Update: Housing activists occupy vacant building

The hallways of 5025 Imperial St. are nearly pitch black. It’s quiet except for the pinging of a fire alarm monitor at the front entrance. The only light comes in naturally from open apartment doors. On the manager’s desk is a pile of unit keys.

In one apartment, garbage and toys have been strewn about the living room, while in other units, unopened mail from B.C. Hydro and B.C. Housing lies at the foot of the door. 

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The power was shut off days ago, and the building is empty. The last person evicted was out on July 3.

On Saturday, the building, slated for demolition to make way for a new highrise tower, became ground zero in the escalating the battle with city hall over the issue of demovictions.       

 The group, Alliance Against Displacement, which has organized the Stop Demovictions Burnaby campaign, occupied the vacant building Saturday afternoon. As of Tuesday, the group continued the occupation of the building.

Ivan Drury, a spokesperson for the group, told the NOW, the group intends to stay in the building until they’re removed by police.

Drury said the group is calling on the city to stop demolition of buildings in the area and a moratorium on demolishing rental buildings in Burnaby.

“We have no choice but to break these laws that are hurting people and take more drastic action to try to defend people’s lives against these policies,” he said.

Drury said the RCMP would let the group stay until the developer had an injunction to have them removed. It’s unclear when the situation will be resolved.

The NOW reached out to Amacon Developments, the developer that owns the site, but the company did not return calls prior to press deadline.

The group behind the campaign has put the blame on the city’s development policies and the developers for the demolition and eviction of hundreds of people and units in the area. In May, the campaign released a study that suggested nearly 1,400 people face eviction and displacement in the Metrotown area.

Drury said the group has been patient, making every effort to address city council, but he suggested residents feel disrespected and not heard.

He noted the group is still waiting to hear back from the city for a response from a demoviction report they conducted and gave to council in May.

The group also had a rally planned for Tuesday evening at 6 p.m.

 

residents’ stories

Meanwhile, the stories of displaced residents continue to emerge.

Sherry Chen is a new immigrant who moved to the Metrotown area five years ago and is worried about her second eviction.

The young mother explained she lived in an older low-rise apartment on Dunblane Avenue, but was evicted when developers bought up buildings on the street.

Chen said she watched her entire block get evicted.

“I saw the place getting teared down one-by-one. It’s very sad,” she said. “You would see older people, they can’t move, so they throw away their furniture, leave everything. I don’t know where they go.”

She lives in the same area but can’t afford to move to another part of the city or buy into the new apartments being built.

“All these highrise buildings, if I can’t afford to buy, where can I rent?” Chen told the NOW last week at a public meeting, adding the city needs to act now to help people in her situation. “We should be able to live locally. Rich and poor people can live in harmony.”

Another resident named Dale also lived in the area for 18 years until he was evicted at the beginning of July. He’s now staying at a friend’s place but isn’t sure where he’s going to go.

Dale, who didn’t want to use his last name, said he paid $900 a month for rent, and can’t find anything in that price range in the neighbourhood. He said he doesn’t want to move to Surrey or New Westminster and is imploring city politicians to halt the development in the area.

“My theory is they don’t give a shit about the people that live here. They just throw them out and go find someplace else to live,” he said.

 

mayor’s response

Mayor Derek Corrigan noted the occupation of the Imperial Street building is a private matter, but he was quick to blame provincial and federal governments for the current situation.

 “I don’t try to be defensive about this, because I know that people need to recognize the provincial and federal governments have not been doing their job for such an extended period of time. We are in a zone that is catastrophic for some people and some families, and I don’t know how to get us out of that, because local government doesn’t have the tools,” he said.

The mayor also said the city needs to accept new people into the area to keep up with the growth demand of one million people moving to the region.

He said the growth puts cities in a difficult position. He argued the city doesn’t have the authority to stop the demolition of buildings, and if the properties weren’t rezoned to a higher density, they would still be torn down and replaced under existing zoning.

“We do what we think is best for the community, and that is to look to increase the number of people who can live in an area closest to transit,” he said. “As a result, the tendency is to blame us for the problems that are occurring.”

Corrigan acknowledged the units being built in the new towers are unaffordable for the people who formerly lived in the older buildings but said subsidizing isn’t an option.    

“Now it’s a question of subsidizing in perpetuity the rents of a certain amount of people. … If you’re lucky enough to live in a building that’s demolished and now you get a $2,500 apartment for $1,000 for the rest of your life, that isn’t fair and who pays for it?” he said. “The other citizens of your city pay to subsidize that.”

Instead, Corrigan said, the city is taking density bonus money from development, putting 20 per cent into a housing fund and acquiring land in different places for various groups to develop.

Meanwhile, the recent action by members of the Stop Demoviction campaign comes on the heels of a face-to-face meeting with city planners at a public information session.

Several dozen people showed up to the meeting at Burnaby Neighbourhood House last week to meet with planners over proposed changes to the Metrotown Development Plan.

The two-hour meeting ended up being a back and forth between the two sides, with city planners explaining and defending the plan, while residents peppered staff with questions and personal stories of evictions over development in the area.

At times testy, the planners were grilled over questions on what the plan will do to help those facing possible evictions in the neighbourhood.

The Metrotown Development Plan update is a document that lays out a vision for the area for the next few decades, including a focus on Metrotown becoming the city’s downtown. 

The plan is also calling for change in the land use that would see portions of the area along Kingsway get designations for 12-storey-plus highrises. The city planners pointed out any rezoning applications would still have to be approved by council on an individual basis and would be subject to public hearings. 

City staff also acknowledged up to 3,000 current rental units could be lost under the plan.

The meeting didn’t appear to quell the fears of people concerned about more evictions in the area. 

Resident Shirley Sinclair said the displacement of residents is “so wrong” and she hopes the planners will give the feedback to council.

“We need a new council,” she said.

The Stop Demovictions group is calling for the city to drop the plan and consult with the community on a new plan that centres on existing residents as the primary stakeholder in the community.

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