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Rights + Justice

Jackie Is Dealing with a Terminal Illness. And Being Evicted

After renting in Surrey for 15 years, a couple can’t find a new place they can afford. The laws and market are stacked against them.

Jen St. Denis 13 May 2024The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on X @JenStDen.

Rick Zeller is gently questioning his partner, Jackie Cameron, trying to find out why she was upset earlier that morning before he arrived at the hospital for his daily visit.

Finally, Cameron manages to get the words out.

“I want to go home,” she says.

“Home” is a difficult subject for both Jackie and Rick right now, as they battle eviction from their Surrey apartment of 15 years.

Cameron, 63, is in the final stages of a neurological illness called progressive supranuclear palsy that affects her ability to move and speak.

Zeller, 65, has just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For the past four years, he has been Cameron’s primary caregiver. She’s now been given six months to a year to live, and Zeller would like to be focused on caring for her.

“She wants to die at home,” Zeller said, referring to the two-bedroom condo he and Cameron rent in a quiet complex of low-rise condo buildings and townhouses in Surrey’s Guildford neighbourhood.

“We’ve been here 15 years, and it’s been her home.”

But for 10 months Zeller has been battling his landlord’s attempt to evict them. Last July, the property management company informed them their landlord would not sign another lease, and they would have to move out by May 2023.

While the eviction was upheld at a Residential Tenancy Branch arbitration, the couple have now asked the B.C. Supreme Court to review that decision, and their legal advocate, Robert Patterson, has been able to get a temporary stay of eviction until that appeal can be heard.

But the odds are stacked against Zeller and Cameron. Their lease had been renewed every year, but it had always included a vacate clause that required them to leave if their landlord, Bruce Falstead, decided not to agree to another lease.

And Falstead said he wanted to evict the couple so he could occupy the apartment.

Landlord use is the second most commonly used reason for eviction in British Columbia — and the province has the highest eviction rate in Canada.

Falstead owns a single-family house in another neighbourhood of Surrey that is worth $1.5 million; the condo where Zeller and Cameron live is now worth $807,000, according to BC Assessment.

Falstead didn’t reply to The Tyee’s request for an interview, but his lawyer, Phil Dougan, did speak to us. Dougan told The Tyee he doesn’t know why Falstead wants to occupy the condo, but he said that “the landlord’s circumstances have changed.”

Zeller and Cameron are also part of a trend in Metro Vancouver’s unforgiving rental market: seniors who, after years of working, are now relying on fixed incomes from benefits like old age security, the Canada Pension Plan or disability benefits. When these long-term renters are evicted, they can’t afford to pay the much higher market rents they now face when looking for a new rental.

In B.C., yearly rent increases in B.C. are capped, this year at 3.5 per cent.

But landlords can raise rents by an unlimited amount when tenants move out, creating a powerful incentive to try to evict longtime tenants.

Zeller, a former drywall installer, said current market rents are $400 to $700 more than what he and Cameron pay now. But a more difficult hurdle has been the discrimination he said he’s faced from prospective landlords.

“A lot of people are asking about our health, our age, our [occupations],” Zeller said. “I explain the situation: that I have cancer, my wife has progressive supranuclear palsy, and that we’re on disability, both of us.”

“And I never get a call back.”

An articling student with the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre represented Zeller and Cameron at a Residential Tenancy Branch hearing in February. While the property management company attended the hearing, Patterson said Falstead did not show up, meaning the landlord could not be questioned about his reasons for wanting to take back the unit.

Despite that lack of information, Patterson said, the tenancy branch arbitrator upheld the eviction following a one-hour hearing.

Patterson said it’s a problem that there are no minimum standards for information a landlord needs to provide to prove they actually intend to move into a unit.

“In some ways, it incentivizes landlords to withhold information: to not provide it to tenants, to not show up at hearings to testify and open themselves for cross-examination,” Patterson said. “Essentially to shield themselves from scrutiny.”

Patterson said that’s a problem when landlord use of the property is one of the most common reasons to evict tenants. It’s common to hear stories about tenants finding their unit re-listed for rent on Craigslist or visiting their former home and finding it’s been re-rented at a much higher rent.

“These kind of evictions are what’s driving the eviction crisis,” Patterson said. “So we should be making sure that if tenants are getting evicted for this reason, it’s actually happening.”

In 2016, soaring home prices had pushed rents up and the housing crisis was a top issue for voters. The BC NDP formed government after the 2017 provincial election and immediately started making a series of changes to the Residential Tenancy Act to better protect renters.

In 2018, the government increased the amount of compensation that tenants could receive if the landlord did not actually move into the unit, from six months of rent to 12 months.

The tenant must start the complaint process, but according to Patterson, it’s now up to the landlord to prove they have actually moved into the unit.

In April, the B.C. government announced it would introduce a web portal that landlords would have to use to generate a notice to evict tenants for landlord use of the property. The Ministry of Housing says the web form will “educate landlords about the required conditions and risks of bad-faith evictions, while providing a standardized process for serving notice.”

It will “also allow for post-eviction compliance audits and provide information to the ministry about the frequency of these types of evictions.”

The B.C. government has so far refused to implement vacancy control, a type of rent control tied to the unit, not the tenant. That removes the financial incentive for evictions.

Renter advocacy groups that have been pushing for vacancy control say the rule would help curb rapidly rising rents and pressure on tenants.

But the provincial government has said vacancy control could discourage investment in new rental buildings.

Starting in 2020, housing prices shot up again as the COVID-19 pandemic shifted work habits and priorities for many Canadians. A January 2023 report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. found that across Canada, rents rose by eight per cent between 2022 and 2023 — a new high, said CMHC, that exceeded both inflation and wage growth.

Dougan said the B.C. government’s increased penalty for landlords who don’t actually move in after evicting tenants is something he warns his clients about, and it has resulted in some hefty fines for some landlords.

In one case Dougan is familiar with, a landlord who owned an expensive home with a high monthly rent had to pay $150,000 to a tenant.

The Residential Tenancy Branch does rule against landlords in some personal-use eviction cases. In a recent case, Dougan said, a client wanted to move their adult child into a rented home because it was close to a post-secondary school where the child was taking courses.

“In that case, the RTB said, ‘We understand the rationale but we’re still saying no to the landlord,’” Dougan told The Tyee. Both Dougan and Patterson said the RTB’s inconsistent rulings are a problem.

But in Metro Vancouver’s tight housing market, where rents are out of reach and wait-lists for social housing are very long, Dougan said that tenants who prove a landlord did not act in good faith and receive compensation are still at a huge disadvantage.

“If it is a duplicitous landlord, all the tenant gets is a cheque. Even a big cheque is not going to last that long when your rent has just doubled,” Dougan said.

“That’s the problem here — we don’t have a housing market where you can find something comparable.”

Zeller said there are many days when he finds the stress of his and Cameron’s situation overwhelming.

“It’s just that it’s unfair. When it came down to the final diagnosis for Jackie for what she has, it hit me hard,” he said.

“And then this hit me harder.”

With files from Christopher Cheung.

* Story updated on May 13 at 2:31 p.m. to correct the eviction deadline and to clarify who represented Rick Zeller and Jackie Cameron at a Residential Tenancy Branch hearing.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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