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COMMENTARY · 17th December 2013
Walter McFarlane
There is a story told this time of year, about how a young family, traveling to a city to be registered arrived at their destination to discover all the inns in town were full. This is not that story.

Over the past year, there has been a conversation going on around Kitimat concerning the lack of accommodations for low wage earners. Many people have been affected by this in one way or another.

During the discussion on developing a Social Development Strategy in Council on December 2nd, Councillor Mario Feldhoff said: “There is no doubt in my mind that housing is an overarching concern that cuts across everything that is happening in our community right now. To me, housing is extremely important.”

Over a year ago, we were contacted by two tenants who, after having their rent increased, discovered tenants have more rights than they had realized. Trish Brown wanted to get the word out to others concerning rent increases and evictions.

When an investor purchases a building and chooses not to evict the tenants outright, they must honour the current rental agreement and cannot increase the rent higher than current inflation +2%. However, a landlord can choose to evict the tenants for renovation.
Brown has told us she and her husband have since had to leave Kitimat because they were unable to find any of the promised high paying jobs in town. She told us Kitimat is home but it is becoming an undesirable place to live because of the changes in the economy.

When Stacey Tyers, the Poverty Law Advocate came to visit Kitimat Council on September 30th, she told them while her mandate does not cover Kitimat, she has dedicated a lot of time to the town recently.

“There is mass evictions, illegal rent increases, illegal evictions, going on almost every single day here. It’s obviously of great concern to me. I’m having seniors phoning me who’s rent has been increased by $500, which is not legal but, because there has not been a long standing advocate in your community, people don’t necessarily know what their rights are, and they don’t know where to turn,” Tyers.

At a meeting earlier this year, on February 4th, Councillor Phil Germuth brought a suggestion before Council, as a part of a discussion on forming a camp policy. He stated camps were normally in remote areas and it would be beneficial to have new housing, apartments and hotels built as worker accommodations rather than camps when they are located in the city limits. He pointed out this is similar to what Dawson Creek is doing and they have achieved much success with this policy.
It was a local landowner, Jack Oviatt, who countered this concept on April 2nd. He spoke against the idea because there would not be enough speculation home builders available to meet these needs and he added the homes, apartment and hotels would stand empty when the project was finished anyway.

By definition, both Kitimat and Terrace have no low income housing. According to Kitimat’s Housing Resource worker, Anne Moyls the government offers Shelter Maximums which include the cost of utilities such as heat and hot water. A single person would receive $375 a month, a family of three would receive $660 dollars a month and a family of 7 people would receive $820 a month. “Based on these numbers, I would suggest there is no low income housing left in Kitimat or Terrace,” said Moyls.
Heart breaking are the concerns about mass evictions, particularly around the Christmas Holidays. In October, residents of Jed Stumps Estates were concerned about the new property owner. They confirmed that when the owner gets a rezoning permit from Council, once the landowners know what they want to do with the land, the tenants will be given one year of pad rent and a year to find a new place to call home.

Multiple concerns have come from this. Many of the tenants of the Estates are long-time residents of Kitimat who have made the park their home, some for over 30 years. Some have pets which will not be permitted in other forms of low income housing or even other trailer courts. Some of them have trailers which are outdated. Many of them are on fixed incomes.

On the other side of the coin is the Kuldo Apartments. Two of the buildings were given two months’ notice for ‘renovictions,’ (eviction for renovation) in December under landlord’s use of property. The landlord could do this for any number of reasons, moving in family, demolishing the building, conversion to condominiums and renovations are common. Several of the apartments’ occupants are ticked off.

Earlier this month, we received an anonymous letter from an individual identifying herself as Sarah. Sarah wrote: “Many of us found out we will be hitting the streets soon because owners of the old Alcan Apartments have decided to kick us all out to upgrade the apartments. There should be rules in place to protect us renters from this happening.”

She wanted to know if there was something the Mayor and Council can do to protect their citizens.

“There simply is no affordable rent in this town and not all of us have high paying jobs. In larger cities there is affordable city housing, if Kitimat cannot buy buildings to set aside for that purpose then there needs to be a rent cap. At the very least halt renovations for the purpose of raising rents. Just remember who voted you in, now get working,” wrote Sarah.
Grant Yeager who lives in the apartments stated that in February, he was asked/forced to sign an irregular rent increase which is out of line with increase guidelines, adding over $141 to his rent. The understanding was that when they had to move out of the apartment so the renovations could be done, they would be relocated into a refurbished apartment.

“On December 5th we received their relocation offer, $1200 per/m plus a $600 damage deposit they would wave in lieu of January free rent (as required by the BC tenancy act). This of course priced most occupants out of being able to stay,” said Yeager.

Yeager told us he is trying to find other housing options but expects to see this scenario play out again. In addition, it is difficult to find a place that is both low cost and pet friendly.
“I believe there are a few options the displaced and their supporters have in order to raise awareness, a movement in a similar vein to the occupy protests would be a good start. Setting up tent villages in visible locations like centennial square or the parking lots of the complexes they have been displaced from puts the issue right in the faces of everyone involved. Additionally I believe Council could be urged to pursue a few options for those displaced: Revoke the permits that were granted under the grounds that the terms of tenant relocation had not been met, or perhaps requiring building owners to dedicate a percentage of their properties to low income units. Of course we could sit and hope that low income housing projects get the okay but in the meantime many people are either out in the cold or accepting rent levels far out of reach of what they can realistically pay,” said Yeager.

Mayor Joanne Monaghan told us that Mayor and Council are working with the landowner to ensure the people who were evicted find other apartments in this community at rates which they can afford, but this meeting took place on Monday, December 16th.

Unfortunately, according to the District of Kitimat, this is not an area they can regulate. “Property owners must adhere to Provincial Legislation, such as the Residential Tenancy Act, regarding eviction of tenants; it is not an area that municipalities regulate,” wrote Deputy CAO Warren Waycheshen. “Council has some ability to impose restrictions when a previously occupied building is applying to convert into strata lots, but we have not had any instances of this occurring in Kitimat.”

Moyls told us, similar ‘renovictions’ have taken place over the past year at several of the Wedeene / Stikine four-plexes, the Hillcrest Apartments and the Viewpoint apartments.

“Other apartment landlords are doing renovations gradually as tenants choose to move out, and then raising the rent accordingly for future tenants, but keeping rents affordable for long-time tenants such as seniors,” said Moyls.
When asked why this is legal and how other communities have handled these issues, Moyls told us the District of Kitimat has been looking into this and the Housing Advisory Committee have looked into other communities experiencing booms to try and avoid some of the negative impacts.

It has been stated by Cheryl Rumley in Council on December 2nd that the closest community to Kitimat with available low income housing is Prince George. That’s quite the commute.

Moyls told us she would like to see a variety of housing options created in Kitimat to meet the needs of the community as it changes.

“At this time, there are very limited choices for anyone, regardless of their resources. If we want our low-to-middle income families to continue working in our customer service and other non-industry sectors, they’ll need somewhere to live. If we want our vulnerable family members to stay in the community (such as seniors on fixed income or persons living with disabilities), they too will need affordable and accessible housing. They will also need adequate support services to support them in their independence,” said Moyls

So how does this affect the rest of the town?

Help wanted signs in windows are a good indicator there are businesses which are hurting in the changing Kitimat economy. Council was reminded by Tyers from Terrace: “Housing is actually a barrier to the economic growth that we are facing, and if people have nowhere to live, not just the community members already here, but the people moving here, our shelter is over capacity, every single month with people who are working but can’t find anywhere to live. Our local businesses are struggling to find support staff, so receptionists are moving out of town because they can no longer afford to live in our town and the same thing is happening in Kitimat.”

There are plenty of stories floating around town about people leaving lower wage income jobs for higher pay. I have heard, both directly and second hand, how there are businesses in town who are finding ways to work around skeleton crews.

During her presentation to Council, on September 30th, Margaret Warcup told Council she lost staff at the Child Development Centre. During the Budget report on December 10th, Barb Hall from K.U.T.E. told Council their bad year started in 2012 when they lost three of their workers in the span of a month.

This is affecting the Hospital. During the Kitimat Health Advocacy Group Meeting on Saturday, November 9th, it was reported to the group that their expenses, over the past year, have been going into accommodation for health care workers, which is becoming a problem in Kitimat.
The hospital used to rent an apartment which was for temporary workers coming to Kitimat to fill in empty positions, such as Ultrasound. But they had to get rid of the apartment after the rent doubled. The group was told the hospital has a rental house, but KHAG has to contribute to it because the rent was coming out of Hospital’s budget.

This could affect the RCMP too. During his presentation on December 10th, Staff Sergeant Phil Harrison told Council Kitimat is already not a desirable posting and a lack of housing makes it harder to bring in staff. Several of the other requests from the District funded organizations asked for increases in their grant to cover wages.

Last summer, I was told by a person who was applying for work, there are two questions which every employer is asking. The first concern’s the applicant’s housing situation. The second is if they plan on leaving the job for a camp job a month or two down the line.

But then you have to look seriously at what’s coming. Between Rio Tinto Alcan and Kitimat Clean, there are a proposed 4,000 jobs. There are several LNG Pipelines and/or terminals, Enbridge and who knows what else coming this way.

There are four hotels on the horizon, one with its own work camp. PTI has promised to hire local when the project was first announced to the tune of 200-300 people. During the budget, the Planning Department told Council that they could receive further inquiries into development in town.

Here is a question: Where are all the employees of these plans going to live? If housing is not available, will the long term businesses be forced to evolve or die as they are gutted for employees? What effect will that have on the future?
There is hope though; Kitimat City Council has been working to solve the problem. The Kitimat Housing Committee, of which several Councillors are members, are also working to solve the problem. We have been told there are potential developments which could come forward over the next year. One of these is a series of town houses on Baxter, which was discussed at Council on December 16th.

Councillor Mario Feldhoff told us: “Housing is an issue in Kitimat and [Council] is going to have to be talking about it, there is no doubt.”

2013 has been the prophesized boom for Kitimat, yet looking back on the year, the town was not truly ready for it. It has even been pointed out, it is difficult to advocate for housing when you have a lot of empty stock. However, as Oviatt pointed out, once the boom is over, all the extra housing stock would be empty anyway.

The question for the coming year (years?) is will all the plans for lodging and low income housing reduce the pressure on Kitimat’s housing situation? Or will the migration to Kitimat be met with an exodus going the other way because there is not enough room in boom town?
You cant make progress on hindsight
Comment by roguemc on 18th December 2013
Thanks for all your hard work on this one Walter, its much appreciated!

I think back to the days when Alcan put this remote location on the map and how they used a boat to house workers and provide steam for the hospital. So it makes no sense to me to see our multi story hospital be blown to bits when nothing is being done about those eyesores in service center. What would it have cost to have winterized it, set the alarms and walk away from it till needed? The same as contracting out demolition experts? and clean up crews?? Now the land lies vacant...Think of the workers that could have been housed in that one building? We need people in power that work like think tanks instead of professional debaters trying to prove how smart each one is by counteracting good ideas only because it wasn't their own. Any body can drive their car into the ditch, but not everyone has the skills to get out. If our mayor cant get us out of this ditch, then she needs to hire someone that can because for some people the clock is ticking.
Council's poor planning
Comment by Linda McG on 17th December 2013
Kitimat council should hang its head in shame. All we've heard for the last few years is what a wonderful job they have been doing bringing new prosperity to Kitimat, how Kitimat will be a thriving little town again and what a great place to live for young families and our citizens. I never heard one of them voice a concern over where we were to house all these people. No real effort had been made to plan ahead, no new bylaws put in place to protect our low income and disabled citizens. Nada. Joanne Monoghan and her crew can pat themselves on the back all they want about the great financial things they have done for this community, but when you have long time residents left homeless, the disabled put out on the street and no affordable housing for any of the young families and workers, that is not what I would consider successful growth. You want a Tim Hortons coffee in the morning, well you had better make sure the person serving it has somewhere to lay their head at night. Shoving the low income renters out of town to PG or elsewhere is just wrong, renovictions are just wrong as well. I've heard of instances where the tenant was evicted, supposedly for renovations , and all that was done was new lino put in the kitchen. The rent was then doubled for a new tenant. Its all well and good to praise the amount of new money coming into Kitimat, unfortunately the only pockets it seems to be finding are people that already had money to begin with.
I'm not against growth but I am against a small group of out of town landlords and speculators benefiting at the expense of the less affluent. There isn't a day go by that I'm not grateful I own my home, unfortunately not all are as lucky and the Mayor and her cohorts should be doing something/anything to help the people that are finding themselves homeless. Oh wait, she did, she put up cots in the old council chambers. Way to go.
Comment by FayEllen McFarlane on 17th December 2013
I can't help but wonder how the new housing can be any more affordable than the renovated housing. And how long will people have to wait before it is available?
Walter used the word "heart breaking" in this article and I think it is very appropriate: for the people who are being displaced so that money-hungry non-resident landlords can upgrade rundown buildings to increase their profit; for the business owners facing increased rent prices and no help available; for the young people who want to work and need a place to live and need 2 - 3 low income jobs to (barely) scrape by; ...and for that HUGE commute to Prince George for the low income housing!
It's a disgrace!
Am I wrong?