A tale of two slumlords
Last Tuesday, I spent the afternoon walking around Whalley, a low-income neighbourhood in downtown Surrey, distributing the latest issue of The Volcano newspaper. The cover photo, from a rally of tenants in Maple Ridge, shows a woman hoisting a placard that reads, “Tenants – Evict Your Landlords!”
The slogan resonated on the streets of Whalley, eliciting smiles, fist pumps, and hell yeahs. Within the span of fifteen minutes, I met two women, one after another, who asked if The Volcano would publish their stories of landlord terror. Their experiences make clear that evictions are a frontline of the homelessness crisis as well as the urgent need to build tenant and homeless people’s power, so that one day “Evict Your Landlords!” can be more than just a slogan.
“Homeless because of a slumlord”: Candice’s story
When Candice saw the cover of The Volcano, she immediately said, “I’m homeless because of a slumlord.” She told me she was illegally evicted from the basement suite of a house that had been subdivided and rented out to four other families, mostly new immigrants and people like Candice living with significant disabilities.
Initially, the landlord, Takhar, told Candice she would have the whole basement to herself. Only after she moved in did he introduce her to the two international students also living in the suite. “Now I have two roommates. I’m living with two men I’ve never met in my life,” Candice said. “I got the clue this guy was up to something shady.”
Candice was paying $800 a month for her room: the shelter portion of her disability cheque and another few hundred dollars out of pocket. But that wasn’t enough for her landlord. “He was trying to scam more money out of me and he couldn’t,” she said. “So, he wanted me out of there so he could find someone else to scam.”
Takhar gave Candice an ultimatum. He said she could either take over the entire basement suite at $1,600 a month or he would give her a five-day eviction notice. She told him, “I’m on welfare, buddy. There’s no way I can pay that.” Then, Candice came home one day to find all of her belongings on the side of the road.
The consequences of her illegal eviction were dire. “The day after I got thrown out on the streets, I got beaten up so badly that I had a brain bleed and went into the hospital,” Candice said. “Now I’m scared of being taken advantage of all the time. Being a homeless woman in a wheelchair is so horrible, I don’t even want to talk about it.”
The kicker, Candice said, is that her former landlord is still cashing her welfare cheque every month.
“We’re easy targets”: Kyla’s story
Kyla was homeless when a local non-profit organization, Sources Community Resources Society, introduced her to Manuel, her current landlord. He predominantly rents to homeless people and collects their rent subsidies on top of shelter allowances, moving allowances, and security deposit supplements from welfare. “He thinks we’re easy targets,” Kyla said, “He targets people that are in need and he uses God to cover it up.”
“He claims he used to be homeless and addicted to drugs,” Kyla explained. “Now he’s a preacher, believes in God, and all that. He definitely preaches. He comes over at 7:00am and starts singing me God-songs. No notice, nothing.”
Kyla pays $1,000 a month for a suite with no kitchen or laundry. There is a gaping hole in the bathroom ceiling, the floors are rotting, and out of the eight windows in the house, six are broken and boarded up. “Now I have tons of medical conditions: headaches, breathing problems, and it’s getting worse,” Kyla said. “I put up with it because the alternative is being homeless again. I don’t want to die out on the streets.”
Manuel initially told Kyla she had 6-18 months in her current home before the house would be demolished. A week later he texted her to say that she had to vacate by May 31st, ending the message with a hard-to-stomach “God bless you.”
“Now I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” But her eyes lit up when I told her about the Eviction Defence Network, a grassroots organization that is committed to fighting all evictions, whether they are considered “legal” or “illegal” according to the narrow, biased parameters of the Residential Tenancy Act.
Candice and Kyla’s stories illustrate the incredible power that landlords wield, which, in the lives of the poor, goes unchecked by the legal mechanisms meant to give the appearance of a level playing field between tenants and landlords, people and property. Their experiences are common on the streets of Surrey, and reveal the need for a strong, militant, united movement against evictions that extends beyond the realm of legal rights and protections. To defeat the power of landlords, we need a movement that can wrench housing out of the market and guarantee safe, dignified, universal housing for every renter, every homeless person, everyone who needs a home.