Surrey renter faces eviction through BC’s state of emergency “health and safety” loopholes

Evicted During COVID-19

Michelle Leggeh called us at the end of April, after her husband brought home our pamphlet offering eviction defense to tenants rent striking and facing threats from their landlords. After 7 years living in her building along King George Boulevard in Surrey and fighting her landlord’s harassment, she lost her appeal against her latest eviction notice. The Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) arbitrator told her she had to move within two days. Afraid of ending up homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic, she decided to stay in her unit with her husband and her nephew.

The property manager of the building used the loophole in the Province of British Columbia’s pandemic moratorium on evictions which states that evictions are banned — unless it’s “unfair to the landlord” to wait for the end of the state of emergency to evict a tenant. The landlord invoked health and safety reasons at the RTB hearing to evict Michelle, claiming fire safety and a cluttered unit. She says she didn’t allow him access to her unit because of COVID-19. She’s the only one in her building facing a court-ordered eviction during the pandemic, but all her neighbours are anxiously awaiting a similar fate.

The context of Michelle’s eviction is that the building she lives in was sold at the end of March for $3.4 million. A few months earlier, in January, a new property manager came on site to offer a deal to each individual tenant: sign an agreement to end your tenancy by April 30 and you’ll get one or two months of rent in cash. The caveat? “Don’t let other tenants know what I offered you.” 

The old landlord neglected the building for too many years; the walls are covered with mold and cockroaches have infested most of the suites. For the majority low-income and elderly tenants it was difficult to say no to such an offer presented as a one time deal. Half of them have since left the building. The ones left have nowhere to go. Michelle is the only one who refused to sign the agreement. She told me, “I don’t want to get paid, I want to stay in my place. I’ve tried to fix it up, to make it as safe as possible. It’s my home”.

Living as a low income tenant: Never ending threats of eviction and looming homelessness

Michelle in front of a shrine she made in her apartment for her lost family and friends (Cecile Revaux)

Michelle moved into her current building in 2013. “They say they’re evicting me about safety hazards”, she explains, “but they’ve tried to evict me four times already!” The landlord didn’t show up for the hearings or got caught in a lie the first four times, but the new building manager won on this fifth attempt.

Michelle says the problem she had in the hearing was that the new building’s property manager is a good liar. “He said they gave me a notice on the 28th of November, but there was no notice on my door,” she explained. “They lied about that on the application.” Mohamed Mansour, the broker in charge of clearing the building for the new landlord, told Michelle a sheriff was coming last Sunday to evict her. Turns out this was another lie, as she never received the writ of possession necessary for them to do so. As Michelle points out: he’s a real estate guy, he knows what he’s doing.

Michelle showed us the eviction notices she received, neatly arranged in a black document holder kept in her dresser. “I’ve been harassed by this landlord since 2017. They didn’t show up or lied at the different arbitrations, that’s why they always lost. Now they threaten me with the sheriff. That’s a death sentence. That’s what they are doing, because I’ll be dead out there”. 

She’s hoping that by sharing her story, she’ll get to stay longer. “Me and my husband are both elderly. We’ll have no place to wash our hands if we’re homeless. If we even get a tent, we’d have to watch it all the time otherwise we’ll get ripped off. I have to keep my belongings safe and secure in a locker, otherwise they’d be stolen. That’s what happened last time I was on the street.” 

“I will get very sick if I have to go live on the streets, I don’t want to. They just said to the other tenants they can stay another month, I think I should be able to stay too. I don’t think they should be able to evict me at all. I need for them to wait until the pandemic is done, then I’ll find a place. But not until then.” 

“My nephew wants me out of here because he’s sick of the landlord and the way he treats me, he’s sick of seeing me being pushed around,” Michelle says. But her nephew, who she says has been “looking all day all night” to find a new apartment for his aunt, didn’t find anything for less than $1250 a month in the neighbourhood. “That’s double my rent!” She wants to stay in her home at least until the end of the pandemic, “because we’re not supposed to leave our houses,” she says. “I’m low income and can’t afford $1200 rent a month”.

Tenant power and resistance: We can only count on ourselves

Michelle and her neighbours have been taking matters into their own hands to keep their building livable. “I cleared my house, and killed the bugs with powder I’ve been buying at the store. There’s been less bugs since I did that. I’ve always been sweeping and cleaning the front too,” she said. “Obviously they don’t want to maintain the building, they want to keep it disgusting to be a fire hazard.” Those poor conditions then become grounds to evict tenants and redevelop the building for profit. 

A resident of Whalley for most of her life, Michelle wants to stay here. “Since they displaced the Surrey Strip two years ago, you’re not allowed to put up tents anymore. People still do, but Bylaw comes by and takes them down. They didn’t put everyone in the mods either. My son didn’t get in. They say there’s a safety net, but what about him? He saved a lot of people’s lives. Everyday he’ll tell me, ‘Mom, there’s someone down I narcanned today.’ He was a really good influence on the strip, he made sure people were looked after.” After years living on the strip, and without a space to live, he ended up back in jail. 

Along the various waves of displacement, increasing policing and gentrification, the neighbourhood has changed a lot. Michelle’s building is in the path of the new “Surrey City Centre Plan.” Rumours are that the building will be turned into non-residential offices, destroying 14 units of low-income housing in the middle of a pandemic, itself taking place in a deadly housing crisis. 

As long as some are able to profit off housing, many more will end up being pushed out on the streets. Michelle says that’s why there’s so many homeless people. “The landlords don’t care, they just want their money and that’s it. But I live here, I’m not going anywhere. If the sheriff shows up, make sure his paperwork is good!”

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