At the end of March, Zoe Nagler and Teona Sparkes could find themselves homeless.
Nagler, 46, has been living in d’Esterre Gardens in Comox for the past six years, and Sparkes, 53, has been a resident for the past four. The two women are both living with their own disabilities, and as a result, rely on disability pensions to get by.
Though the housing complex, managed by d’Esterre Senior Citizen’s Housing Society, is meant for low-income seniors over the age of 65 or people with disabilities aged 55 and over, both tenants say underage tenants with a disability have been allowed in the past if there was a vacancy.
This is how Nagler and Sparkes became residents, but in mid-January, both women received eviction notices based on their ages. They were given until the end of March to find a new place and vacate d’Esterre Gardens.
“It is with great sadness that we had to both write and send this letter out to you when it was discovered that you do not meet the specified requirements as per our mandate for housing in our seniors complex,” read an email received by Nagler from d’Esterre Gardens management on Jan. 8, prior to the formal eviction notice.
“We do not know how you and other tenants managed to get tenancy in our seniors complex as we can lose status as a senior housing provider by allowing residents who do not qualify to have housing,” the email continued.
Sitting at her kitchen table, Nagler flips through her original tenancy application from six years ago and points to where her birth date is clearly stated. She pulls out her tenancy agreement as well which states the age restrictions, but is signed by Nagler and an approving board member.
“It wasn’t a mistake, it was a policy. Just a policy that wasn’t written down,” said Nagler. “It’s not like I was trying to hide my age, and looking at my face, could anyone have thought that I was anywhere close to 55?”
Nagler had no reason to be concerned about her housing until May 2018, when a new application for tenancy was sent to all residents in order to update their information. It was stated on the application that tenants had to be at least 55 to reside in the housing complex, just as it had six years ago, but this time, the management seemed surprised to learn she was underage.
“It was the first time I realized that age might matter because up until that point I didn’t think that age mattered,” she said. “I’d been let in without condition as a tenant and I thought, ‘Well, of course, I don’t match the age but I’m disabled so I match that category.’ Because they led me to believe that it was seniors and disabled adults.”
In October, Nagler felt secure in her tenancy again after a letter was received by all residents stating in part, “Management and the board work very closely together in trying to ensure that all our tenants have, and will continue to have, safe, comfortable, low-income housing…”
The letter was in response to concerns from a number of residents that their housing was in danger due to upgrades and repairs the non-profit society was planning on doing to its two facilities, d’Esterre Gardens and Quadra Gardens. The society is not funded in any way by BC Housing, but is hoping to secure grants to complete the upgrades.
The letter explained that rents for individual units are raised slightly when old tenants leave, but it concluded by saying, “Please be assured that your housing is safe!”
“That’s why I felt safe,” said Nagler. “‘All tenants’ – I mean seriously, I thought I was included.”
Sparkes was also caught off guard by the eviction notice as her lease was renewed in September 2018.
“My age was on that,” said Sparkes. “All the documents that I have done over the years have all said my birth date on them. And the board knew it too.”
D’Esterre Senior Citizens Housing Society underwent a management change in late 2018. The volunteer board has also changed, as it does every year as members reach their maximum time of three years.
While the current board and management may not have been a part of the decision to allow Nagler and Sparkes to live in d’Esterre Gardens, the Jan. 8 email from management suggested that the two tenants had mistakenly received tenancy. In another email on Jan. 14, this statement was corrected.
“It is unfortunate that we have had management in the past that has not kept the society in good standing with the choice of the tenants that have not qualified for housing in our complex(es). It now falls to us to make sure we rectify this situation and ensure that all of the tenants in both of the senior buildings qualify for housing as they should,” read the email.
It continued, saying management and the board are obligated to follow the society’s constitution and bylaws.
D’Esterre Gardens management declined a request for further comment.
Nagler is preparing to go to an arbitrator to see if she can keep her home, but says she has been told to expect the worst based on what’s written in the housing constitution.
“In all likelihood, I should expect to lose because they will probably just go with a technicality. And on technicalities, I will lose because the policy that let us live here is not written anywhere.”
With the eviction date looming ever closer, Nagler and Sparkes are faced with the daunting process of searching a difficult rental market for a place that is both affordable and accessible.
According to the 2018 Vital Signs Report, the average rental vacancy rate in the Comox Valley in 2017 was 2.4 per cent, with 20 per cent of renter households spending 50 per cent or more of their monthly income on housing.
Nagler and Sparkes receive between $1,100 and $1,200 a month from their disability pensions and are limited to what they can afford, especially considering their need for accessible buildings.
“We’ve got nowhere to go,” said Sparkes. “Even if I rent a room in someone’s house, there’s usually stairs.”
If Nagler is unable to find a place to live by her eviction date, she will be forced to move in with her mother on Denman Island, which is not ideal given her cerebral palsy and extreme vertigo.
“Everyone in this town knows there’s nothing for someone like me,” she said.