Over the past few months, Jennifer Houdayer has watched as her apartment building has fallen into disrepair. Trash is piling up in the garbage chutes, bed bugs are spreading from unit to unit, and, according to her, people are afraid to park their cars out back anymore because their windows keep getting smashed. She says about half the tenants have moved out and people are throwing parties in the vacated suites, leaving their empties behind.
Houdayer lives on Keewatin Street, in northwest Winnipeg, but in some ways, she could be living in any number of Canadian cities filled with residents feeling the weight of an affordable housing depletion.
The buzzer at the front door of her building is disconnected, so she personally lets visitors in, through the lobby, where mailboxes hang open.
She says the mailboxes have been broken into almost every day. The elevator is filled with graffiti, most of which says “Fuck Armour” in a nod to the building’s owner: Armour Property Management.
Houdayer moved into the apartment in April, the only one that sat in her price range after a search that stretched on for months. It’s in a lower income neighbourhood called Brooklands and she says many of the people in the building, including herself, are on social assistance.
“The first day I moved in, people came and introduced themselves,” says Houdayer (pictured below). “They said, ‘Oh yeah, everyone’s lived here for so long, it’s a community here. We have barbecues, we hang out down at the picnic table downstairs.’ ”
That all changed in July, when she received notice that her building was being sold from Timbercreek Communities to Armour. Another notice three weeks later said her lease had been terminated so the new owners could renovate the building. Houdayer was told that she would have to move out by November 30, and if she wanted to move back after the renovations her rent would be almost doubled, from $483 to $825 a month.
Tenant advocates say what’s happening at Houdayer’s building is part of a trend of “renovictions.” Landlords will buy buildings and evict tenants so they can renovate the suites and apply for an above guideline rent increase, according to Anna Sigrithur, an organizer with the West Broadway Tenants Committee.
And it’s not just in Winnipeg — waves of renovictions have incensed tenants from Victoria to Toronto, prompting some officials to enact new legislation to curb the practice. It’s not clear how common renovictions are, but it’s one of the key tools that is helping to dramatically change the face of neighbourhoods.
Although renovictions can be done legitimately, Sigrithur say she’s seen more and more landlords illegitimately renovicting their tenants, acting in a manner that she described as predatory.
“They are buying up buildings very rapidly,” Sigrithur says about Armour. According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Winnipeg has some of the lowest rents in the country.
A search of recent ads for apartments in Winnipeg posted on Kijiji shows dozens of posts by Armour for “recently renovated” apartments.
Armour did not respond to numerous requests for comment made by phone, email and in person.
Two months after she received the initial notice, Houdayer says an Armour employee came to her door to serve her a 60-day notice to evacuate the suite. She says he threatened to call the police if she didn’t leave by the end of November.
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Houdayer called the Manitoba Residential Tenancies Branch (RTB) immediately. The client services officer she spoke with told her Armour isn’t allowed to terminate her lease in the middle of a one-year rental agreement, and that the 70 percent rent increase isn’t legitimate either. “I knew that wasn’t correct,” she says. Tenants are entitled to four months notice of eviction in Manitoba. If the tenant has a fixed term tenancy, that notice to move must coincide with the end of their agreement. This week, after VICE News made inquiries of Armour, the company modified its demands, issuing Houdayer a notice that she had to leave by March 31, 2019, which is the day her lease ends — thus making it in compliance with the rules.
However, Houdayer says many of the other tenants in the building have month-to-month leases, so they have no choice but to leave. Others took the notices at face value and have already moved out.
Renovations have already begun on the units that have been vacated, and she says she has constant leaks in her bathroom from work being done in the unit above her. A large bubble has formed in the ceiling above her bathroom sink. “I called three times last week and no one’s come yet,” Houdayer says. “The walls are soft, you can push and feel the drywall moving.”
Something similar is happening in a building in another lower income neighbourhood called West Broadway that was bought up by Armour earlier this year.
In June, Alice Murdock (pictured above) says tenants of the Furby Street address received notices that the building would be renovated and, in her case, rent would be going up by over 80 percent. “I was quite upset because I’d been there for 16 years,” she says. “I always paid my rent on time.”
Murdock says Armour only gave them three months to move out, which is less than the required four months notice in Manitoba, and didn’t respect existing leases. She says Armour employees threatened to call the police if tenants didn’t move out by the end of September.
Although she moved into a new apartment at the beginning of October, Murdock says it’s been more difficult for other tenants. “It’s not easy to find a place,” she says.
After hearing about what happened in that building, Sigrithur says the tenants committee contacted the RTB. “They continually said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s wrong what they’re doing, we can send them an email, we can call them, but that’s all.’ ”
In an email, a provincial spokesperson told VICE News that the RTB takes all complaints seriously. “We are not able to comment on any specific complaints related to these buildings as the RTB provides a quasi-judicial process to resolve disputes.”
The spokesperson encouraged tenants with concerns about renovations or rent increases to contact the RTB. “Tenants can also choose to dispute the extent of the renovation and whether an eviction is required,” they said.
Sigrithur says the committee also contacted the police because they were told Armour employees were entering suites without notice, including while tenants were sleeping. Although the police acknowledged that was trespassing, she says they were told police cannot intervene in cases that involve the RTB.
“If you imagine a venn diagram, it’s like the middle is empty. These tenants are being completely unsupported and unprotected,” Sigrithur says.
Since the tenants committee began posting these stories on Facebook, Sigrithur (pictured left) says messages from people with similar experiences have been “pouring in.” She says they’ve heard from tenants in at least three Armour-owned buildings about potentially illegitimate renovictions.
Although one of the objectives of the City of Winnipeg’s housing policy is to encourage development that includes affordable housing, city councillor Scott Gillingham says housing is ultimately a provincial responsibility.
Gillingham represents Houdayer’s neighbourhood, and he says renovictions are on his radar. During the recent civic election campaign, he says he heard from constituents who were concerned about renovations being done by building owners to increase the rent beyond the allowable amount.
“This issue did come up at the doors somewhat frequently,” he says, adding that he’s “understanding that property owners do need to maintain their properties, so there may be times when that is warranted and authentic.”
While Sigrithur and the tenants committee are waiting for more answers, Houdayer is back to apartment hunting. “I started looking for places, but there’s no places that allow pets, there’s no places under $500, there’s no places under $700,” she says.
“I don’t want to dig myself into a hole by doing what the other people did here, by going to a place they couldn’t afford … There’s really no options for people who are low income at all.”
Cover image of Jennifer Houdayer. All photos by Isaac Wurmann.