A Surrey tenant’s fight against a slumlord
Johnathan has been living in his suite since 2014. In seven years, his landlord has only come to mow the lawn, collect the rent… and hand over eviction notices.
The first time I visited his small two storey building a block away from King George Blvd, Johnathan gave me a tour. He showed me the broken front door, next to shattered windows, the uneven stairs which, if you don’t walk carefully, might get you down quicker than you plan. The back stairs are held together by a 4 by 4 resting on the adjacent building. In the suite across the hallway, the ceiling collapsed a couple of years ago. Thankfully, the tenant at the time had stepped out of his apartment.
To finish the tour, Johnathan showed me his suite: cockroaches, a shower (unusable since a leaking pipe destroyed the floor and walls years ago), broken plugs keeping him from using his oven… the sadly usual picture of living under the rule of a slumlord in downtown Whalley, Surrey.
But this isn’t only a story of despair and hardship. It’s a story of ongoing resistance, and how when tenants get organized, they can win.
This isn’t the first time tenants have tried fighting against Johnathan’s slumlord. Two of Johnathan’s neighbours faced retaliation for demanding their landlord make basic repairs to their suites. Johnathan explained, “Their requests were ignored. Instead the landlord evicted them.”
He told me that his upstairs neighbour was done with the state of neglect of the building, which she knew was in contravention of Surrey’s bylaw “to regulate rental premises.” She stopped paying her rent in protest and was evicted not long after. The same thing happened to another tenant, who ended up living a block away from their building, on the streets. “He gave up after being evicted,” shared Johnathan.
In the middle of 2020, Jonathan decided to stop paying his rent too. “They don’t care about our health; it makes me sad and angry,” he shared. After years of demanding repairs from his landlord, the moratorium on evictions that the BC government had put in place between April and August, in response to the first wave of Covid-19, gave Johnathan the protection he needed to take action.
Soon after, he received his first eviction notice. With help from his friend Tanya, he appealed the eviction notice with the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB), and also filed a complaint about the state of flagrant disrepair of the building and the lack of basic necessities in his suite. While he did not win the RTB case for reparations, the arbitrator cancelled his eviction notice because of the moratorium on evictions.
Two weeks later, at the beginning of September, a new eviction notice was on Johnathan’s door. This time, he and Tanya were in contact with the Surrey Eviction Defense Network. Our first action was to support Johnathan to write a letter demanding the landlord stop harassing him by coming to his suite without notice. The letter worked: the landlord and his building manager put a halt on their intimidation.
The NDP government’s decision to end the moratorium on evictions in August left Johnathan with little chance to win his case. Yet, we worked together to build the strongest case possible. We see the RTB as a first line of defense and always advise people to appeal their eviction notices, even if their case seems impossible to win. It buys you time, and gives you a chance to develop your case and build solidarity with others facing the same threat.
Despite assembling the most compelling collection of evidence we could, we went into the hearing with little hope. While illegal evictions are possible to fight at the RTB, evictions for unpaid rent almost always end on the side of the landlord. How else can landlords uphold their power over tenants?
At the RTB hearing, we argued that the eviction was illegitimate because the landlord had refused Johnathan’s attempt to pay his rent in September. The landlord told Johnathan that he “didn’t care about the money and just wanted Johnathan out of the building.” With Tanya acting as a witness, we got to tell another story than the one put forward by Johnathan’s slumlord. We described the stress Johnathan was under as a result of his landlord’s efforts to intimidate him, for example, coming to his suite in the middle of the night to demand the lump sum of his rent; the building manager telling him she was fighting alongside the landlord to get him evicted; the looming threat of homelessness; and the inhumane conditions he was living in. This stress made it impossible for Johnathan to find work and even sent him to the hospital.
At the hearing, the landlord, who owns a building worth $1,943,600, demonstrated his callousness by asking Johnathan, a low-income Indigenous man facing eviction, to cover his $100 eviction appeal fee.
It was our argument that the landlord refused to accept Johnathan’s rent payment that ultimately won Johnathan’s case. Photos of the disrepair of the building, the witness testimony, and Johnathan’s own account of his life in the building all contributed to the arbitrator dismissing the eviction and giving the landlord a two-week order to make the necessary repairs.
Johnathan’s win is a small but significant victory.
It tells us that when we reach out to others and get organized, we can turn the tide to our advantage. Johnathan received a new eviction notice the day the RTB gave their decision and we appealed it once again. His new hearing is at the end of January, which means that even though he has not paid rent to his slumlord for over seven months, he is still legally able to stay in his apartment. In the meantime, the landlord hasn’t abided by the RTB decision; he has refused to make the repairs that Johnathan demanded and the arbiter ordered.
So the fight continues: we have won Johnathan some space to stay and live in his home through the legal means of an RTB hearing. And we will use extralegal methods that build our collective power so that we can go beyond the limits of the law and fight to force Johnathan’s landlord – and all other slumlords – to maintain safe and decent housing for the sake of tenants’ lives.