Chinatown seniors worry about rising rent

Affordable housing deal set to expire with no word from ownership

Low-income residents of the Bowside Manor apartment building in Calgary’s Chinatown fear they may lose their homes if management follows through on plans to eliminate subsidized housing in the complex.

About half the building’s 88 units house low-income tenants who pay below market value rent under a federal subsidization program that has been in place for 35 years according to the Calgary Chinese Elderly Citizens Association (CCECA) which is acting as a tenant advocate.

That may change due to a clause in the building’s mortgage agreement with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The building was purchased by the Calgary Chinatown Development Foundation the Calgary Chinese Public School Society and the Lee Association in 1979 with funding provided by the CMHC. In exchange for mortgage funding and low-income rent subsidies the trio created a board-managed foundation to run the building as a low-income housing unit. However the group’s operating agreement states “the foundation shall charge current rents for housing units in the building upon the maturity date of the mortgages rents to be equal to rents paid for similar units offered in the City of Calgary at that time i.e. market rents.” With the mortgage presently maturing the building may be converted in May 2015.

Desmond Lai of the CCECA says low-income residents of Bowside are generally in their 70s and understand little English. That combined with the building management’s alleged refusal to respond to tenant questions have left many confused and worried about possible future housing.

This isn’t the first time in recent memory Bowside Manor has aggravated tenant relations. In November 2013 many low-income tenants complained they were paying more for rent than the provincially prescribed 30 per cent of their income. They were also told there would be further rental increases throughout the building regardless of income. Management relented in December reducing rent by $200 per month for 10 residents while the CCECA continued to work for reductions for another five tenants.

Alberta law requires low-income housing units to charge a maximum of 30 per cent of a tenant’s assessed income for rent yet Bowside Manor’s agreement with the CMHC is governed only by federal law which does not use that calculation. Tenants and advocates who held an April 8 press conference say renters saw an 8.8 per cent increase in their rent in January. They also allege the building has been gradually decreasing its stock of low-income units for several years.

“[In] 2012 quite a few seniors are approaching the Calgary Chinese Elderly Citizens Association Organization to file a complaint or come in asking for help about disputes between the landlord and the tenant” says Lai. He says that when the association looked into their complaints it found when tenants moved out of low-cost units those units entered the rental market at full value.

Yin Ping Tam has lived in the building as a subsidized tenant since 2000. The part-time worker says her rent increased from $560 to $630 in January. Tam says that increase did not reflect the income assessment she submitted and that she finds it difficult to afford it on her current income. She fears losing her home if she is charged the full market value rent which she says is a little over $700.

Tam says she doesn’t understand how a subsidized apartment operated by the Calgary Chinatown Development Foundation a registered charity can become a non-subsidized complex.

“I feel distraught helpless. What can I do where should I go? Because I can’t afford to live in a market price unit” Tam says.

The CCECA and a group called the Bowside Manor Tenant Advocacy say they asked MLA Kent Hehr for help but are dissatisfied with the outcome.

Hehr says he sympathizes with them and believes the building should maintain low-income units at the 30 per cent cutoff but because it’s a federally funded privately owned complex it all depends on the provincial government’s interest in acquiring or subsidizing Bowside Manor.

“It would be the right thing to do to keep housing stock in Chinatown and the ministry [of Human Services] should be looking at how to do this. I’ve sent a couple of letters to the minister on this issue. He doesn’t appear to be interested in this at this time but here’s hoping” says Hehr.

“The building may be running its course in the way of years left on its lease. I think the building may be sold at that time and enter the market and I’m not sure what’ll happen then” he adds.

Building managers were not available for comment at press time. Tenant advocates say they may pursue a legal case against increasing rents but they have not hired a lawyer and are unsure of the legislation that may be applied.