A group of Vancouver renters is fighting back against what its members say is a broken promise made by one of the city's most prominent developers, and a union that's stepped in to support them says the case could set a precedent for other renters displaced for redevelopment.
The developer, Reliance Properties, says its offer is very generous, and goes above and beyond what the city requires.
The city says it is aware of the "extreme pressure" faced by the tenants, and will not issue the occupancy permit for the new rental building until staff review the company's final tenant relocation report.
"The affordability crisis has created a rise in evictions related to redevelopment, renovation or sale, and protecting renters is a City priority," city communications staff wrote in an email to CTV News.
Kian Gray, his husband and the three other renters who are now disputing the developer's offer lived at 1170 Bidwell St. in Vancouver’s West End, in a three-story, older rental building with 12 units. The tenants moved out in 2016 so a new building with 108 rental apartments could be built.
Gray said he and the other tenants signed an agreement with Reliance in 2016. Gray showed his copy of that agreement to CTV News. It states that tenants have the "right of first refusal to move back into an equivalent/similar unit in the new building, upon completion, for the same rent amount for a 2-year term."
Gray and his neighbours understood that to mean that when they moved back, they would sign a lease for the same rent they had been paying before they moved (in Gray's case, $1,091 a month), and after two years, their landlord could raise the rent by the two per cent per year currently allowed by B.C.'s rent laws.
But in December, they received another document from Reliance. This one said the arrangement would actually involve signing a lease at the market rent – for Gray, $2,350 for a one-bedroom – and then getting a monthly rebate for $1,112. At the end of the two years, Gray and his husband would pay the full market rate of $2,350 – a 90 per cent increase, and a rate that would take up around 50 per cent of their combined income.
In a statement, Reliance acknowledged that "no specifics" about how the rent payments would actually work "were offered in 2016." But, the company said, "the economic outcome between the 2016 agreement and the December 2019 offer is the same: by signing a lease agreement for the new building, tenants will pay today's market rent with Reliance paying them back the difference between their old rate and the new rate for two years."
Reliance said it has added another option for tenants – signing a lease for 20 per cent off the market rent.
Reliance has provided rental housing for some of the tenants in another building it owns at 33 Water St. for the past three years at what the company said was below-market rates. Along with the two-year discount on rent at the new building, Reliance said the benefits to tenants total up to $60,000.
But Gray said he feels betrayed by the company. Jon Stovell, Reliance's head of acquisitions and development, visited a barbecue at the old building and seemed impressed by the sense of community the tenants had developed, Gray recalled.
At the public hearing for the project, where the mayor and city councillors hear expressions of support of opposition for new buildings, many of the West End residents who spoke expressed concerns about the height of the building or threat to neighbourhood character.
In contrast, Gray said, he spoke in support of the developer's plan.
"I remember commenting specifically to the councillors and staff, 'I know you've read the agreement, I know you know Reliance is treating us fairly, I need you to go to other developers and to look into how they are treating their tenants,'" Gray said.
City council approved the redevelopment. But today, Gray said, he feels he was "duped."
"I was made a fool of," he said.
Reliance is urging the tenants to accept one of the options on offer, and says the tenants who remain at 33 Water St. are now "staying beyond the expiry of their leases at a substantial discount." While the company hasn't served the tenants with an eviction notice, the company said it may take them before B.C.'s Residential Tenancy Branch so an arbitrator can "decide the matter."
Gray, who works at a B.C. Liquor Store, is a member of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union. The union has launched a petition calling on Stovell "to keep your promise to the renters you demovicted from 1170 Bidwell."
Bronwen Barnett, a communications officer for the union, said the BCGEU is interested in Gray's case because the union is concerned about "the cascading impact" the example could have on BCGEU members and other renters "if developers are not bound by the terms of their Tenant Relocation Plans as agreed with the City of Vancouver."
Barnett added that Gray's case could be "precedent-setting."