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“I hate bullies,” says André Duchene. “And this is almost by definition a case of bullying.” In May of last year, each tenant in Berkeley Tower in the West End was given a letter with the news that the building’s new owner, Reliance Properties, intended to proceed with substantial renovations. With that note, the tenants, including Duchene, joined the many Vancouverites facing renoviction.
Duchene, a lawyer who has been renting in the 60-year-old tower for five years, believes that while some of the proposed renovations are necessary—replacing windows, upgrading plumbing—others are not. The owners have requested to remove apartments from the second floor to turn it into an amenity space, for example, and to combine the 14th and 15th floors and subdivide them into three penthouses.
“I have a hard time imagining that these are necessary to improve the quality and lifetime of the building,” says Duchene. Whatever may need repairs, he says, could be fixed while tenants remain in their homes. To that end, he told his landlord that he would do what was needed to accommodate the renovations—which would avoid breaking his tenancy agreement—but the offer was rejected.
Reliance Properties offered tenants compensation packages that were higher than what is required by the Vancouver Tenant Relocation and Protection Policy (TRPP)—the offers varied per unit but on average were about triple the requirement—and many tenants made the choice to accept them and move out of the building, which sits on the corner of Denman and Davie. But Duchene wasn’t going to leave without a fight, and others in the building were with him. “It would mean destruction of the community, it would mean a real change of way of life for the people and for as well,” he says. “And so the building organized.”
He and a group of tenants spent time exploring options and participating in rallies alongside the Vancouver Tenants Union. In the process, Duchene became so impassioned with tenants’ rights that he changed the focus of his practice, Duchene Law, from family law to solely helping people fight abusive landlords. The firm operates on a contingency basis, so tenants don’t pay unless their case is successful.
“If the tenant loses, they’re homeless. If the landlord loses, they still have a tenant and they’re still collecting money,” Duchene says. “The gravity of the win-loss scenario is so disparate.”
In November, Vancouver city councillor Jean Swanson introduced a motion that she hoped would help prevent future renovictions. (Swanson told a Vancouver Sun reporter that she found buyouts like the one at Berkeley Tower “insidious”—they’re a tempting windfall, she said, but won’t cover increased rent in a replacement home for long.)
Two parts of her motion didn’t pass and are still being researched: first, that the TRPP—a policy that says landlords must create a tenant relocation plan that explains how they will determine whether the project requires renters to move, as well as compensate eligible renters and help them move out (and, in some cases, move back in with a discounted rent)—should apply to all forms of rentals (such as basement suites) and, second, that the city should work with the province to implement vacancy controls.
The parts of her motion that did pass will allow the city to start collecting information on apartment buildings that are sold, finally enabling it to track renovictions more accurately. Additionally, when a tenant has to be displaced because of a development or renovation, they now must be offered the option to temporarily move out, with the ability to return with their tenancy agreement intact—at the same rental rate.
Some cities have rolled out stronger protections to deter landlords from renovicting. Port Coquitlam, for example, created a bylaw in March ensuring that affected renters can move back into their previous homes without a rent increase. And it seems to be working—residents of Bonnie Brae Apartments on that city’s Western Drive were successful in their fight against a mass eviction in late May.
That same month, the B.C. government announced it would work on boosting education on tenancy rules and launch a new investigative unit within the Residential Tenancy Branch to examine serious rental complaints. And, in June, Vancouver city council passed a motion doubling compensation for displaced renters.
But Duchene isn’t feeling optimistic quite yet. In a recent high-profile West End case titled Aarti Investments Ltd. v. Baumann, the B.C. Court of Appeal dismissed the landlord’s case against the tenant, which, on the face of it, seemed like a win. However, the appeal was denied based on the landlord acting in bad faith and not securing proper permits, and essentially states that the tenant’s offers to accommodate the proposed renovations were irrelevant.
According to Duchene, prior to that recent decision, tenants had the right to avoid being evicted for renovations by accommodating a landlord’s need to renovate—for example, by temporarily moving out if necessary. But now that’s substantially no longer the case.
“Unless the provincial government steps in, it is safe to say that tenants’ rights will continue to get appreciably worse under this government’s watch,” says Duchene. He adds, “Allowing loopholes to exist allows landlords to end tenancies without proper cause and implement new leases at market rates. The Aarti Investments case potentially threatens the entire below-market-rate rental stock in B.C.”
As for Duchene’s own situation, the city gave Reliance a conditional approval (which at this stage doesn’t mean much) of the permits required to renovate, and now it’s just a waiting game to see what the amended plan will look like. “I love my home, I love my roommates, and we have a great situation here,” he says. “What do you do when you see something wrong happening? And it’s in your backyard? You fight it.”