David Tataryn receives a disability income—that’s $906 for British Columbians living alone, a monthly amount that makes it near impossible to find housing in Victoria’s private rental market. But for 16 years, he managed to rent an affordable suite ($398 when he moved in, $526 when he moved out) in Victoria’s now-notorious View Towers, a 357-unit apartment building home to many low-income renters since it was built in 1970. That all changed this year, however, when a mass eviction spurred by a fire left Tataryn and 39 other renters scrambling to find lodgings.
In Victoria, lessons from View Towers
On May 15th, 2014, the unit directly above Tataryn’s caught fire from a lit cigarette. Along with about 70 others, Tataryn was evacuated. To his surprise, he was also evicted; View Towers landlords, operating as West Sea Construction, deemed the units uninhabitable.
More than half—40 out of 70—former View Towers residents had nowhere else to go following the fire. While tenants like Tataryn didn’t find the damage to be so extensive as to render the suites uninhabitable, management barred them from re-entering the building. Those 40 tenants, newly homeless, were given bus tickets, food vouchers, and a toiletry package with toothbrush and toothpaste. The City of Victoria’s Emergency Management Agency and Emergency Management BC moved them from place to place.
For the first days after the fire, Tataryn slept in a motel, a hotel, and spent five nights in the dorms at the University of Victoria. It was nothing like home. But he didn’t realize it would get worse until he was eventually told, “all you need tonight is a bed.” Tataryn and the other evacuees were offered mats on the floor at the Salvation Army.
He wanted to go home, but was barred from his former residence. “Nobody moved back into View Towers,” Tataryn says, “Even those willing to pay extra rent.”
The lock to Tataryn’s apartment was changed; he had to complete paperwork requesting small items of necessity. “They brought me the wrong shoes, and only half my prescriptions,” Tataryn notes. He went to live with his mother in Nanaimo, began a new search for housing, and challenged View Towers for access to his suite.
Tataryn signed a document offered by West Sea Construction. “Basically it said that I was thrown out because of distress, and in return I got half a month’s rent and the damage deposit.”
Tataryn didn’t think this was fair. So he went to TAPS, Victoria’s Together Against Poverty Society. The group provides low- income communities with legal advocacy and supports; a rare thing, given the arid landscape for legal aid in B.C. that has been steadily diminishing since the early 2000s.
APs was able to grant Tataryn a small victory following the chaos of his displacement. After two months, and with help from TAPS legal advocate Victor Ryan, Tataryn was allowed access to his suite for just two days to move nearly two decades’ worth of belongings, something he may not have been able to do without TAPS’ assistance.
A volunteer with Victoria’s grassroots Committee to End Homelessness and the city-funded Coalition to End Homelessness, Tataryn is a passionate supporter of TAPS’ work; he knows firsthand how helpful its services can be. In the mid-2000s, when he faced another eviction scar while living at View Towers, TAPS helped him, he says.
A necessary resource
TAPS was established 25 years ago by a small group of people wishing to address the challenges of navigating government bureaucracies and administrative processes. Now TAPS has six staff, about 75 active volunteers, and a 10-person board. The group offers free, face-to-face legal advocacy for Victoria’s low-income community.
Representatives accompany income assistance (welfare) recipients to appointments with the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation. They help people apply for PWD (Person With Disability status) or assist with appeals when denied. On Thursdays, they offer a free tax clinic, and this year they launched an Employment Standards Project to help non- unionized workers whose employers violate the Employment Standards Act. Hilary Marks joined the TAPS board two years ago, after receiving help with her income taxes, tenancy and income assistance issues.
“They are so valuable, a very essential and much-needed service,” Hilary says. “It’s awful that the government puts people into danger by not allowing them to be self sustaining. How do people live on [a single person’s income assistance allowance of] $610 a month? It really is an infringement of peoples’ human rights! I do it, but I am always lacking.”
Even though he’d lived at View Towers for 16 years, West Sea denied Tataryn a reference, claiming they don’t know enough about him. It took him eight weeks to finally find reasonable housing. “It’s better,” Tataryn says, of the apartment he now rents for $695 a month. “It’s not hard to be better than View Towers, but of course it’s also $160 more a month.”
Though he’s happy in his new home, Tataryn questions whether his and others’ displacement was truly necessary. He questions the official story that the building has irreparable fire damage with ceilings and walls caved in. After he’d worked with TAPS to gain access to his apartment, he felt the damage wasn’t nearly as dramatic as had been reported.
View Towers, he estimates, is now two- thirds empty following the fire, marking a loss of sought-after affordable rental housing in Victoria. He continues to support TAPS in its work at advocating for marginalized people, something that feels rare these days.
“In a situation with a lot of people shutting you down, or shutting you out,” Tataryn says, “at least I didn’t get that from TAPS.”
Tataryn was one of the approximately 6,000 people TAPS serves each year. “We fundamentally believe that we shouldn’t exist,” says interim executive director Stephen Portman. That TAPS’ client numbers are growing, he says, marks a grim reality. To him, it’s “a reflection that things are getting worse for people living in poverty.”