The Voice

Richmond’s Canada Line commuters concerned about future winters

BY ALYSE KOTYK| FEB. 24, 2017

As snow returns to Vancouver’s weather forecast this week, TransLink is continuing to investigate why the Canada Line experienced track problems in Richmond during the region’s recent cold snap.

Earlier in February, transit riders to and from Richmond faced significant delays on some of the month’s coldest days. Now, TransLink and Canada Line customers are looking ahead to what this means for future winters.

“We’ve had many winters for Canada Line with freezing weather with snow with no issues so the question for us right now is why did it happen this year,” said Chris Bryan, senior media relations officer for TransLink. “We are definitely prioritizing this to understand what happened and if there is something we can do to prevent it in the future.”

Bryan pointed out that TransLink has several measures in place to deal with the effects of cold weather including spray trains that spray the track’s power rail with deicing agents, sand to help with traction and on-train staff members to help troubleshoot issues as they arise.

After the last drop in temperature, however, Bryan said a buildup of ice on the track led to a disruption in the train’s electrical connection, particularly as the trains crossed the Canada Line Bridge into Richmond. As a result, TransLink is working to understand why its usual preventative measures did not work to clear the ice this year.

“This year was an extraordinary year in terms of the weather,” he said. “The question for us is why. Why did this happen this year?”

For Richmond commuters who were stranded on both ends of the line when the system was down, one of the biggest issues was a lack of communication from TransLink.

Dominique Vaz, a Richmond resident who uses the Canada Line daily to commute to UBC where she works, said she could not even find an attendant in the overcrowded stations when the train was not operating. Instead, transit users were left with unsatisfying messages over the loud speaker.

“For an hour they were saying ‘we have no new information at this point, we’ll update you when we do,’” she said. “It seemed like they knew as much as the rest of us did.”

Richmond Coun. Linda McPhail echoed these concerns about a lack of adequate communication between TransLink and its customers.

“The things that I heard was that nobody seemed to know what was going on so there seemed to be a problem with communication,” she said. “There really needs to be consistent and timely messaging to the people who are on the line.”

McPhail said the city has contacted TransLink with requests to find out why the Canada Line had such track issues and to outline its plans to mitigate delays in the future.

“Obviously we’re concerned because we’re trying to get more people out of cars, taking transit,” she said. “If you don’t have a reliable public transit people are going to be like ‘I can’t chance it, I’ve got to go in my car.’”

For Vaz, one particularly snowy day turned her usual hour and a half commute home into one that was more than four hours long.  Now, she said is concerned that the Canada Line might face similar issues in the future.

“We’re never prepared for snow here and the Canada Line was not built for that kind of weather,” she said. “The only way to get to and from Richmond is the Canada Line and when that fails, there’s no backup plan. I feel like Richmond always gets screwed over.”

Currently, Environment Canada forecasts snow in the Lower Mainland overnight on Saturday into Sunday.


LSU collective agreement lacks clarity in management

BY ALYSE KOTYK| DEC. 2, 2016
Langara Voice

*This piece is part of a special edition of The Voice in reaction to allegations made about — and decisions made by — the Langara Students’ Union.*

In 2012, the Langara Students’ Union signed a new collective agreement — a legal contract establishing working conditions — for its staff members. After LSU general manager, Desmond Rodenbour was fired, The Voice looked at this collective agreement to see if anything was out of the ordinary

Lack of clarity in LSU’s collective agreement

Collective agreements are negotiated between management and employees within a union. Management is usually responsible for hiring, firing and outlining job descriptions for union members. However, within the LSU’s collective agreement, the line between management has become blurry, according to Rodenbour who said this lack of clarity can lead to issues.

“I just think that a healthy collective agreement would have fairly clear lines of what is the role of management, what is the role of staff,” he said Thursday. “In the absence of those clear lines, those things get blurred. I don’t think it’s necessarily anybody’s fault but it doesn’t make for a particularly healthy relationship.”

In the case of the LSU, these include employees being able to play a role in hiring new staff members, ending staff probationary periods and creating or changing job descriptions. For example, the LSU’s collective agreement says that job descriptions can’t be changed “without the mutual agreement of the staff.”

Collective agreement differs from other schools by benefitting staff

In other areas, the LSU collective agreement has some benefits for staff that are not in student union collective agreements at other post-secondary institutions. For example, LSU staff members are entitled to a number of paid holidays including International Women’s Day, two floating holidays and time off between Dec. 22 to Jan. 1, inclusive. In total, this adds up to 23 days of paid time off in addition to the three weeks of paid vacation that employees receive in their first year of employment. While they all vary, Kwantlen University, Douglas College and UBC’s student unions all offer fewer paid holiday days for their staff.

Agreement pays for staff members if they take illegal action on behalf of LSU

Another specific point in the LSU’s collective agreement includes payment of wages if a staff members goes to jail for something they have done on behalf of the LSU. The agreement states that “the staff member will be entitled to leave with no loss in salary, seniority or benefits” while they are in court or in jail. This entitlement does not seem to appear in Kwantlen, Douglas College or UBC unions’ collective agreements.

Rodenbour said that he is not against unionized staff, but that a collective agreement only works when it’s clear and supports the goals of the student union for the student body.

“I don’t see anything wrong with a unionized staff of a student union,” he said. “I think that a collective agreement can be the best document when the management has a deep vision.”


Vancouver renters struggle to navigate through cutthroat housing crisis

Nov. 28, 2016
Langara Voice

Reported by Alyse Kotyk, Bonnie Lee La Madeleine, Caitlin O’Flanagan, Emelie Peacock, Chelsea Powrieand Jessica Purver

A Vancouver couple found themselves in a rental nightmare this fall, as they struggled to navigate a market that has become notoriously difficult for middle-income households.

In August, Graham Ockley and Krysten Neeson sensed they would soon be on the hunt for a new place to live when their roommate announced he had lost his job. Ockley and Neeson are both theatre technicians in their late twenties, and they knew they couldn’t afford to stay put without their roommate.

They are not alone in their search for a place to live. To understand the challenges facing renters in Vancouver, The Voice conducted an investigation into the tight market. On Nov. 2, reporters called 100 landlords and property managers with vacancies. The listings, mostly found on Craigslist, were available immediately or by Dec. 1.

Showcased units fleeting

Of these, 14 units were already rented and the landlords said interest was high as soon as the listings went live. The other two-thirds of the apartments were still available, but were expected to go fast. Despite Vancouver’s close to zero vacancy rate, about 10 per cent of the prospective landlords were motivated and eager to close a deal.

For most renter-hopefuls, the search begins by determining where to live and what they want in a new home. Most people look at listings in local papers, online, or hunt for signs posted outside of available apartments.

Ockley walked through their ideal neighbourhoods looking for vacancy signs but ultimately relied on Craigslist to find available apartments with amenities they desired. The couple’s main priorities were finding a pet-friendly building with a dishwasher, in-suite laundry and enough space for two — all for less than $1600 per month.

“We’d find places, we’d go look at them and they are either small or they are basically a hole, or just not right,” Neeson said.

They started viewing four to five apartments a week and checking Craigslist daily. Finding a pet-friendly apartment proved difficult, as Ockley estimated only about 10 per cent of available apartments would accept their cat. The Voice’s investigation found the same trend.

Battle royale among renters

The next issue was how crowded the market is. Neeson was shocked at how quickly some of the listings were rented out. One suite they looked at was off the market in under 40 minutes.

“[Ockley] called them at 2 p.m., and they said [to] call back at 5 p.m. I called back at 5:40 p.m., and it was gone,” said Neeson.

The pair also had a viewing cancelled when they were already in the car on the way there. They were told the suite was no longer available.

“One of the first showings we went to […] they post it on Thursday and showing is Saturday from noon to 2 p.m.,” Ockley said. “There were probably 15 other people in the apartment with us in the five minutes we were looking at the place.”

Neeson also remembered that crowded showing, and the sheer number of other renters they were competing with for every listing.

“There’s so many people looking and not enough apartments for them,” Neeson said.

Belinda Flynn and Trevor Farrell were also apartment hunting this fall. They had just moved to Vancouver from Ireland, and were looking for a furnished one-bedroom apartment for no more than $1,600 a month. Flynn and Farrell were able to find a place quickly and felt the process was easier than anticipated. However, they feel their success was partly due to their availability to search for homes full time. This is often not the case for Vancouverites.

Ockley and Neeson also have flexible schedules and were able visit plenty of showings, but they became frustrated with the competition they had with services such as Airbnb.

“Basically one of the hardest things is just the lack of apartments and knowing that there’s so many that could be available, that aren’t,” Neeson said. “That are sitting there as assets, not houses.”

Raising concerns and awareness

Speaking at a Renters’ Town Hall in Kitsilano in October, City Councillor Geoff Meggs outlined the measures the city has taken to increase the available market rental stock, namely by imposing an empty homes tax and reducing the number of short-term only rentals.

“We have taken the position that a first home is a right, but a second home is a privilege,” Meggs said before a packed house.

geoff-meggs

Meggs expects 2,000 homes to become available once these measures take effect, which will offer some relief to frustrated renters like Ockley and Neeson.

Ockley and Neeson began their search with specific goals about space and location. As their Nov. 1 deadline approached and the rejections piled up, they became more open to compromise.

“When we first started, dishwasher and in-suite laundry were a must, and now it’s not,” Neeson said. “I’ll take anything that my cat can live in at this point.”

For them, one of the most frustrating things about the application process has been waiting to hear back from landlords.

“I get [they] are getting 40 applications, but that means 39 people want to know whether they got the place,” Ockley said. “[It’s] the least they could do, even if they copied and pasted ‘The apartment is rented’ to send to everyone.”

At the same time, landlords also struggle with finding a tenant that meets their requirements. During The Voice’s investigation, which only included ads that listed a contact phone number, one reporter received numerous follow up calls from an eager landlord who felt she had found a good fit.

This landlord not only heavily promoted the apartment’s location and features over the phone, but repeatedly contacted the reporter throughout the following week to schedule a viewing.

Some landlords also offered to bend the rules on pet allowances for the right person, while others indicated their decisions would be based on credit checks or income. Ockley also noticed some bias in one bedroom listings toward two tenants.

“I’ve seen a couple postings that have said ‘Couples preferred,’” Ockley said.

He and Neeson also wish landlords looked at more than the basic information on a rental application, because it’s hard to swallow being rejected based on a page of data.

“How do you know who you want your tenant to be off of this piece of paper?” said Neeson. “The only way I can think of to [up your chances] is to have a bigger number in your income box, which would be a lie.”

The Voice contacted the landlord of a West End apartment who had just rented out an advertised suite, and was sympathetic toward renters.

“I think it’s a really tight market right now,” she said. “Good luck with your search.”

A happy ending at last

After several tense weeks of searches and rejections, Ockley and Neeson eventually found a unit they were interested in near Commercial Drive and were thrilled when their application was accepted. Then, disappointment struck again — when they sat down to sign the lease, they noticed a “no pets” clause.

“I respond with, ‘It said on my application that I have a cat. She’s not leaving so I can’t stay if I can’t have pets,’” Ockley said.

They applied to have the cat exempted, then spent three long days waiting. At last, they got the good news that their cat was allowed, and the place was theirs.

Ockley and Neeson’s experience is not unique in Vancouver. Renters all over the city face the same stresses every month. In fact, had they not secured a suite in time, the couple’s backup plan was to move in with Ockley’s parents. Though they got lucky in the end, Neeson has had her fill of apartment hunting.

“I want off of this housing rollercoaster, please.”

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