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Sidney’s rental protection efforts offer little solace to turfed-out tenants

‘Thank god I have my car,’ says one renter being bought of her long-time apartment
Iysanne Crystaline stands outside the Charmay building where she lived for about 20 years. Crystaline is taking a buyout from a developer to move out at the end of May. (Mark Page/News Staff)

Iysanne Crystaline lives in a somewhat-decaying apartment building on Third Street in Sidney.

The 75-year-old pays her bills with money from a pension, but because she has been in her place for so long, her rent is very low for the Capital Region — just $625 per month.

“I’ve been here 20 years and the landlords that we had were very good landlords that weren’t greedy and they hardly put up the rent,” she said.

Her building, known as the ‘The Charmay,’ sold recently, along with the next-door apartment complex called ‘The Seacrest’ and a small laneway house out back.

The buildings were bought by Kelowna-based developer Highstreet Ventures, with the intention of turning the 21 affordable — albeit rundown — apartments into 70-plus condominiums.

Meanwhile, Sidney council is trying to change zoning rules to prevent the loss of rental housing.

The town’s rezoning proposal would designate 13 specific properties scattered throughout the town to be used for rentals only. These are places where rental buildings already exist, such as the Third Street lots, and the goal is to keep those properties being used for rentals.

But in a case of unintended consequences, these two apartment buildings may end up sitting empty as the building of rental units instead of condos could mean a financial loss for Highstreet, according to Scott Butler, the company’s CEO and founder.

Residents are already being paid to leave in an effort to simplify the development application process — and theoretically avoid potential problems with the Residential Tenancy Branch.

Highstreet was solidifying plans for the site when it was informed of the rezoning in early May.

“Our development manager was just getting queued up to finalize the site plan and then get in with the development permit application,” Butler said. “And we got this letter.”

The town and Highstreet have been communicating about the zoning plan in phone calls, and Butler expressed hope the site could eventually be rezoned back again to allow for condos. That could delay the project and come with conditions; however, which has the company rethinking the whole project.

Butler was forthcoming about all these issues with Black Press Media, but Sidney’s mayor, entire council, and town staff all refused to comment on the potential development.

Buyouts help, but don’t provide a new home

Knowing it would be difficult — or even impossible — for displaced tenants to find another affordable home in the Sidney area, Butler said his company decided to pay out far more than is required under local or provincial rules in compensation to residents to move out.

Highstreet is paying tenants the equivalent of three-to-six months rent at $2,200 per month, plus $500 moving expenses, if they are out by July 31. Tenants get more money the longer they have lived in the building, and get a 50 per cent bonus if they move out by the end of May.

Those who wait until the fall to leave will be compensated based on their actual rent, which for many is under $800 per month.

“We’re gonna have to get out soon anyway so I might as well take the best value for the deal,” Crystaline said as she prepares to move out by the end of May.

Highstreet has so far paid out more than $120,000 to residents in the two buildings combined, with some long-term tenants getting as much as $10,000.

“We budgeted a lot to help them move along in the best way possible, hoping that they’ll find something close to what they were paying before,” Butler said, adding that he recognizes “that will be difficult and certainly not in the same area and that sucks.”

Not all current residents are happy with this deal though, and not all have yet agreed to leave.

Those who are moving out — including Crystalline — don’t necessarily have anywhere to go.

Her budget is about $1,000 per month, and in a May 10 interview, she said she had yet to find a place.

“Thank god I have my car,” she said.

Francis Miranda had a U-Haul truck parked behind the Charmay building as he was moving his family out on May 10. He’ll be renting a room in an old motel for $1,600 instead of the $700 he had been paying. His family of three will all be living in that one room.

“The renter is pretty vulnerable,” he said. “We’re temporary foreign workers so it’s really hard to find an affordable rental place, especially in a family of three with a four-year-old kid.”

Francis Miranda was packing up to move out of the Charmay on May 10. (Mark Page/News Staff)

That motel building is also slated for redevelopment in 18 months and Miranda had to sign a month-to-month lease, meaning he will eventually find himself moving again.

Sarah Waddington, who does not want to move out of her apartment in the Seacrest building but may still end up taking Highstreet’s deal, has spoken in front of council and had meetings with both town staff and the mayor about the situation.

For Waddington, the fear is that even if new rentals were built, they could be luxury units not suitable for the people being bought out of the current buildings.

She acknowledged the buildings were a bit old and rundown, but said it did not bother her all that much considering the rent she is paying.

Sarah Waddington has been vocal in her opposition to moving out of the Seacrest building, but may have no choice but to take a buyout and find a new place to live. (Mark Page/News Staff)

“They haven’t been looked after, as you can tell,” Waddington said. “But they are still livable, and I haven’t had any problems with my apartment.”

Butler argues that these buildings weren’t well maintained and are at the end of their usable life.

“They’re pretty old and tired,” he said. “We’ve just made the decision, the sooner we can clean that up, the better.”

Mayor Cliff McNeil-Smith said at the April 22 council meeting, that many of the buildings being rezoned were built in the 1950s and 1960s, which is why rents are so low.

And though he said the plan is aimed at protecting current rental properties in the community, he admitted it’s a challenge to make sure that rents are kept at affordable levels when properties are redeveloped.

The town doesn’t really have a mechanism to be able to control rents in these situations, he said.

Difficult math

Butler said his company does build rentals and condos, but not on a property as valuable as this one. Generally those are also buildings with at least 100 units.

“We paid $11 million for the site,” Butler said “And then to go and turn it into a rental — the math doesn’t work, we can’t build it.”

These types of bylaws have been challenged in court before. The City of New Westminster was taken to the B.C. Supreme Court over its rental rezoning plan last year, but was able to rebuff the lawsuit. Court challenges to bylaws restricting the amount of rent that could be charged have had more success, however.

Sidney’s rezoning plan could mean more rental units eventually become available, but whether they would be affordable for people like Miranda, Crystaline and Waddington remains to be seen.

It could also mean the Charmay and Seacrest just sit vacant, a victim of hard lines being drawn by both the town and developer over what can — and what should — be built there.

READ MORE: Told to get out: No-fault evictions ensnare renters in Victoria and beyond