The O’Neill’s stand outside the Root Cellar Green Grocer with their eviction notice in hand. / Travis Devonport)

It’s a crisp fall afternoon in the Cook Street village when Michelle O’Neill hears a knock on the door. Assuming it’s her building manager coming to repair a set of broken hinges, O’Neill answers and is greeted by disappointment – she’s been served eviction papers.

Michelle and her husband Matthew say the eviction came as a shock and has left them scrambling to find a home for their children, one of which has autism and requires the support of their service dog, Stella. 

“We’re working on a single income so I can stay home and support my son. Trying to enter the rental market right now, let alone find a place in Victoria. It’s hard to imagine starting from scratch all over again,” says Michelle.

The family of four was first served an eviction notice in early May from Devon Properties, a property management company that oversees more than 10,000 residences throughout British Columbia. 

To their surprise, the O’Neill’s say they received the eviction notice two weeks after their property manager, Terry Jones held a meeting with Daisy and Adam Orser, the owners of Root Cellar. The meeting in April was set to address several noise complaints reported by tenants living above the grocery store. 

According to the family’s eviction notice, the landlord plans on moving their child or spouse into O’Neill’s home of 22 years, using Landlord Use. 

Landlord Use is a clause that allows a property owner the ability to evict a tenant if the landlord intends on allowing a close family member the opportunity to live in the rental unit. Close family includes a father, mother or child of the landlord or the landlord’s spouse. Additionally, if a landlord is to sell their property to a new owner, the new owner is allowed to invoke Landlord Use, if they intend on renting to a family or moving in themselves.

Doug King, a lawyer and Executive Director of Together Against Poverty (TAPS) says, Landlords Use is being applied on a regular basis by landlords in Victoria and the legal measures imposed through the Residential Tenancy Branch are not designed to support tenants.

“The landlord really just needs to make a statement that they or a host family member as defined by the act are moving in and there’s not a whole lot you can do to refute that. Even if you have reason to believe there might be an alternative motive, you need pretty strong evidence to show they are acting in bad faith and it’s really difficult to go through that process,” says King.

Since May, the O’Neill’s have been fighting the terms of their eviction through the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB). With an attestation set on September 29th between the lawyers representing Devon Properties and the O’Neills, today their greatest fear has come true. The RTB ruled in favour of evicting the family, leaving Michelle and Matthew homeless by October 31st. 

In an email statement, Murray Rankin the Minister of Housing says the provincial government has taken steps to support tenants by requiring “landlords to prove they used the property for the stated purpose for at least six months and increased the compensation for tenants whose landlords were not acting in good faith.”

King says tenants that choose to bring the eviction to a hearing face significant risk if they lose the decision. 

“With these two-month notices, if a tenant contests it, then they’re ultimately unsuccessful. Because it takes so long to get a hearing at the tenancy branch, usually the hearing date is past the effective date of the eviction. If they lose it’s really high stakes. They’re often given an order that means they have to leave within 48 hours,” says King.

In spite of the high stakes surrounding their battle, the O’Neills say that they felt it was important to voice concerns not only for themselves but for other tenants being ignored by Devon Properties. Their frustration stems from a slew of issues including ignored requests for property repairs, noise violations requiring police presence, and a lack of transparency concerning the identity of their official landlord.

In 2020, the Root Cellar replaced Oxford Foods, a longstanding Cook Street staple. Upon Ed Louie’s retirement, this marked the end of a family business spanning 69 years.

According to a land title record obtained by Victoria Buzz, the Louie family currently still own the property on 271 Cook Street. The O’Neill’s say they feel misled by Devon Properties who informed the tenants living above Oxford Foods that the property managers would be representing new property owners as of December 1st, 2020.

(A tenancy update was sent to renters in December 2020, notifying residents, Devon Properties would be representing a new owner after Root Cellar took over Oxford Foods. / Travis Devonport)

The O’Neills are not alone in their concern. A tenant living on the same floor as the O’Neill’s has expressed complaints to their property manager and is now fearful they could face a similar fate as the family. Out of concerns of retaliation, the tenant has requested anonymity. 

“I’ve expressed my problems with the property management and it’s just to the point, who do you talk to now? Who do you go to? It’s just like, am I next on the chopping block with these people? If they can do what they can do to my neighbour, am I next? I can’t afford to move, I can’t afford $1,700 for a one-bedroom.”

Noise & safety violations

Since 2020, various tenants including the O’Neill’s have reported noise complaints coming from the Root Cellar between the hours of 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. With occasional disturbances around 10 p.m. to midnight. 

After living above a grocery store for more than 20 years, the O’Neills say they know how noisy a grocery operation can be. To their surprise, they’ve noticed an increase in noise and dangerous working conditions that have disturbed their way of life. 

“We’ve never dealt with this before. It’s just the inconsistencies, it wasn’t elevator music, it’s like club music and live performances. Every single day we hear them rolling bins and it sounds like an earthquake. I actually jumped and ran to the kids the first time I heard it because I literally thought it was an earthquake,” says Michelle.

(A forklift operated by a Root Cellar employee maneuvers around pedestrians on a public sidewalk. /
Travis Devonport)

Upon receiving their eviction in May, the O’Neills ended their attempts to contact their property manager about the issue and began reporting noise violations to Victoria Police and Bylaw officers. 

According to residential noise bylaws in Victoria, a business is allowed to play music through an amplified playback device between 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in a residential area. After this time, the person responsible could be fined a minimum of $200 if a bylaw officer is called.

In an email statement, the Root Cellar says music is played in the store from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day with occasional live music performances, all of which are played at an appropriate level. 

After officially being evicted, Michelle and Matthew have yet to tell their two sons, who spent their childhood living on Cook Street. Disheartened and uncertain about where they are going to go, the O’Neills say they are speaking out because more needs to be done to protect vulnerable tenants. 

“Families with disabilities already face discrimination when it comes to housing. Right now, Landlord Use is being abused across BC and it’s such a big concern for me because it doesn’t matter where we move, we’re going to encounter this problem over and over again,” says Michelle.

Victoria Buzz reached out to Devon properties’ Terry Jones and Jordan Dodd, Root Cellar’s Daisy and Adam Orser, and Ed Louie. At the time of publication, these individuals declined to comment or were unavailable. 

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