High utility bills stun Vancouver tenants in eco-friendly Olympic Village

City, housing agency preparing report on energy consumption in social housing suites

Low-income tenants thought theyd hit the jackpot when their applications for housing were approved for suites at below market rental rates at the former Olympic Village.

For the first three weeks Im in heaven, said Sandra Belanger, who is 70 and disabled. Im just a nervous wreck and anxious all the time about what I dont know. [The] bottom line is can I afford to live here?

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But their enthusiasm waned when they received their energy bills.

Before she moved into the Net Zero building, tenant Pam Burge paid $475 a month, including cable and utilities, for a 250-square-foot room in a native housing building downtown. If the society hadnt taken her in, the 66-year-old says she would have ended up in a shelter after 10 years of ugly treatment in another building for low-income tenants.

I changed gender and I changed my race, she said.

Burge said COHO Property Management, a spinoff of the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C., which won the contract from the city to manage its three buildings of affordable housing at The Village on False Creek, told her shed pay nearly $460 a month in rent and next to nothing for utility bills in the building thats meant to produce as much energy as it consumes. A SAFER grant (Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters) from the provincial government was to help her pay a total of $700 in rent.

But the SAFER grant was less than Burge was told to expect, topping her up to only $660.

Burge says she received a B.C. Hydro bill for $25. At the end of May she received a second utility bill from Enerpro Systems Corp. for $85.16 for the period starting April 7, when she moved in, to April 30. The bill listed $28 for the previous month, $12.50 plus tax for a basic charge, $34.63 for heating, $7.03 for hot water and $1.50 for cold water.

She refused to pay the bill. She and other tenants met and forwarded their concerns to COHO. The city held a meeting with tenants in June. Residents say they were told everything would be sorted out, but they havent heard anything since.

The Courier met six of the tenants Aug. 5.

They said they dont understand their thermostats or meters. They dont believe building systems are working properly. They wonder whether theyre being asked to pay for system flaws and whether consumption is being accurately monitored.

Dan Causton, a former building inspector who moved into a suite in April, says hes been cold since he arrived. He and others also reported problems with hot water and lights.

Causton is concerned the ventilation system thats constantly sucking air in the bathroom is a fire hazard. He said two fire inspectors visited and agreed it could be. The Courier phoned one of them, who did not return calls by press time.

Thom Armstrong, executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C., said tenants of two of the three buildings have voiced complaints.

He said the federation and the city are up to two weeks away from receiving a comprehensive report on monitoring and energy consumption in the buildings. Once the report is complete, information will be shared with residents and they will be educated about how the systems work.

The focus is on having all of the problems resolved by Sept. 1 so Enerpro can issue bills, tenants will understand them and there will be nothing to dispute.

Armstrong wouldnt speculate on how energy costs would be handled if the bills remain unaffordable to low-income tenants.

crossi@vancourier.com

Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi

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