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Renters rally for right of refusal after renovations

"B.C.: the best place on earth to be evicted," read a placard wielded by one of more than 100 West End residents assembled in Nelson Park on Saturday afternoon for a tenant rights rally. The rally, organized by the Vancouver advocacy group Renters at Risk, was assembled to identify rental reform as a key issue during election season, namely the Oct. 29 provincial by-elections and the Nov. 15 municipal contests.

"This is not O.K. We need to change the legislation," said Renters at Risk co-founder Sharon Isaak, who famously fought an eviction notice at the Bay Tower apartments at 1461 Harwood when Hollyburn Properties took ownership of the building in 2005. Isaak and her neighbours fought the eviction and won their arbitration at the Residential Tenancy Office.

Isaak now dedicates much of her time to helping tenants in vulnerable housing situations. Fearing retribution from landlords if they speak out publicly, many come to her in search of advocacy. And she's never short of work: with 82 per cent of households renting in the West End and vacancy rates below one per cent, Isaak meets with people every week who fear for the tenure of their rental – and the ability to find an affordable place to live.

Isaak is pushing for the B.C. government to adopt a right of first refusal clause in its Residential Tenancy Act, which is already in place in Ontario. The clause would allow tenants to return to their apartments after renovations are completed without having to pay significantly higher rent.

"You cannot kick people out for renovations and then jack up the rent double," said Christine Ackermann, who recently fought an eviction notice at the Glenmore apartments at Gilford and Barclay this spring; "It was the most stressful thing I have ever gone through in my life."

A number of Ackermann and Isaak's neighbours were out at the rally, many of whom have already started to organize in anticipation of what they're forecasting as another flurry of illegal evictions to take place in the West End.

"This is the gutting of the West End," said Bay Towers resident and Little Sister's manager Janine Fuller. "This is the gutting of the community and the diversity and what makes the West End such a special place. It's a complete abandonment of any kind of policies that will reflect any kind of hope for renters in this province."

Vancouver-Burrard provincial candidates Arthur Griffiths (BC Liberals), Drina Read (Green Party), and Spencer Herbert (NDP) spoke at the rally. Griffiths was received by an unreceptive crowd, but promised that he would not abandon the riding and listen to everybody's concerns. Read, a lifelong renter, called for a reinstatement of the residential tenancy branch in the West End, which is now inconveniently located in Burnaby. Herbert said he would bring the right of first refusal clause to the B.C. government.

Both Read and Herbert completed housing surveys issued by Renters at Risk organizers.

Jackie Wong reports for the Westender

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