Real Estate

East Van tenants are organizing to fight a potentially devastating real estate loophole

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From outside, the building at 1171-1177 East 14th Avenue is unremarkable: a pitched roof, multiple entrances, and covered patio are all common features in a three-story East Van edifice. But inside, the tenants of the multiplex’s seven rental units have found themselves battling a series of legal loopholes that could impact renters all over Vancouver. 

The building was sold in 2021. In 2022, new landlord Andrzej Kowalski submitted a redevelopment permit to the city. More recently, tenants found out he is planning to evict the existing renters, and convert the long-standing apartments into four strata condos—turning seven affordable rentals into fewer, pricier homes for sale. 

“The city is supposed to be trying to establish affordable housing,” says Terry McIntosh, a 75-year-old botanist who has lived in a two-bed apartment in the building for 26 years. “And yet, here they are, eliminating some things like this… Nobody’s happy about it in the neighbourhood.”

Under the Tenancy Act, landlords can evict tenants to turn rental units into strata condos. However, two-thirds of households have to agree to the conversion to proceed, which is not the case for the East 14th Avenue multiplex, and municipal laws further restricts the process. 

Tenants fear that their landlord is applying for permits to do renovation work, will evict the tenants once he obtains the correct permits, and then push through the strata conversion when the building is empty and nobody can protest. 

The nine residents—including a senior and a Ukrainian refugee—say other apartments in the same neighbourhood wouldn’t be nearly as affordable. Current average rent for a vacant two-bed apartment in Vancouver is over $3,700, according to a February report from Rentals.ca.  

BC has the highest rate of evictions in the country, almost double the national average, with “no fault evictions” (not related to tenants’ behaviour) driving much of the discrepancy. While the provincial government promised to tackle bad-faith evictions in 2021, and the municipal Tenant Relocation and Protection Policy theoretically forces landlords to provide more support to displaced tenants, advocates say the policies are poorly enforced and do little to help renters.

That’s further complicated by the fact the building is considered low density, and thus not covered by city policy that protects most apartment blocks from conversion into strata or requires a one-for-one replacement of lost units. And, as the homes would no longer be rentals, usual renoviction protections such as offering displaced tenants “right of first refusal” of new units wouldn’t apply.

Tenants emailed the City asking them to deny the landlord’s building permit application. In a response, Gurv Brar, senior manager of business services and strategic compliance, told residents that the application seemed to comply with by-laws. “Our hands are tied in terms of refusing the application as long as it complies with the City’s regulations,” Brar wrote in January. 

Since tenants found out about the plan, their landlord has not directly responded to any of their letters or emails asking for clarification. When reached by email, a representative for Kowalski said he was “working with the City through the application process”.

While it may technically be legal, the situation doesn’t seem to have happened before, and it could pave the way for other landlords to follow similar steps in evicting tenants from affordable rentals. 

“We’re over here scratching our heads like, why are we the first ones to go through this?” says Autumn Dickinson, another resident of the building. “[The loophole] has been here for quite some time, so it’s very possible that there’s more going on that we’re not aware of.”

The renters at 1171-1177 East 14th Avenue know each other well and are happy to pool their resources and expertise—which may not be true for residents of all rentals.

“One of the things that scares me is we’re in a pretty decent situation,” they add. “We have people in the building who know how to read city by-laws and make sense of it. And if this catches on, it’s a threat to more than just our building: a lot of other people are going to be in a world of hurt and not have the same resources that we do.”

With support from the Vancouver Tenants Union, the building’s residents hosted an event in early February to draw attention to their situation. The renters erected a free-standing sign that mimicked City of Vancouver development signs, set up tents, and invited people to sign a petition which has now garnered hundreds of signatures. Dozen of people braved the rain to turn up and show solidarity, including neighbours on the block—and the building’s previous owner—who were ”shocked” and “very concerned.”

An event in early February to rally support saw hundreds of people sign a petition decrying the potential redevelopment.
James Lloyd

McIntosh says that the following Monday, tenants received an email from the building manager suggesting they take the sign down as it was damaging the property. 

“The structure did absolutely no damage to the building or property or the fence. It wasn’t touching any of the landlord’s prized possession,” Dickinson says. “The property manager was claiming, ‘You’re defacing the property’. We think that’s a bogus charge.”

Not long after tenants responded to the message on Tuesday, a man was “smashing it up, and putting it in the back of their car.” McIntosh says he recognized the man as having previously come to work on repairs at the building. 

For now, tenants are waiting to see what the City decides, and looking into how else they can fight the potential evictions. But they say there’s an easy answer: if the landlord could call the whole thing off, and carry on accepting the tenants’ rent cheques. 

“Just drop it. Forget the development, and go on as is,” says McIntosh. “It’s our right to pay the rent—I like it status quo, just the way it is.”

Editor’s note, February 26: An email from Gurv Brar received after this story went to print indicates that the landlord has not applied for a strata permit yet. It also states, “A residential building application for strata conversion of six or more dwelling units goes to City Council for approval,” suggesting the conversion will require Council permission to proceed.

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