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Market catches up to long-term tenants; rents to rise 38 percent

An eight-month tenant-landlord battle in Vancouver's West End came to a head this week following the public release of an April 2 decision from the Residential Tenancy Office that allows the new landlords of the Seafield apartments to issue 38 per cent rent increases to nine of the 14 units in the 77-year-old heritage building.

The hikes are lower than the 73 per cent increases originally requested by new landlords Jason Gordon and Chris Nelson, brothers-in-law and former internet gaming executives who bought the building last summer and have since been trying to bring rents up to what they see as market rates.

Seafield tenants, the oldest of whom have lived in the building for nearly 50 years, have been fighting what first seemed like evictions for renovations (what they called 'renovictions') and then the 73 per cent rent increases disputed during a March 11 conference-call hearing between 18 tenants, Gordon Nelson Investments, and a dispute resolution officer. Tenants are currently unable to comment further as they are seeking legal advice and a potential judicial review of the decision, but advocates say the decision marks the effective end of rent control in the province.

"I have spent the last three years of my life asking the BC Liberal government to review the [Residential Tenancy] Act, to remove sections that are causing evictions and $500-a-month rent increases. They will not do it," Sharon Isaak told reporters yesterday.

Isaak co-founded Renters at Risk, a local tenant rights advocacy group, when she and her neighbours were served floor-by-floor eviction notices in their West End apartment building in 2006. Isaak and her neighbours fought the case at the Residential Tenancy Office and, after a lengthy battle, won. "I encourage every renter in this province to wake up...this decision signals the end of rent control as we know it."

Vancover-Burrard MLA and Vancouver-West End NDP candidate Spencer Herbert has been lending support to Seafield tenants through their struggle and, in efforts to provide better security to long-term renters, introduced a private members' bill in the legislature last fall called the Long-Term Renters Protection Act.

"Basically, the floodgates are open now for big landlords to seek massive rent increases for tenants province-wide," he said. "We're calling for a balanced Residential Tenancy Act between landlords and tenants. Obviously, landlords need to be able to make money. We're not against yearly rent increases. We just think they need to be balanced."

Despite the 38 per cent increases that have some Seafield tenants paying up to $500.00 on top of their regular monthly rent, Gordon Nelson Investments partner Chris Nelson says the new rents are still not up to market rates.

"In the case of the two-bedroom units, we've rented a unit for $1850 a month. So it's still $400 less [than market rates], so still a big subsidy to the tenants," he told the Tyee. He called the Seafield case a "messy battle" that involved tough dealings with the tenants.

"It's been a long process...the tenants have done their best to intimidate, coerce, and threaten us to not proceed with a rent increase," he said. "They hung Jason and I in an effigy in front of the building. They've made this extremely ugly and been unprofessional. Hopefully this [result] will mean an end to that."

The Seafield decision document from the Residential Tenancy Office suggested that tenants were making a good-faith argument that is not part of the Residential Tenancy Act. "There is nothing in the Act which prohibits landlords from working to maximize their profits," the arbitrator wrote in the decision.

Christine Ackermann, Renters at Risk member and founder of political tenants' rights website Renters Fight Back, says her efforts to call on B.C. housing minister Rich Coleman to change the Residential Tenancy Act have fallen flat.

"When we asked them to make simple legislative changes, [Coleman] refused...He doesn't want this to happen," she said. "Well, parents, listen up: your kids will never be able to leave home. They will never be able to afford the high rents in this province. And while you're at it, you better get your basements ready, because your grandparents are moving in, too. The seniors can't afford this rent. This is a sham."

Jackie Wong reports for the WestEnder.

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