At 7 am on the morning of May 15, 2014, a fire broke out in a suite of the infamous View Towers in Victoria, British Columbia. The fire was visible from the street with flames shooting out the window of the ravaged suite, provoking a building wide evacuation and causing many of the predominately low-income residents to flee the building with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. As devastating as this was for many residents of this iconic building, it was not the actual fire, smoke or water damage that caused the greatest tragedy; it was how the owner chose to take advantage of this event to evict some of Victoria’s most vulnerable people.
Like many affordable urban high rises, View Towers is well known in Victoria as a place where the poor can find a shoddy home. Widely believed to be a den of crime and violence, the whole story is much more complicated. People shared, laughed, made love, and sometimes fought. Many people outside low-income communities in Victoria think Views Towers is a crime ridden, violent slum where no sane person would ever want to live; that only desperation would provoke a person to live in such a place. While this is undoubtedly true for some, many people choose to live in View Towers for its community. It was a place where one would not be judged by their low-income, and those places are few and far between.
After the fire was put out residents couldn’t go back to their apartments until an assessment could be completed on the units affected. At a meeting May 17th the landlord told the residents that all their belongings were contaminated, but the landlord would not say with what, and has not made this information public to this day. Victoria Emergency Management Agency (VEMA) claimed, “There appears to be a desire on part of the property owners to filter which residents will be allowed to stay within the building and which must leave.”
What followed in the weeks to come was nothing short of the mass displacement of dozens of tenants, many of whom had been living in View Towers for over 10 years; many are disabled, live with mental health illnesses, and are on fixed incomes. The rents paid by these long-term tenants were markedly lower than those found in other parts of the city, but the landlord could not raise them higher because of the pesky Residential Tenancy Act. The landlord coerced most of the displaced tenants into signing “mutual agreement to end tenancy” forms to gain access to their “contaminated belongings.” These tenants believed that they had no choice but to sign.
The Together Against Poverty Society, a local tenants rights organization, realizing they could not fight this mass eviction on a case-by-case basis, organized a rally for June 11th. Crowds of supporters showed up to decry this terrible abuse. They also launched a legal petition with the Residential Tenancy Branch to hold the landlord accountable for their actions. We eagerly await the results.
The Residential Tenancy Branch only acts when tenants initiate a claim against a landlord, so it does not support the most vulnerable tenants against the predations of sleazy landlords. Because of organized action, however, it can hold this particular landlord to account and ensure that justice is achieved for those displaced by the fire on May 15th. As a community it is our responsibility to stand together when tragedy strikes to ensure that landlords don’t take advantage of tenants’ misfortunes.