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Renovated out of reach: Upgrades boost rent, force tenants out

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IT’S humble, with dripping taps, dingy walls and a kitchen that saw better days in the 1970s. But for Sylvia Boggs, her Flora Avenue duplex has been home for a decade, and she "ain’t moving."

"They can’t make us," she declares.

But her defiance is cloaked in confusion. Sylvia and her husband, Danny, have spent the summer in limbo, waiting to be evicted so the new landlord can renovate the 114-year-old house.

Nearly every day they hear conflicting rumours about who owns their duplex, when they might get evicted, what their rights are and what their rent might be if they are ever able to return.

"(The landlord) said it’s only temporary until they get the repairs done," said Sylvia, who is on social assistance due to diabetes. "But I’m not falling for this. It’s only a ploy to make me move from where I’m happy."

They are the victims of what’s called "renoviction" — a relatively new catchphrase for an old but growing phenomenon. That’s when landlords embark on a major rehabilitation project and apply to the Residential Tenancies Branch for a temporary exemption from rent control rules. The work has to be big, such as brand-new plumbing, major structural improvements or interior upgrades, but it often means tenants are evicted during construction or rents rise beyond their means.

New figures from Manitoba’s Residential Tenancies Branch show a big spike in both the number of landlords applying for permission to renovate and in the number of applications granted by the RTB.

Last year, the number of units affected by rehabilitation applications doubled, putting it a five-year high. Since 2007, more than 4,750 units have been renovated and then granted an exemption from rent control.

Staff at the RTB say that does not mean occupants of the 4,750 units were evicted or could no longer afford their renovated apartments. Some tenants can stay in their units during construction and many agree to pay a little more for a much better apartment. But the spike in 2011 suggests more low-income people were the victims of renoviction.

The RTB doesn’t keep data on just how much rents increased after a rehabilitation project or how many tenants were forced to move elsewhere.

And a spike in renovation projects is not necessarily a bad thing. It improves the quality of apartments citywide, especially since Winnipeg’s rental stock is very old. But it also shrinks the already meagre stock of low-cost rentals.

Staff at the RTB say low interest rates and rock-bottom vacancy rates can spark an increase in rehabilitation applications.

"In times of high vacancy rates, landlords are less inclined to do major work because they are losing revenue to vacancies," said an RTB spokeswoman in an email. "Landlords are more likely to reinvest in their buildings when demand is high."

In the case of Danny and Sylvia Boggs, their Flora Avenue duplex was sold this spring to a new owner, who plans to renovate. The new owners have already found tenants willing to pay $900 a month for each unit, nearly $400 more than the $512 a month the Boggs pay.

The outgoing landlord said he has never been able to cover the cost of the house based on rent, largely because the housing allowances offered by the province’s welfare and disability programs are so stingy.

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