On Thursday March 9th, myself and a group of activists with the Stop Demovictions Burnaby campaign occupied the Mayor of Burnaby’s office. This was not what we had originally set out to do. All we wanted was for the City of Burnaby to enforce the “Burnaby Tenant Assistance Policy” – a policy it had passed in May 2015. Our request was reasonable, and we hoped for an equally reasonable response. But this was not what we got. Instead the City of Burnaby called the police on us and we had to wait hours, occupying the Mayor’s office for leverage, to even talk face to face with Councillor Colleen Jordan.
The Burnaby Tenant Assistance Policy, passed in May 2015, states that when a developer applies to demovict a building with six or more rental units, “applicants must submit a tenant assistance plan” including “a minimum of the equivalent of three months rental payment compensation payable to each tenant.” The tenants living in the 105 apartment units at 6380 and 6420 Silver Avenue will not receive three months of rent compensation, despite the City-approved impending demolition of their buildings. We have spoken to these tenants and have heard their stories. Not compensating the tenants at these buildings might first appear like a simple mistake by the city, but it is something that we have to come to suspect is much more sinister. Above all, the city is catering to big development corporations over its own residents.
Sitting-in for equal rights at the Burnaby Mayor’s office
When we entered the mayor’s office we were told that the mayor was out of town. On the spot, we decided to occupy his office until another municipal politician who has the power to enforce policy could speak to us.
City staffs’ biggest concern was protecting the Mayor’s office. Rather than showing any concern for the tenants that their rezoning and development policies are displacing, all of a sudden the City Director of Public Safety appeared and his biggest issue was us sitting in a private office. This really demonstrates where the priorities of the City of Burnaby lie.
By not enforcing their tenant assistance policy, the city allows the developer – Belford properties – to benefit. While Belford wins tens of millions of dollars, not only do the tenants lose their homes, they lose three months rent as compensation to support them in finding another, scarce, more expensive apartment. The City of Burnaby is complicit in making these tenants more vulnerable to forms of homelessness.
The ensuing occupation was an organic, grassroots resistance. The stronghold of the occupation was 18 year old Destiny Morris (Nuu-chah-nulth and Gitxsan) and her mom, Mercedes Morris (Nuu-chah-nulth and Irish), who kept our morale high with drumming and leading songs. After a condescending lecture from the Director of Public Safety, which morphed into indignant silence and a refusal to even look us in the eyes, Destiny boldly called him out:
“I see how this affects people in my neighbourhood and it enrages me how you can just stand there and not understand how people like me can sit here and wait until the council or anyone other than you gets here. I will sit here for as long as I can. I will stand until the end.”
Sara Sagaii put the issue in a wider context of just how much is at stake here. She told the Director of Public Safety:
“This is about peoples’ lives. 200 units being demolished. This is about people going homeless. And the mayor’s out of town? He can’t make it? Maybe he should. This is his job.”
We were there to tell an indifferent City Hall about the crisis their demoviction policies are causing. The tenants living in these buildings are already in vulnerable positions. They are largely racialized, working class immigrants, some with young families and sick parents to take care of. Many tenants in these buildings are dealing with mental health issues, which are increasingly worsening.
The Director of Public Safety was not moved by these impassioned cries for justice. It became apparent that his position is not about protecting the Public Safety of all residents of Burnaby, but rather protecting the wealthy, and the private property they work in. He called the police on us, and then left the scene; confident our peaceful group would be arrested for trespassing.
Remaining strong in the face of adversity and police presence
Destiny was joined by Letizia Waddington, another organizer with Stop Demovictions Burnaby, to be our police liaisons. They put forward our demands clearly: we would leave the Mayor’s office once we have a meeting with a politician who can enforce the City’s policy. Destiny and Letizia stood steadfast by this demand despite unnecessary police attempts at intimidation. At one point only a few members remained inside the office, amongst them was Mercedes. The police abruptly slammed the door shut, dividing our group without warning nor reason. Once we were able to get the door back open, cops were noticeably rougher with Destiny and Mercedes, the two members of our sit-in who were First Nations women, shoving and threatening Destiny, who was worried about her mom.
I was part of the delegates who negotiated for a meeting. When the secretary would not call Councillor Jordan, we called her ourselves as our allies outside spammed her with texts and calls to her publicly posted cell phone number. At first Councillor Colleen Jordan insisted we vacate the building and meet her outside in the courtyard. We demanded to meet inside the Mayor’s office, and after much back and forth we were able to finally secure a meeting inside City Hall. Councillor Jordan pushed for a later scheduled meeting but we insisted on one that day, and won. We were able to secure a meeting because of persistence. We would not waver on our demands; we wanted a meeting and we wanted it today because the tenants we were representing are in crisis.
More misinformation from the City
By occupying Mayor Corrigan’s office for three hours, we won a meeting, in front of the media, with Councillor Colleen Jordan. After receiving our statement and hearing from occupiers about our demands for full compensation for all evicted tenants, Councillor Jordan claimed that we misunderstood their assistance policy. She said the Burnaby Tenant Assistance policy that is accessible on their website is only a summary of the policy. She said that in the full policy there is a clause that says that the policy does not apply to tenants who move into the building after Council hears the second reading in the process of the building being rezoned.
However, this appears to be untrue. I looked up the original full report on the tenant assistance policy that had been debated at a planning and development committee meeting on April 28th, 2015 and passed through council on May 4th 2015. Nowhere in this report does it state that the tenant assistance plan is only applicable to tenants who move in before the second reading of a rezoning process. How are we supposed to believe it is a part of the policy when there is no documentation of it in the original reports?
A partial victory against Burnaby’s “temp tenant” category
As the meeting came to an end we pushed for the City to extend its tenant assistance to all tenants. Put on the spot in front of the media, Councillor Jordan agreed to investigate each tenant not getting three months rent compensation on a case by case basis if we brought them forward. While this offloads the City’s responsibility to people hurt by its policies to volunteer activists and the people themselves, it does give the demovictions movement a way to report landlord abuses and advocate for change. Stop Demovictions Burnaby will be reaching out to tenants who we have been in contact with in the two buildings, through both email and phone over the next few weeks to ensure that every tenant who was denied the three months of rent compensation receives it. We also invite other demovicted tenants from the Metrotown neighbourhood who have not received three months of rent compensation to email us at email@example.com, even if you have already long moved out or moved out before receiving an official eviction notice.
Additionally, Councillor Jordan claimed that Burnaby City Council would revisit the Burnaby Tenant Assistance policy at a Planning and Development Committee meeting on March 28th, 2017. She said this meeting was public, so we plan to attend along with affected tenants to push for a more effective tenant assistance policy, one that ensures all tenants are protected. We want tenants included in this process. Tenants facing demoviction know first-hand what would be best to support them through demovictions, so naturally the support policy should be derived from their suggestions, ideas and opinions.
Stop the Metrotown demoviction plan!
This fight for a better Tenant Assistance Policy and for all tenants at 6420 and 6380 Silver Avenue to receive three months rental compensation is part of a much larger campaign to stop the Metrotown Plan Update. This plan update will result in the mass gentrification of nearly the entire Metrotown neighbourhood, as the zoning for the bulk of the neighbourhood changes from low to high density. Towers over forty stories and luxury condominiums will become the norm, as a new concrete jungle for the wealthy takes the place of what is currently a diverse, affordable home for many vulnerable people.
But this bleak future is not inevitable; there is still time to stop the Metrotown Plan Update. We don’t know when the vote on the plan will happen, but City Council has said that the final vote could take place sometime in March. And so for the next few weeks, we will be ramping up our campaign, and the more people we have fighting with us, the better. We need mass action to make this movement more powerful than it already is and we welcome you to join us in this fight. Together, we can abolish the Metrotown plan, and build our own People’s Plan with a radical vision of an inclusive, affordable and diverse neighbourhood not preyed upon by politicians and the wealthy corporations they represent.