The City of Vancouver’s building boom is raising the ire of its large population of renters.
In 2014, the city issued building permits for $2.83 billion worth of projects, a new record and an increase of 29% from 2013’s $2.2 billion and 77% from 2008’s $1.6 billion.
Approximately, 80% of residents in the city’s West End are renters, and there are renovation or construction projects in almost every West End neighbourhood. Tom Durning, a senior staffer at the non-profit Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre (TRAC), said tenants’ “right to quiet enjoyment,” as defined by the B.C. Residential Tenancy Act, is being widely violated.
“I’ve never seen it this bad in all the years I’ve been around. People are just flocking to Vancouver and it’s what’s driving all of this. There’s hardly a day that goes by that I don’t hear from someone who’s moved here from somewhere else.”
According to Jag Sandhu, the city’s communications co-ordinator of media and issues management, the city fielded 830 construction noise complaints in 2014 and 303 as of the first week of June this year.
Under the city’s noise control bylaw, construction on private property is allowed Monday to Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays. It’s prohibited on Sundays and statutory holidays. Construction on public property such as city streets, lanes and boulevards is allowed from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays and statutory holidays.
As part of a growing phenomenon in tandem with Vancouver’s construction boom, developers are cashing in on a low vacancy rate – as low as 0.3% in the West End, where the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is around $2,000 – by renovating, at times illegally, many older buildings such as the ones found throughout the West End.
The city has fought back through its building bylaws. In 2014, approximately 410 orders were issued – a number of them stop-work orders to halt illegal construction or renovation sites – under the Vancouver Building Bylaw; 251 have been ordered so far this year.
But the enforcement takes time.
“If someone works through a stop-work order, the enforcement branch sends the file to the law department recommending they lay a charge,” Sandhu said. “It would then be up to the law department to determine if a charge will be laid. The court may levy a fine if the person issued the order is found guilty or if they enter a guilty plea. If that work is carried out after an order is issued, that work requires a permit. It does not mean all work has to cease.”
If a stop-work order is issued, the offender may be forced to pay double the cost of the permit that he or she failed to obtain in the first place.
Coun. Geoff Meggs said renovations are a natural part of a growing city and, as with any industry, there are law-abiders and lawbreakers.
“Renovation in and of itself is not a bad thing if it improves the living standards and the safety of the building,” Meggs said. “So we want landlords to maintain their building.”
The city’s website states that any renovation or construction work done without a permit is also subject to removal on top of fines.
But Durning said that for some developers renovating without permits to capitalize on a booming rental market, a fine could simply be part of the construction cost.
Durning added that he regularly gets calls from tenants who are being evicted because of renovations. But he said TRAC’s limited budget means it can investigate only a small number of claims.
Last September, residents of 1168 Pendrell Street in the West End banded together against the building’s owner, who was trying to evict them to facilitate renovations.
Vancouver-West End NDP MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert accused Plan A property manager Karen Ho and owner Anoop Majithia of wanting to kick residents out “to get more money.”
In a statement posted to Plan A’s website, Majithia apologized to residents and denied Chandra Herbert’s allegations.
The company claimed it just wanted tenants to adhere to their lease agreements and expressed “regret that the tenants have had a negative experience with our management of the building.”
When it comes to reforming the system, Chandra Herbert said change ultimately has to come at a provincial level.
Meggs said the city has asked its Renters Advisory Committee to look into ways the provincial Residential Tenancy Act could be reformed to provide “better protection against renoviction” and “improved protection against dislocation when renovations do occur.”
Gordon Price, director of the city program at Simon Fraser University and a former city councillor, blamed the province for shirking its responsibilities under the Residential Tenancy Act.
“I notice this again and again, and it’s the same thing that’s happened with transit,” Price said. “Senior governments have just gotten away with this. ... How can you have the constitutional responsibility and walk away from it, and ensure that the political blame goes down to the people who have the least control?”
In the last Insights West poll prior to last fall’s municipal election, Vancouver residents ranked housing as the No. 1 issue at 40% and transportation second at 17%. Price said construction noise, illegal renovations and Vancouver’s home prices all fall under the umbrella of housing.
“Housing is an ecology,” he said. “It’s incorrect to say that one piece acts independently from the others.” •
– With files from Darryl Greer