Housing series: Part 1, Searching for shelter with renovictions on the rise

by | Sep 14, 2016 | 0 comments

PRINCE RUPERT — Without a home or shelter some people choose to bide their time in the alcoves of Sixth Street and Third Avenue West.

The reason for their situation is part of a bigger issue Prince Rupert is faced with as rents continue to rise, social housing units dwindle and the need for a homeless shelter in the city becomes more apparent.

This first part in this housing series will look at renovictions — a term that makes most renters quiver in a community that has next to zero vacancy rates.

One woman explained why she ended up on that alcove, wondering where she was going to sleep that night. The woman, who sat on the concrete step surrounded by men, said she had been renovicted more than a month ago. She asked that she remain anonymous because she didn’t want others to know that she was indeed homeless.

“We used to rent up on Sloan Avenue and got kicked out because apparently they wanted to renovate,” she said. The owner told her and her partner they had to leave in two months because they were going to jack up the rent, and that they only wanted people who were working for the port.

“Me and my other half aren’t the only ones getting renovicted,” she said.

Her partner, who said he is a plumber by trade, is doing the odd job but hasn’t found steady work. Since the end of July, the couple have used the Salvation Army services in the day, and sleep at Raffles Inn at night. Raffles Inn has eight beds dedicated to the homeless, but each morning the rooms have to be vacated.

Renovictions are when the landlord tells the tenants that they have to leave due to substantial renovations being done to the rental, and once the tenants leave the rent is increased significantly. The provincial standard for rent increase in 2016 is 2.9 per cent. If the landlord wants to raise rents to market value, they have to start from scratch with new tenants.

The coordinator and advocate for the Prince Rupert Unemployment Society, Ulf Kristiansen, spends much of his time helping people who have been evicted. From January until the end of July, he dealt with 96 housing issues — 29 of which were evictions.

“Looking at the time frame and the number of evictions that basically means I’m dealing with one eviction a week,” Kristiansen said.

The best way to help his clients is to make sure the eviction was lawful. A landlord can’t evict a tenant if the proper form isn’t used as required by the residential tenancy act. If that form isn’t used, Kristiansen helps his clients put together an application for dispute resolution, which is evaluated by the residential tenancy branch and the eviction is deemed either effective or not.

“I’d say 60 per cent of my clients survived the eviction and 40 per cent of my clients did not,” he said confirming that “among those evictions were a significant number of claims that the landlord was renovating and others where the landlord was claiming that a close relative was moving in.”

In the past three years, with the speculation of liquefied natural gas (LNG) development in the region, rent has made a significant leap. After the pulp mill on Watson Island ended operations in 2004, and the fishing industry declined, vacancy rates soared and rent plummeted. Back then, Kristiansen said renters would be okay if they were late paying rent, or short on the amount they paid, but times have changed.

“Three years ago, there was still a considerable number of vacancies in Prince Rupert, that’s not the case now. Landlords will take any opportunity they can to evict. Not all of them, but many of them will, because if they can evict a tenant they can get somebody in at a significantly higher rent,” he said.

If a tenant is a dollar short or an hour late in paying rent, the landlord has the legal right to issue an eviction notice, however if the rent is paid within five days the eviction notice is annulled. With all the work Kristiansen does as a poverty advocate he said increased funding for social housing from the federal and provincial governments is key, and more housing units need to be built in the city.

The managing broker for Royal LePage in Prince Rupert, Keith Lambourne, sees the need for more housing developments as well. There is a shortage of development land in the city, and building on cliffs is difficult and costly.

“The developers for the most part, not all of them, but for the most part they have their eye for the LNG announcement. They’ll put a shovel in the ground once we have a positive final investment decision from Petronas, and if we don’t they’re not sure if the market’s there. I’m sure that the market is there,” Lambourne said.

LNG or no, there is a $300-million development project taking place in the region with the port expansion, and there is going to be an influx of new people coming to the area to work for the port.

Landlords are sometimes painted in a greedy light, Lambourne said, but they also went through hard times when the pulp mill closed, and then when the recession hit in 2008, people returned their keys and landlords were renting out at a loss.

Rents could be as low as $500 a month, but then demand rose and the supply dried up. Until recently, landlords weren’t getting a decent return on their investment. “Now, there’s a market where landlords are starting to recoup some of that loss and actually make a small profit on their investment. But because we came from such a low number it makes it look even worse,” he said.

The risk, with low or no vacancy and rising rents, is that people doing service industry jobs, who earn minimum wage, won’t be able to afford those rents. For those who already can’t, the solution may be as simple as build more social housing units or build a homeless shelter but that will take time and funding from the province.

The series will continue next week with an investigation on what the City of Prince Rupert is doing about a Province of B.C. problem.

This story was originally published in The Northern View on September 14, 2016