Risky Business – Closing Eviction Loopholes

Christine AckermannFor the past few years, Christine Ackermann has heard heart-wrenching stories in the news about tenants facing eviction in our city.

Bay Towers, Seafield Apartments, Emerald Terrace, The Glenmore, Reid Manor and Marine Gardens – hundreds of people living in these buildings have been evicted or threatened with eviction, only to be pushed into a rental market that, at last report by Canada's Mortgage and Housing Corporation, had a 0.5 per cent vacancy rate and some of the highest rents in Canada.

Adding to Vancouver's rental woes, some landlords are planning to evict tenants and lease out vacated units during the 2010 Games at exorbitant rates to Olympic visitors.

It's a perfect storm for the more than 56 per cent of city dwellers who rent and the perfect time for an organization to mobilize tenants to fight back. Enter Renters at Risk.

Founded in 2004, Renters at Risk (RAR) has been working to unite renters predominantly in the city's West End, fight market-driven evictions and change laws to better protect renters. Formed by tenants facing eviction, today RAR is made up of a core group of a dozen volunteers, the majority of them West Enders – some of them home owners, most of them not. Meeting in their apartments to develop their plans and strategy, the group makes all decisions together and relies on different members to take the lead on an issue. It's very much an on-the-job learning experience for these community-minded activists, according to RAR volunteer member Christine Ackermann.

Tracing her own involvement in RAR, Ackermann recalls how just last May she knew little about the issues facing renters in the city. Then her landlord issued eviction notices to her and the 20 other tenants of her building.

Worried about losing her home, Ackermann started to talk with her neighbours. Someone suggested they meet with RAR representatives about getting help to fight the evictions. Ackerman threw herself into the fight to save her building and in a matter of weeks she went from being a potential victim of unscrupulous landlords to seasoned housing activist. Plus, she kept her apartment.

Following this victory, Ackermann did not fade back into her regular life. Working as an executive assistant in a non-profit by day, she has now become a central figure in RAR efforts to help other renters keep their homes.

"It's heart-breaking to see the devastating profiteering by some landlords," says Ackermann. "At the Seafield Apartments right now, we are working with an 83 year-old man and his 92 year-old sister who are facing rent hikes of $700 per month over proposed renovations – a 60 per cent increase – for a home they have lived in for 47 years."

"Some developers are trying to turn the West End into Yaletown through ‘renovictions,'" says Ackermann. "We need to close the loopholes and take away these kinds of business tactics from the bad developers."

RAR is about grassroots, community organizing led directly by the citizens who are impacted by the affordable housing crisis – and it is working. Under RAR's leadership, renters are asserting their rights by effectively waging a public awareness and legal campaign to successfully prevent evictions.

Moreover, the fight is not merely defensive, it is proactive. For RAR, the housing crisis is not just about one neighbourhood or one city – it's an issue that affects British Columbians province-wide. People from Kelowna, Kamloops, Victoria, Prince George and other cities are contacting RAR weekly asking for advice and guidance about fighting evictions. That is why RAR is also advocating Victoria make legislative changes that would protect renters across the province.

Five years ago, RAR started with a simple idea that ordinary people could fight against unjust evictions in one West End apartment building. As Ackermann notes, it just takes a few people to make change happen.

For more information about Renters at Risk, visit http://www.rentersatrisk.ca/.