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Tenants in subsidized Olympic Village condos fear eviction over unexpected bills

VANCOUVER -- Ritta Mikkonen cried tears of joy when she and her husband Connor were selected to move into a coveted condo in a social housing block in Vancouver's swanky Olympic Village.

The former forestry engineer has been unable to work since a car accident seven years ago and neither can her husband, a former RCMP officer who suffered blood clots in his legs. When she got the call, they had been homeless for 14 months.

"I was so overwhelmed I started crying," Ritta Mikkonen said of learning they would get a one-bedroom at $400 per month. "I felt like we won the lottery."

But the fixed-income couple is fearful all that could come crumbling down again because those units of subsidized housing are still proving to be unaffordable.

They say they're not getting the deal they believed they were, and on Thursday called on the city to make things right.

Shortly after moving in, the couple and dozens of fellow tenants in the supported housing units opened some unexpected utility bills. In some cases, the costs rang in at upwards of 10 per cent of their monthly incomes.

"We don't want to whine too much, because we're very grateful for what we have," said Connor Mikkonen, standing outside the complex that was initially built to house athletes during the 2010 Winter Games.

"At the same time, the income doesn't support the payments. We already go to the food bank once a week. If we were forced to pay this Enerpro bill, we would have to move."

The tenants contend they've been saddled with additional costs they were never told about when signing resident agreements. They pay monthly BC Hydro bills for electricity, which was understood, but also get bills from a third-party billing company called Enerpro. Those bills cover the costs of heating and hot and cold water, which is calculated through a high-tech metering system that shows how much water and energy is being used in real-time.

It's all part of the village's aim to be environmentally sustainable and the tenants have since learned the system should produce the same, if not lower, bills. The city utility provides the energy siphoned from sewer systems and solar panels.

Residents were so shocked when they received their first bills — the Mikkonens were charged $148 for two months, although some bills came in at $50 — they complained to the city. Payments were suspended until about January 2012, but the group now fears the time when the bills come back online.

The property managers have told residents if they don't pay up, they may face eviction, said lawyer Scott Bernstein, with Pivot Legal Society.

"We say that's incorrect and that's wrong and that's unfair and we would like the city to take responsibility for this and deal with those bills accordingly," said Bernstein, who is assisting the group by collecting affidavits in order to generate a legal opinion on their rights. But the city isn't planning on subsidizing any utilities, and says the bills won't be nearly that expensive or unreasonable. A spokesman with Enerpro says the cost could be about $36 per month.

Vancouver has been covering the fees through taxpayer dollars since the initial resistance began, but that will stop in the near future. Deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston says the city admitted glitches caused "irregularities" when the metering system first got up and running — specifically in the social housing buildings — leading to inflated bills. That's why the city took on the Enerpro bills, and it has plans to credit residents who paid off the first batch.

Consultants have been working to fix the bug, and once it's sorted out, the bills will recommence.

"It is really, really unfortunate if there were some tenants that didn't understand the lease that they were signing. But it is a pretty standard lease," said Johnston.

"Assuming that the bills are average and appropriate, we would expect that a tenant would pay the bills that they signed a lease to pay. Just like a BC Hydro bill, you kind of need to pay your bills."

All residents living in the waterfront development pay the two sets of bills, although the billing glitch only seemed to affect the social housing units.

The City of Vancouver pledged to create hundreds of affordable condos after athletes vacated the Olympic Village set up for the 2010 Games. But that number was slashed to 160 when the city needed to recoup costs. Almost all units now have tenants.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly identified Scott Bernstein as Sam Bernstein

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