Vancouver Tenants Union: Direct Action for Affordable Housing

On April 29th, a group of diverse Vancouverites came together in the basement of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, located off of Main and 12th street, to share their stories and unionize. Their common ground? They are all tenants who have experienced the worsening problem of rent eviction in a city that continues to jeopardize the livelihood of its inhabitants, low-income residents, students, artists and various other demographics who can’t withstand the unrelenting and, for the most part, unrestricted rent increases.

These are the perils of the free market, which become magnified in a city that is seeing its housing, commercial and social life subsumed by the financial goals of a few corporate groups.

As the tenants began to speak, it became clear that there are a few real-estate companies and groups that hold monopolies on most of the buildings in Vancouver. Some of those mentioned were Giovanni Zen, the Sahotas and G&M Enterprises, all notorious in Vancouver for mistreating tenants. What also became apparent was that housing, a fundamental human right, has been turned into a commodity with little or no regard for those who call Vancouver home yet who can no longer afford to live here. Among the more poignant speeches was from a First Nations woman, who reminded the audience that her people can be carbon dated on the land back to around 10,000 years, yet she can’t afford a residency in Vancouver, a young colonial settlement, that has been around for a measly 150.

It’s important to note that Vancouver’s commercial nightlife and other entertainment sectors suffer from similar problems, since groups like the Donnelly Group hold liquor license monopolies on many venues. These are the perils of the free market, which become magnified in a city that is seeing its housing, commercial and social life subsumed by the financial goals of a few corporate groups.

The severity of the situation is illustrated best by testimony, which was given by an alarming number of tenants who all shared differing, personal stories of mistreatment. Aside from being disturbing at times, their stories were also a stern reminder that without a union, individuals have much less power and agency to defend themselves, which is why collectivizing is often the only solution for disenfranchised groups. Apart from the pitfalls of bureaucracy– a serious pain in itself– many tenants also encountered devious tactics on the part of their landlords, often involving lies, threats or intimidation.

One tenant, an older gentleman who was paying $600 for a 1-bedroom basement suite in the West End, was told by his landlord that his room was “unfit for human habitation” and that he had to move by the end of the month. Later on that week, a friend sent him a link to his apartment, which was going for $1500 on Craigslist. Another tenant described being threatened with eviction for smudging, a ritual both part of her spiritual practice and cultural traditions. Others spoke as representatives of entire buildings under threat of losing their community life due to pricing. Both the Regent Hotel and the Belvedere, which house many low income residents, are facing similar problems regarding manipulation tactics and neglectful business practices on the part of their landlords.

Especially in Mt. Pleasant, where the Belvedere is located, every square inch is seeing development, and many landlords in the Mt. Pleasant area are using unethical methods to displace tenants. This is done in order to renovate or rebuild properties to serve those in higher income brackets. If regulations are not put in place soon, they will eventually be the only income demographic in Vancouver proper while everyone else is displaced.

One such tactic is the geographical loophole which allows landlords to use a “geographical increase clause” to increase rent if they can prove that similar units in the area go for more. One can imagine that if several landlords are using this loophole, it only compounds the rent elevation in any given area.

Others resort to more primitive tactics, such as bribes. In the case of the Belvedere, landlords have tried offering buyouts to certain tenants, which actively undermines their solidarity.

In a city marred by high real-estate prices, the blame shouldn’t go entirely towards property owners who are trying to make ends-meet, but towards legislators, politicians, real-estate developers and the like, who have neglected the regulation and oversight necessary to keep housing affordable; a right that should be extended to all citizens.

Another enemy is AirBnB, which incentivizes property owners to convert their spaces for temporary travelers, rather than prioritizing long term residents.

In a city marred by high real-estate prices, the blame shouldn’t go entirely towards property owners who are trying to make ends-meet, but towards legislators, politicians, real-estate developers and the like, who have neglected the regulation and oversight necessary to keep housing affordable; a right that should be extended to all citizens. The fact is, the city hasn’t been noticeably helpful in representing tenants and their struggles, nor has it looked for alternative solutions from other places in B.C and elsewhere. In other parts of B.C, if a landlord is neglectful, you are given an automatic hearing; and in Montreal, rent control is in place so if one tenant moves out of a residency, the new tenant moving in will not experience  rent increases.

A perfect example of how people take advantage of weak regulations is the “fixed term tenancy loophole,” a loophole which allows landlords to manipulate their fixed-term tenancy agreements to rent-evict their tenants by demanding rent increases far above the annual increase allowed for month-to-month agreements. As of yet, despite promises from B.C’s housing minister, this loophole has not been fixed and people are still losing their homes.

These are the circumstances out of which the Tenants Union was born, and many of the social workers and organizers who spoke at the event reminded everyone that the problem is manifold. They articulated that the housing crisis is one facet of a larger problem in Vancouver, with many issues interrelated. Yes, focus should be on renters, since 50% of Vancouverites rent. And yes, affordable housing should be a priority, since an average 1 bedroom in Vancouver is $1900 a month; the highest in the country. But despite eviction protection, the tenants union also wishes to address the homelessness and poverty crisis as well as the factors that make the way for these crises, such as discrimination against those with mental illness and substance abuse problems.

There are currently c.1200 estimated homeless in Vancouver right now, and the actual number is probably a lot higher. Welfare has been frozen at $6.10 for 10 years, which is hardly enough to afford groceries, much less rent for an SRO. SROs (single room occupancies), are often the only way those who are low income or formerly homeless can afford housing, and the city is still far below those promised in the previous election. The result of the commodification of housing as investment is that everyone except homeowners and the wealthy suffer, and this is exactly what the Vancouver Tenants Union is seeking to combat.

They wish to accomplish these goals by encouraging people to unify in order to protect against eviction. They will do this by holding the city accountable to improve housing and incomes so that people are no longer forced to live in smaller and more run down buildings for higher rent and less rights.

The first step for them, however, is giving people the training to fight for themselves, and more simply, create a community in the light of this ongoing struggle. Unlike elsewhere in B.C and in Canada, Vancouver does not pay community organizers to represent their tenant constituency, and this is no surprise, since they often conflict with the priorities of  developers and politicians. Hopefully as their voice grows in power, this collusion will be undermined by the will of the people, and the Tenants Union will be able to enact some of the change that Vancouver urgently needs. “Don’t put up with your landlord’s shit”one speaker reminds the audience, “just keep a cool head and fight them.”

To learn more, join, and/or donate to the Tenants Union, visit their website here or their Facebook page.

To learn more about Vancouver’s housing and development problems, check out these other articles:

The Tyee – Slumlords

Vancourier – Our Town Cafe

National Post – Meet the Mysterious Tycoon At the Centre of Half A Billion in BC Property Deals

CBC – More Vancouver Renters Decry Loophole Used To Sharply Raise Rents

For help with legal inquiries, specifically involving the fixed term agreement loophole, visit and contact Pivot Legal Society.

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