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'Completely unbelievable': B.C. tenant facing eviction doubts landlord's daughter wants cramped basement

Left: The basement apartment in Vancouver, B.C., where Crystal Cornthwaite has been living for almost nine years. (Supplied) Right: Her landlord’s seven-bedroom, seven-bathroom home in neighouring Richmond. (Google Maps) Left: The basement apartment in Vancouver, B.C., where Crystal Cornthwaite has been living for almost nine years. (Supplied) Right: Her landlord’s seven-bedroom, seven-bathroom home in neighouring Richmond. (Google Maps)
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Crystal Cornthwaite eats on a coffee table in her living room. There's no space for a dinner table in her cramped basement apartment in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood.

Still, she cherishes the home on Balsam Street, just a short walk from the beach.

“I love living here,” Cornthwaite said. “I frequent all the neighbouring businesses and shops. I’m happy here.”

After nearly nine years in the apartment, she also pays well below market rent – in an out-of-control market that has recently seen the average rent for an available one-bedroom top $3,000 a month

Lately, however, Cornthwaite’s enviable housing situation has caused her nothing but anxiety.

She is among a growing number of B.C. renters facing eviction for landlord's use of property, meaning they have been told their landlord or an immediate family member intends to occupy the space.

For many long-term tenants in that situation, finding comparable housing for comparable rent within Vancouver – or even the Lower Mainland – is a pipe dream.

"There's a homelessness crisis in Vancouver," Cornthwaite said. “There's just nowhere to go.”

She also finds the story behind her eviction difficult to swallow.

Cornthwaite has been told by her landlord – who owns the entire low-rise apartment building where she lives, as well as a seven-bedroom, seven-bathroom home in neighbouring Richmond, with a combined assessed value of $6.83 million – that his daughter wants to live in her basement unit.

To Cornthwaite, the idea that a woman from such a well-off family would want to occupy the basement rather than any other unit in the building is "completely unbelievable."

"I think anyone in their right mind would have a very hard time believing that," Cornthwaite said. "I have no doubt that my entire apartment is about the size of my landlord's kitchen."

SUDDEN JUMP IN LANDLORD’S USE EVICTIONS

The Tenant Resources and Advisory Centre, which provides pro-bono services to renters like Cornthwaite, said it has seen an influx of people seeking help with landlord’s use evictions ever since the B.C. government introduced new regulations cracking down on renovictions in 2021.

“The number of people calling us about renovictions just fell off a cliff,” said Robert Patterson, a lawyer for TRAC. “At the same time, the number of people calling us about bad faith landlord’s use evictions has just grown and grown and grown.”

Renters can challenge the evictions through the Residential Tenancy Branch, though many don’t realize they were forced out under false pretenses until after they’ve vacated the home, and in some cases moved into an entirely new community. 

Landlords caught red-handed are forced to pony up 12 months’ worth of their former tenant’s rent, though Patterson noted there is no requirement that they allow the tenant to move back.

And given that property owners can sometimes more than double what they were charging after kicking out a long-term renter, Patterson argued the punishment for abusing the eviction process often amounts to a slap on the wrist.

As an advocate, Patterson finds such abuses “infuriating.”

“It’s the absurdity of these kinds of claims,” he said. “A wealthy person claiming that they’re going to move into a poor person’s home as an excuse to kick them out so they can rent it for more money – it’s grating.”

While Patterson could not provide an exact figure, he said landlord’s use complaints are “one of the most common” issues facing clients at TRAC, which receives upwards of 13,000 calls for help annually.

PREVIOUS EVICTIONS AT APARTMENT

Cornthwaite wasn't entirely surprised when she received her eviction notice earlier this year. Her landlord, Harvey Hammer, has issued eviction notices citing landlord's use of property at least twice over the last five years.

Cornthwaite's neighbour, Andrew Schouten, received one such notice in 2018. Schouten told CTV News he agreed to move out to make room for Hammer’s daughter, only to discover his former home being listed for rent weeks later.

"My buddy’s brother found the listing and went in, kind of undercover, to view it with Harvey,” Schouten said.

Before being evicted, Schouten was paying what he described as “sweetheart rent” of about $1,200 a month, but said he was an easygoing tenant who always paid on time.

True to form, he decided not to bother challenging his eviction.

“I’m not that guy,” Schouten said. “The piper calls, you move on.”

Hammer declined multiple interview requests from CTV News, but in an email exchange with Schouten from October 2018 the landlord insisted he had “proof that our daughter did in fact move into the building.”

"Not only did she move into the building, she helped renovate the suite along with our carpenter," Hammer wrote. "We would have never renovated for a tenant as that suite was in livable condition."

It’s unclear whether the same daughter is planning to move into Cornthwaite’s basement apartment later this year. Cornthwaite found a woman by the same name as Hammer’s daughter currently living outside British Columbia with a partner and children, but the landlord would not confirm any more about his family’s plans for CTV News.

In a brief text message exchange, Hammer said his daughter has signed a notarized affidavit confirming her intention to move into Cornthwaite’s unit, but that he is “not interested nor available for further comment.”

After filing a dispute over her landlord’s use eviction, which was scheduled for Sept. 1, Cornthwaite received a letter from her landlord informing her there had been a “clerical error,” and that she was actually under a fixed-term lease that would require her to vacate the home in April 2024. She is including the document in her filings with the RTB.

“You can’t just decide it’s fixed-term after nine years,” Cornthwaite said.

ENDING ‘GHOST EVICTIONS’

Patterson believes there’s one simple step the government could take to reduce misuse of landlord’s use evictions: requiring landlords to apply for them through the Residential Tenancy Branch.

That’s how B.C. decided to address renovictions in 2021. Under the new system, landlords must proactively demonstrate that a unit is in such dire need of renovation or repairs that they have no choice but to evict their current tenant to complete them. An arbitrator then decides if the landlord is acting in good faith.

Similar requirements would go a long way in preventing abuse of the landlord's use eviction process, Patterson said.

“Make them provide certain things up front, including the name and current address of the person moving in,” he said. “So they can be held to this promise.”

Without any such rules, Patterson said, tenants often move out without any pushback, resulting in what he described as “ghost evictions” – evictions with no paper trail, leaving behind no evidence of potential patterns of bad faith for an arbitrator to consider.

And while tenants can currently dispute a landlord’s use eviction notice, allowing them to remain in their home until they are given an RTB hearing, if the arbitrator rules against them they may be given as little as 48 hours to vacate the home.

Meanwhile, there is no disincentive for property owners to attempt a landlord’s use eviction repeatedly until they find a sympathetic arbitrator, Patterson argued.

“If you take a shotgun approach as a landlord, our current system rewards that. If you just try again and again, you could eventually win - and you probably will,” Patterson said.

The stakes for renters like Cornthwaite, who has an RTB hearing in October, are much higher. The idea of being thrust back into the rental market with two days’ notice fills her dread.

"It's causing me sleepless nights,” Cornthwaite said

LANDLORDS PROPOSE DIFFERENT REFORMS

While LandlordBC, which represents everyone from property investors to families with mortgage-helper suites, does not support a mandatory application process for landlord's use evictions, CEO David Hutniak acknowledged the system could be improved.

He suggested three reforms: doubling the length of time a landlord or family member must occupy a unit following an eviction to one year, doubling the penalties for violations to two years' rent, and updating the eviction forms to include a more fulsome explanation of the rules.

The latter would address potential misunderstandings by landlords who don't know when landlord’s use evictions are appropriate, Hutniak said.

"There should be stronger language outlining the situations in which the form should be utilized along with potential misuse scenarios and their consequences, with check boxes for landlord 'acknowledgements' that they understand the requirements," Hutniak told CTV News in an email.

On the flip side, LandlordBC also argued the government should start allowing landlord's use evictions so grandparents or grandchildren can move in, something Hutniak suggested would recognize the "evolving family dynamics and economic realities" within the current real estate market. 

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