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North Vancouver residents face renoviction struggle in pandemic

Some tenants at 315 East 1st Street have called the building home for close to three decades and are now being forced to find new rentals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
315 East 1st Street tenants (2)
Alan Clark (with dog) and Nick Toplass (right), with fellow residents of 315 East First St. in North Van, have been served eviction notices by the building's owners.

On March 31, residents living in the apartment building at 315 East First St. in North Vancouver received a knock at the door with news that no tenant ever wants.

They were all handed an eviction notice for the purpose of renovations. They were being "renovicted." 

“I signed on the sheet saying that I got the notice but hadn't fully read what it was for,” Nick Toplass, who has been a resident of the building for five years, said.

“I went inside and started actually reading through it and realized that it was an eviction notice and my heart kind of stopped. I have lost sleep almost every day since I got the notice and have been drained, trying to find resources to help.”

The 35-year-old is just one of the tenants of 47 suites, most double occupancy, who have until July 31 to vacate the building, which some have called home for close to three decades. While residents are starting to move and make plans, some are also trying to fight the situation they believe to be unfair.

The eviction notice, from Inletview Apartment Management – 230715 Holdings Ltd., states the apartment building, built in 1971, has “served the community for 50 years without major renovation, and the fuse panel and electrical system are no longer acceptable to any insurance company and also not renewable unless the systems are upgraded.”

“For safety requirements, major upgrades for the electrical wiring and breaker panel systems are necessary,” the notice reads. “During this major renovation, all units will not have electricity for four to six months; hence, the whole building must be vacant.”

Some residents have already been fortunate enough to find new rentals, while others who are elderly, single mothers, on low incomes, or who have pets are finding it difficult to secure a new place to call home.

Further to their struggle, residents say the previous owners, who sold the building around 2.5 to 3 years ago, had kept rent down way below market value and did little maintenance, and evictees were now facing rent increases of 50 to 60 per cent.  

For Brent Bryde, who is a full-time caretaker for his 62-year-old paraplegic brother, Trevor, who requires wheelchair access, finding a new place at such short notice is an incredibly daunting experience and he still has no idea what they will do.

The 66-year-old has called 315 East First St. home for the past 26 years and also fears he will not have enough references to secure a new home.

“As far as these renovations are concerned, giving people four months just isn't enough time. It's going to be hard to find somewhere.  Especially one that's affordable, especially on the North Shore,” Bryde said.

Alan Clark, who has been living in a bachelor suite at the building for $833 a month, said he had found a new place to rent but would be paying double the price. The 65-year-old said while his suite was in poor condition he had stayed for the location and because it allowed him to keep his dog.

“You're just a little caught off guard,” he said. “You sit down and digest it, and then people started to get angry; why couldn't they have done something or worked something out so people could have stayed in the building?

“They [the landlords] haven't done one extra thing to kind of ease the trauma of the situation.”

Multiple stop work orders issued for the building

On top of the stress of having to move, tenants say the landlord has been disrupting the little time they have left by starting renovations on vacant suites and to the building’s floors and walls, for which they have been issued a number of stop work orders. 

The building currently has four WorkSafeBC stop work orders in place, three for renovations to suites and one for the whole building, all relating to asbestos dangers. A fifth stop work notice was issued by the City of North Vancouver for builders blockading two primary fire exits and then removing and replacing the fire exit stairs without notice to tenants. 

“I'm extremely concerned about the landlord's behaviour, but especially concerned about the safety and welfare of the residents,” Bowinn Ma, North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA, said. Ma has been guiding residents through the difficult situation, including hosting a virtual town hall with a legal advocate from the Tenant Resource Advisory Council and helping tenants to file disputes with the Residential Tenancy Branch.

Ma said she reached out to the building manager, asking them to be more flexible with their tenants during this already difficult time, and was disappointed with the response that “they were just following the rules.”

“I would be more inclined to believe their commitment to the rules if they hadn't also received multiple stop work orders from WorkSafeBC and the city for violations of some pretty clear safety requirements in terms of their renovations that they're proceeding,” she said.

“I'm really disappointed in what appears to be a lack of compassion for the situation.”

The start of renovations and apparent neglect of safety regulations ahead of the scheduled electrical work the landlord claims needs to be done for insurance purposes has many tenants questioning their landlord’s intent and believing it is a “ruse” to allow them to renovate and then jack up rent prices.

“If they were to do what they are claiming they are going to do [baseboard heating and electrical work], there would be no point in renovating units to the point that they are doing, or to laying all the new flooring throughout the whole building and painting all the walls,” said Mike Hogan, who works in construction and had lived in the building for 29 years before moving out last week.

“It makes no sense. From what I see, they're putting some lipstick on the place to be able to get rid of people to be able to put the rent up to market value." 

He said the whole situation really "pissed him off" and it could have been handled better. 

“It's 47 units here, you have single mothers here with children and retirees on fixed incomes, who are very worried about where they're going to go now," Hogan said. 

Toplass is now doing everything in his power to “delay or prevent” the renoviction from happening and to support the more vulnerable tenants of the building but said the situation had left him feeling “defeated and frustrated." 

He is leading a joint dispute, of up to 11 tenant disputes filed, which has been submitted to RTB and is currently being followed up. 

Inletview Apartment Management maintain they’ve done their best to delay the renovictions. In a follow-up letter to tenants on April 6, they outlined they had been negotiating back and forth with their insurance company, Intact Insurance, to renew their insurance, but claim they were only provided a one-month extension to secure contractors to upgrade their current wiring and electrical system.

“We understand that it is a hard time during the COVID-19 pandemic and we have tried our best to postpone the upgrade from last year,” they wrote. “But we are not able to postpone the major renovation any further due to the lack of insurance coverage for the building.”

The tenants will also be given one month's rent compensation.

Changes on the way to help renters facing unfair renovictions

They’re not the first tenants to face a renoviction and they won’t be the last. In the City of North Vancouver, nearly half of all residents are renters, many of whom live in purpose-built rental buildings that were constructed between 1950 and 1970, a release from Mayor Linda Buchanan states. Escalating land values and rent freezes are further increasing the potential risk for renovictions.

To help protect tenants in the future, Buchanan submitted a notice of motion at council’s May 10 regular meeting for enhanced support for renters facing unfair renovictions, which was supported unanimously.

City staff will now consider a range of policy options including the required use of a tenant relocation co-ordinator for those facing displacement, updates to the Mid-Market Rental Unit program to give priority to displaced tenants, and an enhanced review and verification of permit issuance for renovations in rental buildings.

“For far too long our older purpose-built rental units have not been well protected and in fact have been primed for unfair renovictions,” Buchanan said. “Increasing the tools available in our toolbox will allow us to take action at the local level on this important issue.”

On top of this, the provincial government has made changes to the Rental Tenancy Act that come into effect on July 1 that will require all renoviction plans to be submitted in advance to the RTB for an arbitrator to review and either grant or deny.

“What this does is, it prevents bad faith evictions,” Ma said. “Landlords have to be able to demonstrate that they actually need a vacant possession of the unit in order to do the work that they're doing.

“This building ended up getting eviction notices under the wire.”

Ma said the new legislation might not stop all evictions, but it will at least lift a renter's burden of wondering whether they had been treated unfairly.

Unfortunately, for Toplass and the rest of the tenants at 315 East First St., the legislation is just a little too late.

“It's just such a wrong situation to be in and to know that you're almost powerless to prevent it and to see your neighbours all getting kicked out and being exposed to these markets and to the mental health drain, especially after this pandemic year, it’s just been brutal,” Toplass said, who still isn’t 100 per cent sure where he will go either.

“Going into a living situation you plan for that stability and to have it uprooted from you out of nowhere, it just leaves you feeling uncertain of the future.”

Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.