In the House of the Lord
The Jackson Avenue Housing Co-operative and the religious battle raging in one of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods.
Ronnie Grigg walks with his daughters on Powell Street. Photograph by Nick Westover.
Ronnie Grigg and I stop our bikes at the corner of Jackson Avenue and East Cordova Street, just inside Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park. We turn and face a row of brightly coloured houses—red, yellow, blue, green. It is January 2011.
“This is it,” Grigg says. “Jackson Avenue Housing Co-op.” He points out the unit where he lives with his two young daughters. Several years ago, after Grigg’s marriage ended, the co-op stepped in to help, providing housing for him and his girls when they had nowhere to stay. “Now, I live there like a ghost,” he says. “My children are able to play with other children if they run into each other outside—but to knock on doors, or play at each other’s houses...” He trails off. “I haven’t spoken to anyone from the co-op, outside of mediation, since last July.”
The Jackson Avenue Housing Co-operative is located in the Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood often referred to as “Canada’s poorest postal code.” At the turn of the twentieth century, the area was Vancouver’s civic centre and local-transport hub, home to City Hall, a market, shipping ports and industry. In the late 1950s, commerce began to shift west, public-transit service decreased and the DTES slowly became the last vestige of low-income housing in the city. By the eighties, homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness and crime had become serious issues in the neighbourhood. Today, the DTES is home to about eighteen thousand people, many of whom live in single-room occupancy hotels rife with cockroaches, bedbugs and fire-code violations.
St. Chiara is a Christian intentional community that makes its home at the Jackson Avenue Housing Co-op. Since the group formed over two decades ago, St. Chiara members have lived collectively, devoting themselves to their faith, involvement in the DTES and a strict code of non-violence. (The group is named after St. Clare of Assisi, who founded the Order of Poor Ladies, but it is not affiliated with any specific Christian denomination.) The JAHC provides communal meals for neighbourhood residents four times a week; one founding member of St. Chiara, Kathy Walker, is also the executive director of the St. James Music Academy, which provides music education for children who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it.
There are about seventy Christian housing providers in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland, but the JAHC is different from most. While many organizations simply offer beds and support services, at the JAHC, St. Chiara’s founding members live alongside low-income families and individuals from the DTES. According to Grigg and several former residents of the co-op, the six core leaders of St. Chiara are Irene Vandas, Pamela and Tim Vincent, Lane and Kathy Walker, and Jennifer Ziemann. (Because St. Chiara is an informal organization, there is no official documentation to confirm its membership, and all six founding members declined several requests for comment.)
When the members of St. Chiara moved into their first house on Jackson Avenue in the mid-nineties, the ten-bedroom rented for only $3,000 a month, and its structural issues were so significant that a representative from the city visited with a tilt metre. Nevertheless, they were committed to living and raising families in the Downtown Eastside, and, in October 2004, the JAHC was officially incorporated; Ziemann, Vandas and Pam Vincent were its first members. Five years later, after receiving a combined total of over $1.6 million in funding from the federal, provincial and municipal governments, the co-op opened its newly renovated doors. With the purchase of the original house and several adjacent homes, the JAHC was able to offer twenty-three units of housing; a 2009 magazine article calls it the “Miracle on Jackson Avenue.”
“The opening of these four houses is a real milestone in our mission to create and operate non-profit housing for families in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside,” Kathy Walker says in a 2009 news release from the British Columbia Ministry of Housing and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. “Our society has been working to provide affordable, safe and supportive housing, helping families to remain in this community.” A CMHC Project Profile from 2010 says that, “motivated by Christian values of inclusiveness and social justice, the co-op’s members see their active community involvement as the best method of crime prevention in a neighbourhood that too often attracts media attention only for its problems.”
Prior to starting the JAHC, some of St. Chiara’s members had a history of faith-based activism. Tracy Tobin first encountered the St. Chiara community in the early nineties, when she visited her high-school friend Pam Birch (now Vincent) at the group’s original headquarters on the eastern edge of Vancouver. St. Chiara moved to Jackson Avenue shortly after, and Tobin followed, at the age of nineteen. Her parents were addicts-cum-Christians, and the community’s approach to faith appealed to her. “I had made the transition from conversion-based, missionary religion to social-justice activism,” she says. “St. Chiara is very involved in poverty activism. They were also big-time into abortion activism, which was close to me, and very much a part of my belief system.”
Ronnie Grigg says the core members of St. Chiara “were involved in a number of civil-disobedience actions in the nineties that galvanized their identity as a group.” According to the Saint Chiara Community blog, which has not been updated since 2009, the members started a Canadian chapter of the Seamless Garment Network, an “eclectic gathering” of organizations opposed to six key issues: poverty, abortion, war, racism, euthanasia and capital punishment. (In a 2008 book about the Downtown Eastside, Hope in Shadows, Kathy Walker references “a value we call ‘consistent life ethic’…where we believe that fundamentally the taking of a human life is something we ought not to do.”) Tobin says that when she moved into the communal home, some St. Chiara members had already been arrested during pro-life protests. The website of the Pro-Choice Action Network, an advocacy group, lists demonstrations that resulted in the arrests of Lane Walker, Kathy Walker, Pam Birch and Jennifer Ziemann, among others; British Columbia’s online criminal records confirm that, since 1999, Ziemann, Lane Walker and Tim Vincent have all been arrested. “Eventually,” Tobin says, “I felt like it was my turn to serve jail time.”
In January 1995, Tobin and other St. Chiara members held what she describes as a “bloodletting party,” involving ten to fifteen people, at their house on Jackson Avenue. Tobin says that Vandas, a nurse, brought equipment to draw blood from St. Chiara members, while another woman obtained blood from the hospital where her husband worked. The group mixed it with animal blood that Tobin believes was obtained from a butcher. Tobin and Tim Vincent then sat in front of Everywoman’s Health Centre, a Vancouver abortion clinic, and covered themselves with blood. At the time, the Canadian Press reported that Tobin and Vincent were charged with “breaching a civil injunction prohibiting protesters from blocking access to the Everywoman’s Health Centre.” “I served ten days in maximum security for that,” Tobin remembers. “And I wished I’d served more. I wanted to belong—to be a part of something.”
St. Chiara’s strict religious principles have fostered activism and community-building in the DTES. But they have also been a source of considerable conflict, according to former and current residents of the JAHC. The relationship between St. Chiara, an informal religious group, and the JAHC, a housing co-operative, is nebulous. According to Grigg, this lack of transparency has led to a system whereby tenancy rules are both morally strict and mutable. Another former tenant suggested that this approach—enacting new or previously unspoken regulations, while concealing the co-op’s operating structure—is deliberately designed to manipulate unwanted residents, forcing them out of the JAHC or alienating them until they have little choice but to leave.
An intentional community is loosely defined as a group of people who, embracing a shared ethos (religious or otherwise), live together and divide up tasks like cooking, cleaning and childcare. Ronnie Grigg describes the structure of St. Chiara as a set of three concentric circles: at the centre, he says, are the six core members of the community; the next circle consists of “full” members; the third comprises associates—people who attend the JAHC’s meals or participate in advocacy in a more peripheral way. (Those who live at the JAHC but aren’t involved with the St. Chiara community, he says, are not included in any of these circles.)
St. Chiara differs from most intentional communities in that its leaders direct a housing co-op. Generally, joining a housing co-op means signing an occupancy agreement and buying an initial share before moving in; the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC compares this first investment, which is typically between $1,000 and $7,000, to a damage deposit. On top of this, co-op members are charged monthly fees comparable to rent. Subsidies are often available for members of limited financial means, and many co-ops deliberately encourage socioeconomic diversity, with some residents paying market rent and some paying less.
Under the BC Cooperative Association Act, the majority of people living in a co-op should be members of the co-operative association, which grants them voting rights and a say in how it is run. But according to current and former tenants, co-op membership is not extended to most residents of the JAHC—even those who decide to become full members of the St. Chiara religious community. Instead, these residents say, the JAHC enters into a landlord-tenant relationship with most of the people who live there, meaning that their relationships fall under the Residential Tenancy Act rather than under co-op legislation. The CMHC Project Profile and the JAHC’s incorporation documents confirm that the co-op houses both members and non-members.
According to documentation obtained from BC Registry Services, the six core members of St. Chiara are the only people who have ever served on the JAHC’s board of directors; Ziemann, Vandas and Pam Vincent form the board today. The former and current residents I interviewed say that these six founders comprise the total membership of the co-op. (This information couldn’t be corroborated by BC Registry Services documentation.) One woman, whose husband had lived at the JAHC, says Kathy Walker told her that no one—aside from the core group—would be invited to officially become a co-op member.
Grigg first moved into the JAHC in 2006. He is tall and in his forties, with dark hair combed into a rockabilly pompadour; when I meet him at a coffee shop one day, he rolls up on a red cruiser bicycle. After his divorce, Grigg couch-surfed with friends who lived at Jackson Avenue, until the co-op offered a unit for him and his daughters. After living at the JAHC for a year and a half, participating in events and attending the same church as several of the co-op members, he decided to become a full member of the intentional community, and entered St. Chiara’s required discipleship program.
But, Grigg says, there were two issues that eventually caused the group to deny him full membership. “These are potentially inflammatory, okay?” He leans over his coffee. “I’m perceived to be too liberal on the same-sex issue. That’s the first issue. The second is my workplace.” After moving in to the JAHC, Grigg started working for the Portland Hotel Society, a non-profit that provides support for marginalized people in the DTES—something Grigg sees as part of his Christian mission. The Portland offers low-barrier housing for Vancouverites with mental-health and addiction issues. It is also a partner of Insite, North America’s only legal supervised-injection facility, and distributes needles and condoms. According to Grigg, the Portland’s harm-reduction strategy is at odds with St. Chiara’s conservative principles, which emphasize abstinence.
Grigg says St. Chiara’s core members told him that he would have to leave his job if he wanted to become a member. He refused. “Our values are at odds,” he says. He was asked to move out in January 2010, and given six months to leave. But that July, the JAHC forced another single parent to move out for questionable reasons. In protest, Grigg wrote a letter to the core St. Chiara members on July 30. “I cannot in good conscience leave my home at Jackson Avenue,” it states. In response to the letter, the St. Chiara leaders requested mediation by the rector of a local church, which failed to resolve the conflict. Still, Grigg says he is committed to staying at the JAHC and demanding accountability.
I also interviewed several former residents of the JAHC, none of whom had ever become members of the co-op or signed the tenancy agreements required by BC’s Residential Tenancy Act. They all assert that St. Chiara’s inflexible faith and confrontational communication style created an atmosphere of intimidation.
Ceone Veldman moved into the JAHC in September 2005. She was a clinical-counselling student and became involved with St. Chiara through a friend. Veldman is thirty, has short hair and favours colourful scarves. While she doesn’t exactly share St. Chiara’s religious values, she remembers being impressed with the group’s commitment to the Downtown Eastside. Upon moving in, she agreed to enter St. Chiara’s discipleship program. “They make it sound so reasonable,” she says, “but in hindsight, it’s so fucked up. You have to agree not to date for a year, to meet a mentor once a week and either to not work at all or to work on a very part-time basis.”
Three months into her tenancy, Veldman began to have serious misgivings. “There’s a real difference between being in the outer circle and inner circle of their co-op,” she explains now. “They wanted me to be a real member of their community. I had access to a washer and dryer, and none of my neighbours did. The amenities and living spaces for inner-circle [St. Chiara] members were just so much different than for others.” Veldman describes the core group members’ living quarters as renovated and well-equipped, in contrast to the sparse, tiny suites the JAHC affords to low-income DTES residents. “I realized there was a pecking order,” she explains. “I started to feel like they used religion as a tool to oppress people and motivate them through fear, guilt and shame.”
Veldman says that, for her, “the final nail in the coffin” was when the group started restricting her use of common space. She had been spending a lot of time in the co-op’s green-painted house, because it had a big, comfortable living room. Grigg lived in that building, and they became friends. But soon after, she says, Kathy Walker and Irene Vandas approached her with the concern that she and Grigg were engaging in an illicit relationship. Veldman insisted that they were just friends. Nonetheless, she says, Walker and Vandas then told her not to spend time in the green house. Veldman realized that she needed to leave the JAHC. “I expressed unhappiness with living there, and they wouldn’t accept it,” Veldman says. “They told me I had made a commitment and needed to stay.”
Even though Veldman was studying counselling and communication techniques, she struggled to stand up to the leaders of St. Chiara. “It’s hard to describe how strategically manipulative they are,” she says. “They take structured forms of non-violent communication and turn them on their heads. They’re not used for good. They’re used to manipulate you.” She says they asked her to keep a journal for a week, then publicly share her reasons for leaving. “Eventually, they said they couldn’t force me to stay,” she recalls, “but they’d believe it when they saw it.” Veldman moved out in July 2006, less than a year after moving in.
Tracy Tobin, who lived in the first Jackson Avenue house in the nineties, says her feelings toward St. Chiara also began to sour when the core members “became more and more controlling.” Like Veldman, she had to agree to a set of rules in order to begin her discipleship. She says these rules included the same prohibition on dating, weekly private counselling sessions and regular house meetings. “We were not permitted to have special relationships of any kind, including friendships,” Tobin says, because St. Chiara wanted to be the primary source of support and guidance for its members. “I was really close to Pam, though, and for a while they looked the other way. But when Pam got engaged [to Tim Vincent], Kathy Walker decided that was it—she told me that Pam was now going to be her best friend, because they’d have more in common as married women.” Although Tobin had originally planned to share a room with Pam, she was placed in another instead. “That was one of the ways they kept you destabilized,” she says. “They’d move you from room to room so you never quite got comfortable.”
At the time, Tobin says St. Chiara members practiced “group counselling”—sessions in which the community would single out an individual and list his or her personal failings. “A person would be told they were too prideful, too loud, not godly enough, not submissive enough, that they didn’t take on enough shopping or childcare.” According to Tobin, these sessions could last as long as two hours. “I’m not proud to admit that I participated in that: publicly humiliating people,” she says. (The other people I interviewed, who had lived at the JAHC more recently, say these sessions were held less frequently and had grown less aggressive.)
In 1997, Tobin left and moved in with a street priest who found her crying in a store. She returned to Jackson Avenue a year later and fell in love with her now-ex-husband, who was completing the St. Chiara discipleship program. “Any relationship that wasn’t mediated by [the core group members] was forbidden,” Tobin says, “so when they found out he’d told me he liked me, they flipped out. I was given an ultimatum: you choose him, or you stay here. I told them they were being really intense and I didn’t like it.” She moved out two weeks later—just four months after moving back in. “They told me I had abandoned God,” she says, “because I didn’t do what they wanted me to do.”
The first permanent housing co-ops in Canada were student residences, starting at the University of Toronto in 1936; the first co-op to accommodate families wasn’t founded until 1966, in Winnipeg. Seven years later, the federal government amended the National Housing Act to allow for more co-ops and launched a development campaign. Over the next two decades, tens of thousands of housing co-ops were established across the country.
Between 1992 and 1993, however, the government slashed funding for those programs. Today, most of BC’s 261 housing co-ops are at least thirty years old. Meanwhile, Vancouver housing prices have risen unabated; last June, the CMHC reported that the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is $1,181, more than three hundred dollars above the national average. In October, realty company Royal LePage reported that the average price of a detached bungalow in the city is $1.02 million, making it the only Canadian city surveyed where the average exceeds the million-dollar mark. “Housing can be out of reach in Vancouver, even for two people working good jobs,” says Fiona Jackson, communications director at the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC, when we meet at her office in February. “Co-ops are a great solution for mixed-income communities, with some subsidy so that people can pay rent at about 30 percent of their income, as opposed to the 50 percent they’re probably paying elsewhere.”
The JAHC, Jackson says, is different from most other Vancouver co-ops. It’s small, and one of the very few that have developed in the past several years. She smiles. “It’s a little project that stands out for its success in this time of no funding for housing co-ops.” The JAHC was able to secure funding by teaming up with the Columbia Housing Advisory Association, a non-profit development consultant, and negotiating a legally binding, multilateral agreement called a Memorandum of Understanding with the CMHC, BC Housing and the City of Vancouver.
I ask Jackson if a co-op would be allowed to determine membership based on religious beliefs. She hesitates, and I look at a “Co-op Principles” poster affixed to the wall of her office. “They, like anyone else, would be under the human-rights laws,” she says. She points to the first principle featured on the poster, which states that co-ops will provide voluntary membership “without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.” (The British Columbia Human Rights Code prohibits tenancy discrimination on the basis of religion, political belief or lawful source of income, among other grounds.)
Months later, I phone Jackson to ask how someone might make a complaint about the running of a co-op. She says that residents—if they are members—can take it up with the co-op board. I ask her what would happen if the issue were with the board of the co-op itself. She admits that the CHF BC doesn’t have much power; rather, its role is to suggest guidelines and offer assistance. When I ask how a tenant might hold the JAHC accountable in its function as a landlord, Jackson suggests I refer to the Residential Tenancy Act, which outlines tenants’ rights and dispute-resolution proceedings.
At our initial meeting, Jackson provides me with contact information for Irene Vandas, one of three current directors at the JAHC. The first time I call Vandas, I explain that I’m writing about the co-op, and that I’d like hear about its role in the community. I ask her about the JAHC’s community suppers—would it be okay to go to one of those? She says yes. Then I tell her I’ve been speaking to Ronnie Grigg. She politely says she’ll get back to me.
A few days later, she does. She’s spoken to the group and the members have decided not to comment. It’s an ongoing landlord-tenant situation, she says, and Grigg has been slandering St. Chiara.
I decide to go to a community supper anyway. On a Tuesday in February, I catch the number-sixteen bus and ride to East Hastings and Jackson. I get off and walk a block down to the co-op, passing a few small groups of people. One group is smoking. Another is injecting. “Goodnight,” a man in a baseball cap says. “Goodnight,” I reply.
I’m early, so I circle the block. I go east on Powell, passing the Downtown Community Health Centre and the LivingRoom, a drop-in centre for mentally ill DTES residents. There are rows of abandoned-looking buildings and an empty lot. Rounding the corner back onto East Cordova, I see the United Gospel Mission, which has a long supper line stretching from its entrance.
When I get to the co-op, I knock on the door, nervous. No one answers, so I let myself in, and ask if this is where the community suppers are held. A young woman says yes, a bit hesitantly. “Everyone who’s here right now lives here,” she says, “but grab a plate and help yourself.”
I come in and meet a few other people as the room fills up. There is a toddler, several younger children, a man with cropped grey hair and a few middle-aged women. I make small talk. I’m asked a few times how I heard about the dinners, and I say it was through a friend who works at the Portland. Okay, they say. I tell people, when asked, that I’m a writing student.
The dynamic is familial: one teenage girl scolds another for taking seconds before everyone has their first round; people take turns with the toddler, offering him bites of vegetarian stir-fry and making sure he doesn’t bang his head on the coffee table. I am told there are usually many more people who come to dinner—that a lot of people are sick.
When I ask about the suppers—how long they’ve been going on for, and who started them—a teenage girl points at one of the women standing near the stove. “She’s been here since the beginning, I think,” she says. The woman has an angular face, shoulder-length brown hair and wide brown eyes. I recognize her as Kathy Walker, and consider approaching her, but decide that this would be an inappropriate time.
As I’m leaving, a young man encourages me to come back sometime soon. “Yeah,” says the girl sitting next to him, “you should totally come back! There’s usually much more stuff going on. And people are always welcome to join in.”
When I get home, I call Vandas again and leave a message. She doesn’t call me back.
Mariwan Jaaf came to Canada as a refugee from Iraq, and was offered a place to stay at the first Jackson Avenue house in 1998. He stayed for two weeks, then returned six months later to complete a discipleship, convert to Christianity and become a member of St. Chiara. Jaaf says he wanted to join the group because of its ministry work: providing food, shelter and support for people in the Downtown Eastside.
“The struggle began when I moved in the second time,” says Jaaf, who now lives in a different co-op with his wife, Erica Lamacraft, and their two young kids. He and Lamacraft both wear glasses and have short, brown hair. Jaaf says that when he began the discipleship, most of his personal counselling sessions took place with Lane Walker. “Lane is threatened by strong personalities,” Jaaf continues, “and at the end of my one-year discipleship, it was decided that I wasn’t a good fit for the group. I was asked to move out.”
Lamacraft never lived at Jackson Avenue, but was acquainted with the members of St. Chiara. “I considered them friends—some of them close friends—but we had a social-justice, rather than religious, relationship,” she says. “We had disagreements about pretty large issues. I’m pro-choice, for example. Still, we had common ground.”
Even after Jaaf left Jackson Avenue, he and Lamacraft stayed on good terms with St. Chiara members for the next decade or so, occasionally cooking at community suppers and spending time at the co-op. The breaking point, Jaaf says, came in 2010, when the group decided to evict a woman named Margaret who was living at the JAHC with her three kids. (Her name has been changed for this article.) “I witnessed what I’d call coercion,” Lamacraft says. “Margaret was given a Mutual Agreement to End a Tenancy form. Lane asked, in the middle of a community supper, in front of other tenants, when she was going to sign the document.”
In an open letter, Margaret describes how, in 2007, the JAHC asked her to come to Vancouver from Winnipeg in an effort to reconcile with her husband, who continues to be involved in the St. Chiara community. She moved into the JAHC with her three children. “The community required me to participate in counselling sessions with my husband, facilitated by the committee members” of St. Chiara, Margaret writes. “My tenancy always seemed to be very precarious because they always referred to me as a ‘guest,’ and I had no tenancy agreement.” Margaret writes that she was pressured to make a three-year commitment to stay at Jackson Avenue and work on her marriage, but she never did—she says she didn’t know what her life would be like in three years. The letter also claims that Margaret was encouraged to hand over responsibility for the discipline of her children to St. Chiara. Margaret’s daughter was “forbidden” from playing with other JAHC children at school, according to the letter, and was even asked to spend her recesses at the library in order to avoid seeing them on the playground.
In early 2010, when it became clear that she wouldn’t reconcile with her husband, Margaret writes that she was pressured to sign a Mutual Agreement to End a Tenancy form—but was told she could continue living at Jackson Avenue on a month-to-month basis. “As a single mother of three on income assistance,” the letter says, “with a debilitating physical disability and no child support payments, it is very difficult to find housing that I can afford.” The day after Margaret decided she wanted to divorce her husband, she writes, Kathy Walker informed her that she had to move out by the end of the month. Margaret ends the letter by requesting that she be allowed to stay until she can find a new place to live.
According to Lamacraft and Jaaf, Jennifer Ziemann, a director of the co-op and one of the leaders of St. Chiara, told them that Margaret needed motivation to “resolve issues” the core group had perceived in her. Lamacraft says that Ziemann assured them that the Mutual Agreement to End a Tenancy form was simply meant to encourage Margaret to find new housing. “She said that the day Margaret became homeless, she [Ziemann] would be homeless, too. She assured us they wouldn’t kick Margaret out. But that’s exactly what they ended up doing.”
Lamacraft and Jaaf say that Margaret was forced out of the JAHC in July 2010, and stayed with Tracy Tobin for two months, until the Portland Hotel Society and Pivot Legal Society helped her and her children find housing. Around this time, Jaaf posted a message on Ziemann’s Facebook wall asking about Margaret’s homelessness. He received an email response from Tim Vincent, and they later met at a coffee shop. “We talked for two hours,” Jaaf says. “Tim said the group couldn’t work with [Margaret]. He told me personal things about her and her past—things she’d probably shared in a private counselling session—to justify their decision.”
Together with Veldman, Tobin and Grigg, Jaaf and Lamacraft formed an ad hoc organization called the Just Housing Response Group. On July 30, they wrote to the Walkers, the Vincents, Vandas and Ziemann, asking that the JAHC keep its word and resolve Margaret’s homelessness. They also demanded a transparent operating structure and an audit of the co-op’s finances. Jaaf thinks St. Chiara’s dispute with Grigg has more to do with these demands than with his social values or workplace; he says the group “didn’t have any real problem” with Grigg until he started asking questions about the way it had treated Margaret. “Once you start asking questions,” Jaaf says, “they turn on you.”
On September 27, nine months after our initial conversation and more than a year after Margaret was evicted from the JAHC, I get a message from Grigg saying he’s also received an eviction notice. Two days later, I meet him at Tobin’s house in the Downtown Eastside. There are bicycles in the backyard, two cats and a small, friendly dog. Tobin is preparing dinner for herself, her daughter and Grigg’s family. She offers me some sliced pineapple and says, laughing, “My house has become an underground railroad for people who leave Jackson Avenue.”
Grigg walks me through his papers. He has handwritten and typed notes, penned by both himself and Lane Walker, regarding common-space usage, the most recent of which mentions hiring a new caretaker, Kevin Monbourquette. The stack also includes two Mutual Agreement to End a Tenancy papers, and a form labelled “Two Month Notice to End Tenancy for Landlord’s Use of Property.” On page two, there is a checkmark in a box stating that Grigg must move out because “the landlord intends to convert the rental unit for use by a caretaker, manager or superintendent of the residential property.” Grigg feels this is just an underhanded way of kicking him out. “Kevin is single and he already has a room,” he says. “He’s been living in a suite above me for a couple weeks now.”
The eviction notice also states that if Grigg wishes to fight the eviction, he has fifteen days to file an application for dispute resolution with the Residential Tenancy Branch, the provincial body responsible for mediating tenant-landlord disputes. I ask him if he intends to do so. He hesitates and looks at Tobin. He says he has contacted the priest at St. James’ Anglican Church, where he worships, for support. “I haven’t decided exactly what to do yet,” he admits. A few days later—on the last possible day—Grigg applies for dispute resolution.
“The way they use their power against people who are uninformed of their tenancy rights is appalling,” Ceone Veldman says of the JAHC. She says the co-op has started giving new residents Mutual Agreement to End a Tenancy forms in lieu of leases, dated shortly after their move-in dates. This way, she says, if the co-op members are dissatisfied with a tenant’s behaviour, they can force him or her to move out almost immediately. This kind of form is usually issued after a tenant has already been living in a unit—not before he or she moves in. Grigg backs Veldman’s claim. One of the Mutual Agreement to End a Tenancy forms he shows me concerns a former resident who, he says, was asked to sign upon moving into Jackson Avenue on April 1, 2011; the move-out date listed on the form is April 30, 2011.
I phone the Residential Tenancy Branch and ask an information officer if it’s legal to require a potential tenant to sign a Mutual Agreement to End a Tenancy form before moving in. He says landlord-tenant legislation doesn’t cover anything that happens before the lease is signed or the tenancy starts. “That doesn’t sound like a good living situation to choose to enter into,” he says. “Ultimately, though, it’s down to the tenant about whether or not to sign it.”
“That’s a new one,” says Tom Durning, a staff member at the non-profit Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, when I call him about the issue. He says that he can’t see anything in BC’s Residential Tenancy Act that would preclude it—but adds that, under the Act, a proper lease should always be drawn up in writing. He also says the kind of eviction notice Grigg received is legal only if it’s issued “in good faith”—if the landlord actually requires the use of the unit for a caretaker, and the unit really is converted for that purpose. If it’s being used simply to push a tenant out, Durning says, it is illegal.
On the first Sunday in October, I receive a text from Grigg telling me something has gone down at Jackson Avenue. A few minutes later, I check my email and find a message from St. Chiara member Tim Vincent—the first time I’ve heard from him—saying Grigg has thrown him down the stairs and will be charged with assault. He presses me to include this information in my article. “As well,” he writes, “be careful of slander. It is not a great way to start a budding career.” He signs off, “Peace, Tim.” It is the first time I’ve heard from anyone in the core St. Chiara group since February, when I last spoke to Irene Vandas.
A few days later, Grigg tells me Sunday was his birthday. In the early afternoon, outside one of the houses at the JAHC, he ran into his neighbour, who wished him a happy birthday. He told her he was being evicted. Then, according to Grigg, Tim Vincent approached them and claimed Grigg had been squatting at the co-op for over a year. “The neighbour was literally in the middle of us,” Grigg says, “so I left and went inside my own house.”
A little while later, another neighbour came to the JAHC house where Grigg lives to wish him happy birthday and give him muffins. Grigg says that they were on his porch, and his youngest daughter was playing on the sidewalk, when Vincent came over and set his chair down where Grigg was standing. “I asked him to leave, to get off my porch,” Grigg tells me. “He said that it wasn’t my home, that it was communal space, and he didn’t need to leave. I told him I didn’t want him around my family, and said that if he didn’t move, I was going to move him. He told me to go ahead, so I grabbed his chair and tossed him off the porch.”
Someone called the police. “I know that what I did was wrong,” Grigg tells me. “I’ve never laid a hand on anyone.” In the end, he was never charged with assault.
At our first meeting last January, Grigg had told me that the co-op behaves relationally, not rationally. “They’ll house you because they’re your friend and they care about you,” he said. “But when they don’t want to house you anymore, they’ll just ask you to leave. They have a mission to provide housing to people in the community, and, in my experience, they’ve destabilized the housing of families if a relationship breaks down because of faith values.” Grigg, whose hearing with the Residential Tenancy Branch began November 7, says he set up his post-divorce life in the Downtown Eastside: it’s where he works, where he worships, where he’s put down roots. “It’s hard for me to walk away,” he says. “If we can’t, as a body of people, do the difficult work to make our situation at the co-op right, then all of our effort to speak to the greater world about justice is laughable.”
In late October, when I phone Irene Vandas and Lane Walker to follow up, they both tell me the group still won’t be commenting. On Halloween, I return to the co-op in person. A child holding pumpkin-carving tools opens the door. Kathy Walker comes outside after a few moments, and we stand on the wooden steps leading up to the green house, talking for over forty minutes. She deflects my questions, asking if I can imagine how many people St. Chiara has connected with during the group’s history. “We’ve got a lot of people in our life,” she says, “and you’re talking about a microcosm of discontent. We’ve been here for almost twenty years. It’s been a lot of struggle, and a lot of years of life and loving people in that struggle.”