Low-income tenants in Victoria reno project worry where they’ll end up

Council considering upgrade proposal that would likely price renters out of homes

Residents of a Fairfield house conversion – people with disabilities, living on income assistance, and seniors – could soon find themselves looking for new homes if the property owner’s rezoning application is accepted.

The 1122 Collinson St. rezoning and renovation proposal caused a stir in council Thursday . Council seemed conflicted on the application, but sent it forward for public comment. The owner is proposing converting the eight-unit structure – one self-contained and seven housekeeping units – into six self-contained apartments, each with a separate bathroom.

Currently the five remaining occupants in the building pay rents as low as $450 a month.

Soon, there will be four tenants in the character home.

Dianna Claus, 60, gave notice and is on her way out of the building, the city and the province. The retired law clerk lived in Victoria the last four years, two at her current place. She is heading back to Ontario hoping to find somewhere affordable.

“Things [here] are really tense and troublesome.

“It’s very difficult to live day-by-day, week-to-week, month-to-month not knowing when you’re going to be homeless,” she said. “We’re tense. We’re nervous. We become snappy, short-tempered. That would happen with any family unit.”

She and the other low-income women living in the building’s housekeeping units have seen themselves as a family, she said, and have found support in the surrounding community. When the landlord attempted to evict the women last year, the neighbours threw them an “anti-eviction party” to help them brainstorm ways to stay in the neighbourhood. They fought at the residential tenancy board and won, for a time.

Claus said she’s worried for the other tenants, particularly those with disabilities, and one in particular who, she said, has found this experience so difficult she’s become suicidal.

The 1912 home was previously owned by a Ms. Eckle, an elderly woman who sold the property in September 2016 and died two months later. Claus believes that Eckle and her family knew that they served low-income tenants and “gave people a chance,” she said.

But she has other words for current landlord, Cameron Stewart.

“He wants the poor people out, out of the building, out of the community,” she said, calling it “poor bashing.”

In a report to the City, the Fairfield Gonzales Neighbourhood Association sent a follow up report after a meeting about the proposal, saying Stewart made reference to a “tenant relocation program” and securing alternative housing. Claus, however, tells another story.

One of the two tenants who left the home has died, she said, while the second moved into an Oak Bay seniors home after she and the others worked together to find her a new place to live.

Coun. Geoff Young seemed conflicted about the application. He said council is concerned about the tenants losing their affordable housing, but from a policy perspective, he is unsure what should be done.

“The tenants are obviously in a tough spot. They have set their budgets on the basis of having quite low rents and living in a situation that is not very common … Partly that situation has arisen because they had a good landlord who was sympathetic to their situations and wanted to help by providing lower rents and not raising the rents constantly,” he said.

“Once the circumstances change and landlords have to sell their house and get sick or retire or move away or die, does that mean because they’ve been providing low rents that the house is going to be continued to provide those low rents indefinitely? That seems a little unfair and will discourage people from providing those low rents.”

Mayor Lisa Helps said the City is working on a rental plan to address situations like this. She said there needs to be an incentive for landlords to keep rents affordable while also ensuring renters are protected.

”We need a diversity of housing stock, and [this] represents a rare form,” she said at committe of the whole Oct. 5. “As we see buildings that have lower end of market, or lower than market rents, we do need a tenant protection plan, and thats something our staff are working on.”

She said in this case, the renovations will not result in new units being added to Victoria’s already tight rental market: “There is no net new, in fact there is a net loss, which is very much a planning issue,” Helps said.

Stewart did not return calls from the News by press deadline. In his rezoning application, he wrote:

“I am gravely concerned that protectionist recommendations encountered mid-application have created undue financial hardship on this project that simply cannot absorb further costs as a rental proposal,” he said.

“Our proposal mustn’t be leveraged for controlling future large-scale and purpose-built rentals or used against smaller strata conversion applications that deplete primary rental stock.”

A date will be determined for the next stage of public input.

lauren.boothby@vicnews.com

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