Current and former residents of a rental building in uptown White Rock say tenants are feeling pressured into a “heartless” relocation in the middle of a pandemic.
Their building – The White Birch, at 1475 Fir St. – was purchased two years ago and is the site of a proposed six-storey, rental-only development due to go before a White Rock council for a re-zoning public hearing this January.
Former resident Elizabeth Warttig said that – in spite of new city policy increasing financial compensation for residents displaced by redevelopment – many in the building are stressed at the thought of having to move out of their homes and find new accommodation at this time.
The majority of the 30 current residents are seniors over 70, with some in their 80s and 90s, she told Peace Arch News Tuesday.
“They are very much afraid,” said Warttig – who, with her husband George (who still lives in the building), were the former caretakers until they retired in the summer of 2019.
“They still talk to me a lot,” she said. “The atmosphere in the building is one of fear.”
But developer Mahdi Heidari maintains that his project – which would would include 80 units instead of the 25 currently on the site – is an earnest attempt to boost affordable rental stock in the city while encouraging the replacement of aging buildings near the town centre.
“We are committed to working with tenants to ease the transition and reduce the personal, practical, and financial impacts they face,” Heidari said in a statement to PAN in October about the project (which would adopt the address 1485 Fir St., due to consolidation of two parcels of land).
“The developer would have to offer fair financial compensation and moving expenses to the current tenants of the building and return them with a fair discount once the building is completed,” he said.
Under the new city policy, which trades increased benefits for existing residents for greater density in proposed rental redevelopment, longtime tenants can be compensated up to the equivalent of four years’ rent, plus a break on the rent of a new unit that could be as much as 30 per cent under the market rate.
But Warttig said that while she knows some younger tenants are happy to accept such terms, financial compensation is not the principal issue for older residents.
“This has been their home for 20 to 30 years,” she said. “Many are in their 80s and 90s and for them to up-stakes, and move somewhere else, is a huge thing.
“They’re retired people living on a fixed income,” she added. “That they’re being made to move at this time strikes me as heartless.”
Lillian King, 89 – a more than 23-year resident of the building – said that her biggest concern is that the process of moving out will happen while COVID-19 is still raging. She has already been offered help in finding alternative accommodation by the building management, she said, but turned it down because she doesn’t want to be rushed into a move.
“Everything else is secondary,” said the active senior, who still visits Semiahmoo Centre almost every day with her walker.
“To me, it’s life-threatening. Most of my family is in the States – I’m basically on my own.
“Somebody else – a stranger – is going to be taking me around to see apartments; other strangers are going to be helping me pack and unpack. I’m going to be exposed to all these people, and I’ve been so careful looking after myself.
“Why can’t this happen when things are closer to normal? I know this place. People here are like family. I know how to get to the doctor and the dentist. I know I’m old and may or may or not have that much time. But I don’t want to live with all this stress.”
Warttig and King said the solidly-built 1965 apartment house is one of the few truly “affordable” buildings left in White Rock – but added that rent increases over the last two years have already shown it won’t stay that way.
“Council believes it will be affordable housing, but it won’t be after a new building gets built,” Warttig said. “Developers need to make money.”
When units in the existing building have come vacant their units have been rented at a 40 per cent higher rate, they said, adding that basic yearly increases were levied on everyone else until the pandemic placed a moratorium on that.
“The rents have been low because the previous owners were very good about that,” Warttig said. “There’s nothing out there (now) that’s comparable.”
Compounding the situation, she said, has been insensitive management since the property was purchased, which has been slow to respond to calls for repairs, and which, she feels, has promoted an atmosphere of intimidation.
While she acknowledges that the overall condition of the building “is not too bad,” she claims that basic maintenance – including cleaning of windowsills, windows and screens, lawn-mowing and snow-shovelling – is being neglected or done by the residents themselves and that carpet vacuuming in the hallways is cursory at best.
As a known and vocal opponent of the project since it was first presented to council in 2019, Warttig said, she has been personally subjected to verbal abuse, and threats of eviction – while management has forbidden her and other residents from posting bulletins on the progress of the redevelopment bid on the building’s communal notice-board in the laundry room.
The stress led her to move to an apartment at Five Corners, she said, although George still occupies their unit and continues to help neighbours with some minor maintenance work.
A petition of all residents she organized in 2019 was 100 per cent opposed to the project, she said.
The project, in its original form – which would have required an Official Community Plan amendment – was rejected by council, noting objections to the height and building design, and concerns about its impact on the community.
At a slightly reduced number of units, and with a modified design, it now complies with the OCP for the transitional area just outside the uptown area and only requires a straightforward rezoning.
While delayed by COVID-19 health restrictions, the public hearing is expected to be advertised and held before the end of January.