I put down roots in Kitsilano, a neighbourhood in Vancouver, Canada, in 2002, and I have lived in the same purpose-built rental unit since then. My apartment’s one block from Kitsilano Beach, known for its incredible view of the mountains, bike and walking paths, and green spaces. And it’s a ten-minute walk up the hill to West 4th Avenue, a street known for its shops and restaurants. A fifteen-minute bus ride west gets me to the University of British Columbia, where I received a bachelor of arts degree in human geography in 2018, and fifteen minutes to the east and south gets me to work downtown or to other bus connections. City planners such as Larry Beasley, the author of Vancouverism, will tell you that these amenities make Vancouver one of the world’s most livable cities, but ask any renter who lives here, and you’ll likely hear a different story. If you’re locked into unaffordable rents, fearing eviction because of a 1 percent vacancy rate, and unable to afford many of the city’s amenities, is your city really “livable”?
Before I moved into my apartment in 2002, I and a co-renter painted the entire suite, including the ceiling, to make it pristine. The money for supplies came out of our own pockets because the landlord refused to do renovations. At that time, according to the Residential Tenancy Act, units were supposed to be painted every five years, but the landlord-owner instead waited until tenants moved out before painting vacant suites. Over the next two decades, I staved off five attempted evictions or, as they’ve come to be known, renovictions. Landlords tell tenants they have to move so they can perform major upgrades but then turn around and relist the apartment for more than the original rent. In certain circumstances, renovictions are legal, but more often, they’re a way for landlords to circumvent rent-control laws. Until recently in BC, landlords could also remove tenants by claiming that they planned to use or inhabit the house or suite, otherwise known as eviction for occupancy by the landlord or the landlord’s close family.
The labour that we put into that apartment was sweat equity. We increased the value of the property by the sweat of our own labour, and according to the law at the time, as now, we should have been reimbursed for the cost of the paint. These costs should have been deducted from the following month’s rent, but the landowner refused to pay when we submitted receipts. Then and now, tenants are not compensated for their sweat equity. Because I alone had signed the Standard Residential Tenancy Agreement, I had to reimburse my co-renter, who moved out in September 2002. I alone have rented the suite since then.
In 2004, the Residential Tenancy Act changed. Renters had to ask permission from the landlord to make repairs, so landlords, if they wanted, could rot out a tenant by denying their requests. I consulted with a lawyer who read over my tenancy agreement and told me that since I had signed it before the new legislation, I could maintain my suite without having to ask permission from the landlord. I gathered together a plumber, electrician, and a person who works for a home-repair company, and they helped me keep my rental unit in a pristine condition. Everything was fine, but then two things happened. First, in 2006, my landlord’s daughter took control of the apartment building. Whereas her father had never raised rents, she increased our rents annually, citing increased costs. But by law, she could only increase the rent by a certain percentage each year.
Second, our property manager died from a heart attack while shovelling snow in December 2009, just before the Vancouver Winter Olympics. He ran his own construction company and had made improvements, including painting, on our suites. The landlord’s daughter hired a new property manager in January 2010 as a renovictor. Her task: to clear the building of long-term tenants like me through forced moves so they could increase the rent.
It didn’t take long for the first renoviction notice to arrive. I found it taped to my door the first week in January 2010. I was able to fend it off because I was more prepared than other tenants and had plenty of detailed documentation to prove to the Residential Tenancy Branch arbitrator that I’m a good, clean, quiet tenant who pays her rent on the first day each month. Friends from the neighbourhood spoke on my behalf, and the arbitrator smelled an illegal renoviction.
The second renoviction attempt began in 2012. Again, I fought it and won. Two days before Christmas Eve, the landlord’s plumber came into my suite without my permission while I was at school. He opened the hot water central heating valve to allow air into my hot water heating lines. This sabotage meant I had no heat over Christmas because it took three days for the air to rise inside the plumbing pipe through the line to the penthouse above my suite. I filed a complaint with the Residential Tenancy Branch because property management ignored my phone calls asking them to restore the heat. A lawyer working for Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS) advised me that the owner and manager likely planned to file a complaint to evict me on the grounds that my suite had leaks in the plumbing and fixtures and that I was refusing to allow their plumber into my suite. Once they restored the heat two weeks later, I hustled down to the Residential Tenancy Branch to close the file because the repairs had been done. The owner was too late to file a response to my initial request for dispute resolution because I had closed the complaint in time. From then on, I didn’t notify the property manager of heating issues. Instead, whenever management’s plumber caused a problem, I asked the previous building plumber, who had worked on the building for two decades and had become my friend, to fix it and to write in his invoice that my suite was in good working order. He had laid down all the plumbing in my suite in 1999 and said it would last for years.
The third renoviction attempt came in 2014. This time, the owner and property manager filed a claim that my suite was rotting and leaking and that I was refusing to allow their plumber into my suite. I won because my plumber inspected my suite and wrote up an invoice, which was upheld by the arbitrator, who was convinced that my plumbing and fixtures were “in good working order.”
The fourth renoviction attempt – this time a notice to end tenancy for landlord’s use of property – occurred in 2017. This time, the owner claimed she or a close family member planned to move into my suite and needed to renovate it first. I explained to the arbitrator that the owner had no intention to move into my suite: she had a penthouse in our building that she never used. The property manager had also recently renovated three suites (illegally, without getting proper permits), which she could have moved into, and her son had already moved into the suite below mine from another suite in our building. On the eviction form I received, management had checked off “has gained all necessary permits.” However, I knew, and the property manager’s son later admitted to the arbitrator, that they didn’t bother to get permits before a job. “We get them later.” In fact, the only permit that the owner had was for the installation of a new bathtub and kitchen sink in my suite, which I didn’t need, as my plumber testified.
My MLA, David Eby, advised me that this was a phony eviction, that the owner did not have all the necessary permits, that “you don’t evict someone over a bathtub or kitchen sink.” I could offer to shower and change at the nearby recreation centre during renovations, because it wouldn’t take more than one to two days to install a bathtub and kitchen sink. The arbitrator also asked the property manager’s son during the dispute resolution hearing, “Why THIS tenant, why THIS suite”? When she heard about the previous eviction attempts, she found an “abuse of the process.” She wrote in her decision that the property manager had even admitted to having an “ulterior motive” – to evict a long-term tenant: “All they wanted to do was renovate. Eventually, we’ll just give Cheryl-lee Madden a fifth eviction notice.” The arbitrator ruled in my favour.
The last and final eviction attempt occurred in 2019. This time, as with the third attempt, they claimed that I would not cooperate with their plumber. Again, I brought in a sworn statement from my plumber to the effect that my suite was in excellent working condition and that I am a model tenant. The arbitrator asked me to cite previous eviction attempts with dates and file numbers. After that, the arbitrator asked the owner directly, “How many times have you telephoned or spoken with Cheryl-lee Madden during her nearly twenty years living in this suite?” The owner replied, “Once.” The arbitrator found a pattern of targeted intimidation aimed to silence me and force me to move out.
I’m happy to still be living in the rental unit I love and have kept in as pristine a state as possible with my sweat equity. But I am a long-term tenant who lives in one of the few remaining affordable buildings in Kitsilano.