When Sabrina Ferreira moved into her Garden City apartment in 2010, she paid $600 per month for the two-bedroom unit on Jefferson Avenue. Over a decade, that rose to $800. Then in November, the building was bought by new investors who said they’d be nearly doubling that to pay for future renovations. Tenants like Ferreira were told no leases would be renewed when they expired.
For Ferreira, a student and single mother, the proposed increase — of as much as 80 per cent — came as a shock, and she immediately realized her days at the Park Plaza Apartments were numbered. Paying the new rent would mean not affording groceries or child-related costs, in the middle of a pandemic. By the end of the month, she moved out. Most of the building’s tenants followed suit. Several had recently lost their primary sources of income owing to the pandemic.
"If your rent goes up that much, what are people to do? Stop eating?" wondered Nick Kulczycki, 58, who lived in the building since 2010 and took an incentivized payment to move out this winter. "Even if they don’t call it this, for these people, that’s an eviction notice."
The same story was playing out at another apartment block across the city in the Crestview neighbourhood, the Fairlane Apartments on David St. Tenants were given notice that the building was under new management, under new ownership, and that rents would be increasing by the same rate as on Jefferson to accommodate renovations. Charity McLellan was told her $806 rent would jump as high as $1,398.
"Who can afford that?" the single mother asked.
The situation was already difficult for tenants to comprehend, and then a video was posted to the YouTube account of the buildings’ new part-owners, High Key Enterprises, a firm run by brothers Jordan and Luke Lintz of Winnipeg that has several adjacent arms, including one called HighKey Holdings.
In the video, the owners and others enter the building on Jefferson. One brother mimes knocking on a tenants’ door to "ask how their stay is." "Hello, we own this s--t," the other says jokingly to the camera. "There’s going to be a lot of changes from here on out."
"Get your s--t, and get the (expletive) out," the first brother says loudly in an empty hallway. The other repeats him, laughing. Soon, they enter an empty suite, where one brother is dared to kick a hole through a wall. He does, and several people attempt to do the same.
Later, the group goes to the David Street building, where they run through their future cash position, which one person estimates to be $2 million over five years. "Two (expletive)ing million!" one owner shouts.
When she saw the video, Tayler Francisco says it was like the owners were rubbing salt in an open wound. Her mom, who’s on a fixed income related to a workplace injury, had to find a new place to live after 13 years, her rent set to increase by at least $400.
"I can’t bring myself to show my mom the video," she says. "I understand people purchase properties to renovate and rent them for more. But to brag and boast about displacing poor people in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of winter? That’s just disgusting."
The video quickly circulated on Reddit and other social media, where it was broadly criticized, and the original version was removed from the YouTube page. Short clips continued to circulate, but the Free Press obtained an archived version of the complete video posted by the owners.
In an email response to a request for an interview, Luke Lintz, 21, wrote, "My brother and I are entertainers on our social media channels and the tone that we brought into this particular video was received by some of our Winnipeg peers in a completely different way than we would have ever intended.
"I would like to be clear that we do care dearly about every single one of our tenants and we are doing what we can to improve the condition of our buildings around the city to ensure that we can provide safe and sustainable housing," he added.
"Again, we are sorry for the tone of this video and to anyone who it offended. We understand that it was extremely insensitive at this time during a global pandemic," he wrote. "Our ultimate goal is to improve the quality of life for current and future tenants residing in these buildings," he wrote, adding that the investors were following all guidelines set out by the Residential Tenancies Branch and that the renovations would bring a dated building "up to current code" and current market value.
To raise rents by higher than the 1.6 per cent annual allowable threshold, building owners have to follow certain steps, including applying for an above-guideline rent increase with the RTB. If that happens, tenants are to be informed the application has been made. A government spokesperson representing the RTB would not confirm whether that process occurred, citing privacy concerns. Tenants the Free Press spoke with say they received no such notification.
The owners did not answer whether an application had been sought or approved, and mentioned their company is now operating based in Puerto Rico.
Many former tenants like Kulczyski had to move and settle for rents that were more than what they’d paid before, but were still significantly less than the proposed increases, even as their new apartments offered more amenities like underground parking.
Kulczyski said that even though wages haven’t increased, the cost of being a renter has: between 2006 and 2016, average rental costs increased by 28 per cent while average weekly earnings rose by just eight per cent, per End Homelessness Winnipeg. Rent has increased by at least 10 per cent since then, according to various housing data. "Rent is so expensive that for people living paycheque to paycheque, it’s getting hard to find a place they can still manage to feed themselves."
McLellan, also lives with her mother, who suffers from COPD, and says she’s staying put as long as her lease guarantees, and has been having a months-long back-and-forth with the RTB as well as the new management company, Luxe Estates. She said she’s upset by the situation, but was in no position to find a new apartment during the middle of the winter, especially with her child in school.
"This is a building full of working people," she said. "It’s a place where some people had lived for 20 years."
But most of her neighbours have moved out, she said. They didn’t feel like they had a real choice.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.