On April 12th the NDP government in Victoria introduced a Bill to reform the widely criticized Residential Tenancy Act (RTA). During last year’s B.C. election, the NDP played to tenant dissatisfaction with the RTA, and specifically to frustrations with renovictions – the RTA loophole that allows landlords to evict lower rent paying tenants by claiming they plan to renovate an apartment, and then raising the rent to “whatever the market can bear” (in the words of Downtown Eastside serial renovictor Steven Lippman). In 2016, as they began campaigning for the 2017 election, the NDP-in-opposition proposed reforms to the RTA that they said would stop renovictions. Now, two years later a very different NDP-in-power has put forward very different reforms. Unfortunately, neither the 2016 nor the 2018 version of the NDP reforms will stop renovictions – either version will continue the mass eviction of Metro Vancouver.
2018 NDP reforms based on failed Municipal efforts to slow mass evictions
The 2018 NDP reforms will not change the destiny of tenants who are renovicted. If these RTA reforms pass, landlords will have to give evictees more notice, but to what end? So people have more time to stress out while they watch their eviction date approach, unable to find a new apartment they can afford? Increasing the amount of notice landlords give before renovicting people will not curb the rate of renovictions, which rapidly hike up rents, ensuring that more and more people have nowhere to go but the streets. The NDP’s 2018 reform will require landlords to offer their evicted tenants their renovated apartment back, but at elevated market rates. Offers to move back into units are as helpful as not offering anything at all, when landlords are still free to indiscriminately raise rents after performing their renovations.
The NDP reforms are similar to the ineffectual eviction policies that have been developed by municipalities during the last couple of years of mass evictions. In 2015 I met some people who were facing mass eviction from a trailer park in Kelowna. They had been moved to this trailer park from the packed Salvation Army shelter, where most of them had been living for over a year. A condo developer had bought out all the owners of the trailers and, while waiting on the permits to build a condo tower, agreed to rent out the empty trailers to homeless people from the shelter. The City said that in order to permit the developer to then evict these homeless people and build their tower, the developer had to give the homeless residents of the trailer park the right of first refusal to buy a condo in the new tower. Obviously, the displaced trailer park residents could not afford to buy a condo in the new tower. The NDP reform for the right of first refusal at market rates reminds me of that Kelowna deal.
The reform of extended notice reminds me of the demoviction arrangements made by the City of Burnaby. Mayor Corrigan’s City Council in Burnaby is arranging the mass eviction of the Metrotown neighbourhood with demovictions. An Area Plan passed by this Council last summer has upzoned the entire neighbourhood of low-end of market rental apartments, guaranteeing the loss of 3,000 apartment units. As compensation, Burnaby Council passed extra protections for tenants on top of RTA rights. A condo developer that wants to demolish an apartment building for a rezoned condo tower must give tenants 3 months notice and 2 months’ rent as compensation – rather than the RTA-ordered 2 months notice and 1 month’s rent. Burnaby’s extra award does not stop demovictions – or renovictions, which are also strafing the neighbourhood – because while an extra month’s rent does impact a tenant’s life for a moment, it is not a disincentive for a landlord who will recover that extra payout in an instant for a demoviction and in a couple months for a renoviction. The NDP’s reform does not even go so far as to offer extra compensation, just extra time.
The lesson of the municipal additions to the Provincial RTA should be that they are inadequate and are not stopping renovictions or demovictions. But the NDP seems to be using these experiments as a model for their new RTA.
2016 NDP reforms also fall short of stopping renovictions
This week, the Vancouver Tenants Union released a petition for the NDP government to drop its 2018 RTA reform and adopt the version that was proposed by the NDP’s Melanie Mark while in opposition in 2016. The NDP’s 2016 RTA reforms called for renovicted tenants to have the right of first refusal for a renovated suite at a “rent that is no more than what the landlord could have lawfully charged if there had been no interruption in the tenancy.” The difference between reforms proposed by opposition NDP and the NDP-in-power is telling since the NDP dropped the financial clause from its 2018 reform.
But there are troubling limits to the 2016 “opposition” NDP reform, because it includes a significant loophole that would still give landlords incentives to perform renovictions. The loophole in the NDP’s 2016 renoviction reform is that it would still allow a landlord to raise rents on a renovicted suite according to how much they spent on the renovations and how much those renovations increased the rental value of the suite – a measure that refers the rent on a renovicted suite back to average market rents… just like now.
An important difference between the NDP’s 2018 and 2016 reforms is that the 2016 reforms would force landlords to have this market rent increase decided by a Residential Tenancy Branch arbitrator. The 2016 reform would mean tenants could take landlords to arbitration to contest rent increases after a renoviction and the arbitrator would rule on the legality of that rent increase. But the importance of this reform is limited by two problems:
First, that the onus to initiate a Residential Tenancy arbitration process is always on the defendant. A landlord does not have to get Tenancy Branch approval to attack a tenant with an eviction notice for any reason. Though the tenant can defend themselves by appealing the eviction to the RTB, those who are most vulnerable to unlawful renovictions (including evictions that are illegal under existing tenancy law) are the least likely to take the step of bringing renovictions to the Tenancy Branch. Filing at the RTB is confusing, expensive (most people don’t know you can waive the filing fee if you’re low income), and fighting your landlord on your own is intimidating.
And secondly, if the hypothetical renovicted tenant managed to dispute their renoviction and apply to keep their tenancy at the same rent, the job of the arbitrator would be to decide on the amount of the rent increase, not whether a rent increase is allowed at all. The landlord could submit evidence about how much money they invested in the renovation and how much that changed the market-value of the suite and the tenant would argue that the renovation did not add as much value as the landlord claims. The logic of the 2016 reform would keep the RTA on the side of the landlord and against the tenant.
The Residential Tenancy Act keeps landlords in power
This week I met a homeless man who disputed his renoviction and had a hearing date set, but while he was away from home the landlord hired a sheriff to evict him and threw away all his belongings. Neither the 2016 nor the 2018 NDP reforms would protect him or his belongings because they both enshrine the property right of landlords to make decisions about evicting tenants and put the onus on tenants – always the more vulnerable to abuse of power of the two – to initiate a Tenancy complaint. Reforms that don’t weaken or stop the power of investors or landlords to hurt us are not reforms at all; they’re just rearticulations of the status quo.
But there are reforms that would make a difference. The Stop Demovictions Burnaby Campaign proposed some in the group’s “People’s Plan” for Metrotown. They said that the Province could declare purpose built rental apartments a protected housing stock (similar to how the City of Vancouver protected SRO hotels in the early 2000s), outlaw all rent increases, and require landlords to apply for a hearing to perform an eviction under any circumstances. Even that would not deal with the most serious problem affecting renters – that rents are way out of proportion with wages.
A recent report written by SFU professors found that 39% of disputed evictions over the last decade were for failure to pay rent. Because most of these evictions are carried out without a tenant filing a dispute, this ratio is likely much larger. The only difference between an eviction for failing to pay rent and an eviction so the landlord can raise the rent is the reason-for-eviction box the landlord checks off on the eviction form. Most evictions are because rents are higher than wages. The problem of poverty-based evictions will not be resolved with any reforms currently being proposed for the RTA because challenging the landlord’s power to extort rents from tenants under penalty of homelessness is beyond the framework of Provincial legislation. Reforms to the RTA are not enough – tenants have to organize our communities against evictions and take action to break the back of the Canadian private property system before it breaks us.