Low-income tenants at Vancouver’s Olympic Village say they fear eviction and are getting mixed messages about their unexpectedly high utility bills and whether or not the bills will have to be paid.
Officials are still trying to figure out how hot water and heating charges will be covered, but evictions are not being contemplated over the issue, according to Thom Armstrong, executive director of the society managing the buildings.
"Talk about evicting anyone is completely premature," Thom said Thursday. "We have told the tenants that we want to listen to their concerns."
Thom said the society is taking "the steps necessary to make sure the billing is being done on a basis that is understood, is fair and equitable to everyone."
But a senior city official says all residents will soon have to start paying their utility bills — bills which city funds have been paying up to now.
"We can’t responsibly use taxpayer dollars to subsidize their bills indefinitely," said Deputy City Manager Sadhu Johnston. "If they are unable to stay in those homes, we would work with them to help find a home they could afford to stay in."
In August the city announced it would hire an independent engineering firm to review the energy costs of tenants living in the subsidized housing and would stop billing village residents while the review is underway.
Using space heaters
Pivot Legal Society lawyer Scott Bernstein says he has been working with tenants to document their concerns. He says many were never told that there would be any other power bills except from B.C. Hydro when they moved into the subsidized housing.
But in May, the tenants began receiving bills from the local utility distributor Enerpro, ranging from $40 to $150 dollars, on top of their regular hydro bills. To make matters worse, the bills included heating charges for times when the heat was not even working and the tenants were forced to use space heaters to keep warm, according to Bernstein.
"Most tenants were told repeatedly that their utility bills would be 'next to nothing', often after repeatedly asking about utilities and expressing concern about affordability at the Village," says Bernstein.
Resident Arlene Lemoigne claims she was charged $48 after living in her unit for just four days.
"I am very angry. I am stressed out to no end," said Lemoigne.
Others, who used to live on the streets, say the utility bills could put them back there.
"If we were forced to pay this bill, we would have to move — where, I have no idea, because there is nothing cheaper than this," said Connor Mikonnen.
The city says there have been issues with how the equipment at the village monitors energy use, but those issues are close to being resolved. Once that happens, early in the new year, residents will be expected to pick up their own tab.