hardship. It’s a story of ongoing resistance, and how when tenants get organized, they can win.
This isn’t the first time tenants have tried fighting against Johnathan’s slumlord. Two of Johnathan’s neighbours faced retaliation for demanding their landlord make basic repairs to their suites. Johnathan explained, “Their requests were ignored. Instead the landlord evicted them.”
He told me that his upstairs neighbour was done with the state of neglect of the building, which she knew was in contravention of Surrey’s bylaw “to regulate rental premises.” She stopped paying her rent in protest and was evicted not long after. The same thing happened to another tenant, who ended up living a block away from their building, on the streets. “He gave up after being evicted,” shared Johnathan.
In the middle of 2020, Jonathan decided to stop paying his rent too. “They don’t care about our health; it makes me sad and angry,” he shared. After years of demanding repairs from his landlord, the moratorium on evictions that the BC government had put in place between April and August, in response to the first wave of Covid-19, gave Johnathan the protection he needed to take action.
Soon after, he received his first eviction notice. With help from his friend Tanya, he appealed the eviction notice with the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB), and also filed a complaint about the state of flagrant disrepair of the building and the lack of basic necessities in his suite. While he did not win the RTB case for reparations, the arbitrator cancelled his eviction notice because of the moratorium on evictions.
Two weeks later, at the beginning of September, a new eviction notice was on Johnathan’s door. This time, he and Tanya were in contact with the Surrey Eviction Defense Network. Our first action was to support Johnathan to write a letter demanding the landlord stop harassing him by coming to his suite without notice. The letter worked: the landlord and his building manager put a halt on their intimidation.
The NDP government’s decision to end the moratorium on evictions in August left Johnathan with little chance to win his case. Yet, we worked together to build the strongest case possible. We see the RTB as a first line of defense and always advise people to appeal their eviction notices, even if their case seems impossible to win. It buys you time, and gives you a chance to develop your case and build solidarity with others facing the same threat.
Despite assembling the most compelling collection of evidence we could, we went into the hearing with little hope. While illegal evictions are possible to fight at the RTB, evictions for unpaid rent almost always end on the side of the landlord. How else can landlords uphold their power over tenants?
At the RTB hearing, we argued that the eviction was illegitimate because the landlord had refused Johnathan’s attempt to pay his rent in September. The landlord told Johnathan that he “didn’t care about the money and just wanted Johnathan out of the building.” With Tanya acting as a witness, we got to tell another story than the one put forward by Johnathan’s slumlord. We described the stress Johnathan was under as a result of his landlord’s efforts to intimidate him, for example, coming to his suite in the middle of the night to demand the lump sum of his rent; the building manager telling him she was fighting alongside the landlord to get him evicted; the looming threat of homelessness; and the inhumane conditions he was living in. This stress made it impossible for Johnathan to find work and even sent him to the hospital.
At the hearing, the landlord, who owns a building worth $1,943,600, demonstrated his callousness by asking Johnathan, a low-income Indigenous man facing eviction, to cover his $100 eviction appeal fee.
It was our argument that the landlord refused to accept Johnathan’s rent payment that ultimately won Johnathan’s case. Photos of the disrepair of the building, the witness testimony, and Johnathan’s own account of his life in the building all contributed to the arbitrator dismissing the eviction and giving the landlord a two-week order to make the necessary repairs.
Johnathan’s win is a small but significant victory.
It tells us that when we reach out to others and get organized, we can turn the tide to our advantage. Johnathan received a new eviction notice the day the RTB gave their decision and we appealed it once again. His new hearing is at the end of January, which means that even though he has not paid rent to his slumlord for over seven months, he is still legally able to stay in his apartment. In the meantime, the landlord hasn’t abided by the RTB decision; he has refused to make the repairs that Johnathan demanded and the arbiter ordered.
So the fight continues: we have won Johnathan some space to stay and live in his home through the legal means of an RTB hearing. And we will use extralegal methods that build our collective power so that we can go beyond the limits of the law and fight to force Johnathan’s landlord – and all other slumlords – to maintain safe and decent housing for the sake of tenants’ lives.
Sudden mass evictions shock residents of supportive housing building in Maple Ridge with the end of BC’s eviction moratorium
UNCEDED KATZIE & KWANTLEN TERRITORY (Maple Ridge): At noon on July 27th, three residents of one of the Coast Mental Health-run supportive housing buildings in Maple Ridge were surprised with sheriffs at their doors and a moving truck outside.
Bardonnex explained that the eviction took her by surprise. “The staff never told us they were going to evict us today. I never got a notice on my door, no verbal notice, nothing,” she said.
The timing, to Bardonnex, felt cruel and harmful. “Today is the anniversary of my daughter’s passing. I don’t know why they’re doing this today,” she said.
Even worse, Bardonnex said, “I don’t even have a tent. I don’t have anywhere to go. I don’t have anywhere to store my belongings.”
Although evicting someone at the end of the eviction moratorium is immoral and wrong, it is not illegal. The BC Government is not requiring landlords to communicate formally about the timeline of their evictions.
The three residents of the Coast Mental Health-operated supportive housing, including Eva Bardonnex, received eviction notices during the BC’s pandemic moratorium on evictions. Eva received an eviction notice on April 28th.
The agent for the non-profit housing operator told the RTB adjudicator that they would work with Eva to find new housing and would not evict her suddenly.
Eva says, “The staff here never helped me find a place to live. They never told me I have to get out today. Why are ‘supportive housing’ providers throwing a woman out into the streets?”
Eva Bardonnex barricaded herself in her room, but was unable to keep the sheriffs out.
Eva says, “The staff was helping them kick the door in. I was yelling at them to get the manager. And then a sheriff climbed in through my window and started throwing my stuff around, breaking things, throwing my stuff out the window.”
Bardonnex was in tears. She said, “I’ve got nowhere to go. I don’t have anywhere to go. All my things are on the sidewalk.”
She said, “At the very least they could have told us a day ahead of time that they were going to send the sheriffs. Why give us no warning?” Bardonnex, who is also a member of Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism, said the non-profit housing provider’s eviction of her and two others in her building shows that the end of the BC government’s eviction moratorium is a disaster for low-income tenants. “We already have no rights in supportive housing. The staff treat us like patients, not tenants. Now they’re just throwing us out in the street without warning,” Bardonnex said.
Bardonnex and the Red Braid Alliance are calling for the Province to cancel all evictions, whether for infractions of arbitrary rules in so-called supportive housing buildings, or for non-payment or short-payment of rent. This demand is made especially urgent because of the end of the BC government’s moratorium on evictions, which ended at the end of June for all evictions besides those for non-payment of rent, and which is set to end on September 1st for evictions for non- or incomplete payment of rents.
Michelle Leggeh called us at the end of April, after her husband brought home our pamphlet offering eviction defense to tenants rent striking and facing threats from their landlords. After 7 years living in her building along King George Boulevard in Surrey and fighting her landlord’s harassment, she lost her appeal against her latest eviction notice. The Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) arbitrator told her she had to move within two days. Afraid of ending up homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic, she decided to stay in her unit with her husband and her nephew.
The property manager of the building used the loophole in the Province of British Columbia’s pandemic moratorium on evictions which states that evictions are banned — unless it’s “unfair to the landlord” to wait for the end of the state of emergency to evict a tenant. The landlord invoked health and safety reasons at the RTB hearing to evict Michelle, claiming fire safety and a cluttered unit. She says she didn’t allow him access to her unit because of COVID-19. She’s the only one in her building facing a court-ordered eviction during the pandemic, but all her neighbours are anxiously awaiting a similar fate.
The context of Michelle’s eviction is that the building she lives in was sold at the end of March for $3.4 million. A few months earlier, in January, a new property manager came on site to offer a deal to each individual tenant: sign an agreement to end your tenancy by April 30 and you’ll get one or two months of rent in cash. The caveat? “Don’t let other tenants know what I offered you.”
The old landlord neglected the building for too many years; the walls are covered with mold and cockroaches have infested most of the suites. For the majority low-income and elderly tenants it was difficult to say no to such an offer presented as a one time deal. Half of them have since left the building. The ones left have nowhere to go. Michelle is the only one who refused to sign the agreement. She told me, “I don’t want to get paid, I want to stay in my place. I’ve tried to fix it up, to make it as safe as possible. It’s my home”.
Living as a low income tenant: Never ending threats of eviction and looming homelessness
Michelle moved into her current building in 2013. “They say they’re evicting me about safety hazards”, she explains, “but they’ve tried to evict me four times already!” The landlord didn’t show up for the hearings or got caught in a lie the first four times, but the new building manager won on this fifth attempt.
Michelle says the problem she had in the hearing was that the new building’s property manager is a good liar. “He said they gave me a notice on the 28th of November, but there was no notice on my door,” she explained. “They lied about that on the application.” Mohamed Mansour, the broker in charge of clearing the building for the new landlord, told Michelle a sheriff was coming last Sunday to evict her. Turns out this was another lie, as she never received the writ of possession necessary for them to do so. As Michelle points out: he’s a real estate guy, he knows what he’s doing.
Michelle showed us the eviction notices she received, neatly arranged in a black document holder kept in her dresser. “I’ve been harassed by this landlord since 2017. They didn’t show up or lied at the different arbitrations, that’s why they always lost. Now they threaten me with the sheriff. That’s a death sentence. That’s what they are doing, because I’ll be dead out there”.
She’s hoping that by sharing her story, she’ll get to stay longer. “Me and my husband are both elderly. We’ll have no place to wash our hands if we’re homeless. If we even get a tent, we’d have to watch it all the time otherwise we’ll get ripped off. I have to keep my belongings safe and secure in a locker, otherwise they’d be stolen. That’s what happened last time I was on the street.”
“I will get very sick if I have to go live on the streets, I don’t want to. They just said to the other tenants they can stay another month, I think I should be able to stay too. I don’t think they should be able to evict me at all. I need for them to wait until the pandemic is done, then I’ll find a place. But not until then.”
“My nephew wants me out of here because he’s sick of the landlord and the way he treats me, he’s sick of seeing me being pushed around,” Michelle says. But her nephew, who she says has been “looking all day all night” to find a new apartment for his aunt, didn’t find anything for less than $1250 a month in the neighbourhood. “That’s double my rent!” She wants to stay in her home at least until the end of the pandemic, “because we’re not supposed to leave our houses,” she says. “I’m low income and can’t afford $1200 rent a month”.
Tenant power and resistance: We can only count on ourselves
Michelle and her neighbours have been taking matters into their own hands to keep their building livable. “I cleared my house, and killed the bugs with powder I’ve been buying at the store. There’s been less bugs since I did that. I’ve always been sweeping and cleaning the front too,” she said. “Obviously they don’t want to maintain the building, they want to keep it disgusting to be a fire hazard.” Those poor conditions then become grounds to evict tenants and redevelop the building for profit.
A resident of Whalley for most of her life, Michelle wants to stay here. “Since they displaced the Surrey Strip two years ago, you’re not allowed to put up tents anymore. People still do, but Bylaw comes by and takes them down. They didn’t put everyone in the mods either. My son didn’t get in. They say there’s a safety net, but what about him? He saved a lot of people’s lives. Everyday he’ll tell me, ‘Mom, there’s someone down I narcanned today.’ He was a really good influence on the strip, he made sure people were looked after.” After years living on the strip, and without a space to live, he ended up back in jail.
Along the various waves of displacement, increasing policing and gentrification, the neighbourhood has changed a lot. Michelle’s building is in the path of the new “Surrey City Centre Plan.” Rumours are that the building will be turned into non-residential offices, destroying 14 units of low-income housing in the middle of a pandemic, itself taking place in a deadly housing crisis.
As long as some are able to profit off housing, many more will end up being pushed out on the streets. Michelle says that’s why there’s so many homeless people. “The landlords don’t care, they just want their money and that’s it. But I live here, I’m not going anywhere. If the sheriff shows up, make sure his paperwork is good!”
When the City of Surrey forcibly dismantled the homeless camp along 135A Street in June 2018, only 160 people received rooms in temporary modular housing. Everyone else was left to survive in shelters, on the streets, or in the bush. “They act like clearing the Strip was a huge success,” said Wanda Stopa, a homeless community leader. “But the only difference is now we’re scattered and hidden.”
In early 2019, former residents of the Surrey Strip established a new camp in a wooded area off King George Boulevard, which they named Sanctuary Tent City. A resident of the camp, Rory Kohinsky explained, “A lot of us living at Sanctuary were shuffled off of the Strip into the shelters or the bush. Eventually we found our way here.” But the camp was bulldozed in November 2019, when the city opened a 42-bed shelter in the area. Residents described the city-orchestrated destruction of their home as the “latest assault” in an ongoing war on the poor.
The last official count found 600 homeless people in Surrey. According to Wanda, that count included only about half of those on the street. “There were roughly 1000 homeless people in Surrey when the Strip was closed,” she said. In this context, 160 modular housing units and 42 shelter beds are a drop in the bucket.
“They didn’t solve homelessness. All they did was move people off of the Strip,” said Dave Diewert, an activist who has organized with homeless communities in Surrey for years. “Why did they do that? Because there’s a massive gentrification plan for this area.” The redevelopment plan for Surrey City Centre charts a “bold transformation” from a low-income, suburban town centre to a high-density, high-end downtown. In Wanda’s words, “The real reason they cleared the Strip was to ‘beautify’ the neighbourhood.”
Top-down gentrification: The Surrey Centre Plan
The Surrey City Centre Plan was approved by City Council in January 2017. At its heart, the plan is about “renewing private sector development interest” in the area. It promotes the development of highrise condos and office towers, and promises public sector investment, aimed at “bringing more working professionals and students into the area” to live, work, and shop.
The City Centre Plan is 273 pages long; the word “homeless” appears only once in all of its pages. The plan for Whalley, rebranded the “Historic District,” fails to mention that the neighbourhood was once home to the Surrey Strip or that it is currently the site of a large, established homeless community.
Instead of supporting the community that already calls Whalley home, the City Centre Plan seeks to develop a “pedestrian-oriented eclectic shopping experience” – an “experience” that fundamentally excludes anyone who has limited disposable income and is unable to participate as a consumer.
When the City Centre Plan describes the “beautification” of Whalley, we can read between the lines: “beauty” means the absence of visible poverty and “beautification” means the displacement of poor and homeless communities from the City Centre.
Replacing the poor by upscaling housing types
A guiding principle of the City Centre Plan is “housing diversity.” The Plan promises “housing choice” and a “full spectrum of tenures including ownership and rental as well as supportive and social housing.” Currently, 57 percent of people living in Surrey City Centre rent their homes (compared to 29 percent in all of Surrey), 43 percent of whom spend more than a third of their income on rent. Introducing new market housing into the area – for sale or rent – will drive up costs throughout the City Centre. Even if a token number of non-market units are thrown into the mix, the result will be net loss of low-income housing stock. This process is known as the “Woodward’s Effect” after a “social mix” housing project that accelerated the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver.
The City Centre Plan relies on the same market that created the housing crisis in the first place to solve the problem of housing affordability. The most outrageous market solution proposed by the plan is the development of “micro-suites,” which are self-contained units that are less than 375 square feet. There is no guarantee these units will even be affordable to low-income renters. As Global News reported, there are micro-suites in Vancouver that are renting for $1700 per month.
What about non-market housing? The City Centre Plan makes vague reference to public-private partnerships as a vehicle for the development of social housing. The plan states that its goal is to “enable land use conditions that allow flexibility for developers to incorporate non-market rental and social housing through partnerships with government and other agencies.” In other words, Surrey is following the lead of Vancouver and other cities across Canada, which refuse to build social housing except in collaboration with profit-driven, private developers, who invariably take more than they give.
“Diversity” as social cleansing
The City Centre Plan promises the area will be “home to a diverse population.” The word “diversity” appears dozens of times throughout the plan. But this recognition of “diversity” has nothing to do with supporting the 57 percent of City Centre residents who are not white, who struggle to survive in a country founded on racism and colonial violence. “Diversity,” in the terms of the plan, means economic diversity. This language provides cover for gentrification, for flooding the City Centre with young professionals at the expense of its low-income residents.
Homeless and precariously housed people have no place in the City Centre Plan, because they do not contribute to – and, in fact, impede – private development and investment.
How the City of Surrey plans to manage populations that will be radically excluded from the social and economic life of the “transformed” downtown is left out of the City Centre Plan. But homeless communities can see the writing on the wall. As cities gentrify, policing and criminalization are the tried-and-true methods for dealing with the poor.
Policing the crisis: Surrey’s anti-homeless “Outreach Team”
While the City Centre Plan was being developed, just months before it was finally approved by City Council, the Surrey Outreach Team was launched. The team, comprised of 12 police and 4 bylaw officers, was established to surveil and contain homeless people living on the Surrey Strip, and eventually, to disperse them. After the Strip was shut down, the Surrey Outreach Team and the Mental Health Unit were amalgamated into the new Police Mental Health Outreach Team, which only led to heightened police and bylaw harassment. “They’ve been harder on us, more forceful, always telling people to move along. If you just sit down for a moment, the cops are in your face. You can’t even stop,” said Wanda.
The City Centre Plan guarantees that as development increases, so will police funding. All development proposals are required to contribute to “the capital costs for police protection” – $65 per single family dwelling unit and $250 per acre for non-residential development. This funding will enable police to continue driving poor people out of public view – into the bush, the shelters, jail-like “supportive housing,” or actual jail cells.
Public investment and private profit
The City Centre Plan involves “significant public sector investment,” but not for the low-income residents of the area. Its end goal is to “attract residential and office development” and “catalyze private investment.” In other words, the City Centre Plan champions public investment and private profit.
A prime example of the City of Surrey prioritizing profit over the needs of low-income communities is the closure of the North Surrey Recreation Centre at the end of 2019. The demolition of the facility will make way for a mixed-use “Centre Block” development, described in the City Centre Plan. The project is currently being overseen by the Surrey City Development Corporation, a for-profit real estate development company that claims to “advance the City into a more vibrant […] community.” But for low-income residents of North Surrey, “vibrancy” does not mean “eclectic shopping experiences,” micro-suites, and soulless public art. It means affordable, secure, and dignified housing, community-controlled services and amenities, and freedom from police and bylaw harassment.
Gentrification cleared the path for COVID-19 to devastate Surrey’s poor
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, the City Centre Plan was fast-tracking poor and homeless communities in North Surrey toward invisibility and death. Gentrification and its twin, the criminalization of poverty, interact with COVID-19 to ensure that the same people targeted for displacement are at heightened risk of contracting and succumbing to the deadly virus. If the City Centre Plan is an inferno, then COVID-19 is the latest bucket of gasoline thrown on the flames.
To survive the COVID-19 pandemic, low-income communities must fight back and stop the City of Surrey from sacrificing their homes to profit-hungry developers, and leaving them on the streets, in shelters, and in decrepit modular housing to die preventable deaths. On April 1, homeless and precariously housed community leaders occupied the North Surrey Rec Centre, establishing immediate shelter from the harms of homelessness, including the outbreak of COVID-19. The occupation, known as the Hothouse Squat, demanded that the North Surrey Rec Centre be converted into 100% social housing – a visionary demand, which the wider community should rally behind as a bulwark against the aggressive gentrification scheme known as the Surrey City Centre Plan.
After fulfilling his election promise of implementing a 6-month moratorium on rezoning and demolishing apartment buildings in the Metrotown neighborhood of Burnaby, Mayor Hurley is starting up the demoviction bulldozer again. On Monday, December 2nd 2019, Burnaby City Council voted to pass, in principle, their Housing Task Force’s Tenant Assistance policy. Media coverage has focused on the good-news story that, as Mayor Hurley said, those covered by this tenant assistance policy are the “most cared for tenants in Canada.” This celebration overlooks the problem that the policy paves the way for mass demovictions to resume in Burnaby, softening the blows of displacement for individuals driven from their homes by condo rezonings while failing to stop the loss of 3,000 units of low-end-of-market rental units in Metrotown.
Burnaby’s new tenant assistance policy is a revision of its standing municipal policy. Burnaby adopted the first tenant assistance policy in 2015, making amendments in 2018 before this most recent version. The new tenant assistance policy significantly improves the 2015 and 2018 versions by adjusting the terms of tenants’ eligibility for compensation. The policy will now go through a “stakeholder process” for feedback and revision, and then back to city council for a final vote. The Mayor has not clarified who these stakeholders will be.
The most important changes are those that promise evicted tenants new housing at the same rents they paid at the time of eviction. The rent “top-up” means that developers will have to pay the difference between a tenant’s old rent and the rent in the apartment they’re displaced into. The “top up” will last for up to 3 years, and then displaced tenants must either move into the newly built tower, where their rent will remain the same (apart from annual rent increases), or they can stay where they have reestablished their lives, which may be far from Metrotown, without their “top up” subsidy.
The one-for-one replacement policy means that developers must replace every rental unit demolished with a new rental unit in the condo tower that takes the low-rise apartment’s place.
And the right of first refusal policy means that tenants displaced from a demovicted building have the first claim on an apartment in the new development at the same rent they paid before the demoviction.
These are significant wins for evicted tenants, and are no doubt the result of the campaigning of Maywood residents who demanded “people before profit” and “placement before displacement.” These improvements, though, affirm the perspective that politicians in city hall have inherited from the previous Corrigan council: that demoviction is inevitable.
On November 19th, Stop Demovictions Burnaby (SDB) activists held a press conference outside of city hall to protest the rezoning of 8 apartment buildings for condo projects in Metrotown, the first rezoning hearing since the end of the 6-month moratorium on demovictions that Mayor Hurley promised during his election campaign. Reflecting on the resumed destruction of the area, SDB campaigner Linda stated, “We are back to living in constant anxiety.” SDB organizer Sean Phipps explains that having the tenant assistance policy on the table at the same time as these rezonings makes it clear that “this policy is an attempt to allow these demolitions to go ahead smoothly.”
Although Mayor Hurley claims his new tenant assistance policy is based on principles like “affordability” and “accessibility,” its narrow focus on the individual tenants evicted by redevelopment means that it will not stop the loss of Metro Vancouver’s largest stock of low-end-of-market apartment buildings. Even if landlords and developers follow through with assisting tenants, there is no guarantee that tenants will be moved into a replacement unit anywhere near Maywood, meaning many residents will be uprooted from their communities and current employment, and their children from their school and friends. This is because rental vacancy rates in Metro Vancouver are at or below zero so losing 3,000 more units of housing will virtually eliminate the already scarce low-end of market rentals.
If displaced tenants don’t use their right of first refusal when the developments are completed, years down the road, the city says units will be rented out at 20% below the median rent identified by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Currently CMHC estimates the median rent for a 1bedroom apartment in the Metrotown area as $1186, making the city’s protected rents $946. Tying the city’s protected rent level to the median rent in the area means that as median rents increase, which they will as the area is upzoned, condo-ized, and gentrified, the protected rent will also increase.
Furthermore, the protected units will be tied to BC Housing income limits so individuals that do not make over $36,000 and households that do not make over $51,500 a year are not eligible without subsidies. This means the protected rentals replacing the low-end of market rental stock in the neighbourhood will be unaffordable for the pensioner, service-industry working class and Indigenous people who have made a home in Metrotown traditionally, and an impossibility for people on income assistance. In the words of another Metrotown resident, “city hall is trying to make a city for the rich not for the poor.”
It is worthwhile to celebrate the efforts of community struggle that brought about the new tenant assistance policy, but it is dangerous to get carried away by the promises of Hurley and city hall. Mayor Hurley, the housing task force, and the tenant assistance policy are absolutely products of the grassroots struggle for non-market housing in Burnaby. They are also the techniques of government to maneuver around actually building the social housing we need.