When renovations have a hidden agenda: renoviction

By Sergio Tirado Herrero

Incentives split between owners and tenants are often mentioned as a significant barrier to energy efficiency investments and behaviour in the housing rental sector. As discussed by Gillingham et al. (2012), tenants have little incentives to save energy at home if they do not pay for the amount consumed; and owners have few incentives to invest in energy efficiency measures that will primarily benefit tenants unless they are allowed to raise the rental price of the properties they own. However, changing or creating new rules to avoid the split incentives barrier may trigger strategic responses from landlords – such as the forced eviction of tenants following an imposed refurbishment building. This phenomenon has been labeled as renoviction (renovation + eviction), as I heard for a first time a couple of weeks ago in the RESPONDER sustainable housing event I attended in Barcelona.

As the story goes, this new word was apparently coined by Canadian soprano and activist Heather Pawsey. A resident of Seafield Apartments in Vancouver (British Columbia), since 2008 she and other members of her community have been resisting the plans of the company owning their rental apartment building to renovate the estate and drastically increase rental prices (up to 73%) afterwards. Since tenants are forced to leave their homes for the renovation to take place, they would be effectively evicted as a consequence of the renovation unless they agree to the new, higher rent. Apparently, the owners of the building would be taking advantage of a local regulation, the provincial Residential Tenancy Act (RTA), which allows them “to evict tenants by performing renovations that supposedly require vacant suites, in order to evade controls on annual rent increases”. The story of the Seafield Apartments, which is still ongoing, is documented in detail and has become a flagship example of communities resisting renoviction.

illegally-evicted-at-the-seafieldA community resisting. Source: http://seafieldapartments.com/

The case of Seafield Apartments illustrates how apparently neutral solutions to supposedly technical challenges (such as the split incentives barrier) may have unforeseen negative consequences, with conflicts expected when actors with largely different interests interact on an uneven playing field. We will be looking into renoviction and other cases in which households resist measures theoretically intended to improve the quality of their homes.

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