Are ‘Behavioural Agreements’ the latest attack on the rights of Supportive Housing residents?

When Coast Mental Health first took over operation of the Alouette Heights Supportive Housing building in 2018, they tried to convince the existing residents to sign away their tenancy rights with a new housing agreement. Many tenants refused. Now Coast is trying again.

Mike moved into Alouette Heights from the Cliff Avenue tent city a year before Coast took over operation of the building in 2018. When they first approached tenants to sign a new housing agreement, stripping away their rights under BC’s Residential Tenancy Act, Mike was amongst those who refused. He says they are now trying again to get him to sign away his tenancy rights, with an oddly named “Behavioural Agreement.”

Behavioural Agreements and Program Agreements, in place of tenancy agreements, are the pseudo-legal form that third party supportive housing building managers are used to take control over access to and distribution of the resource of publicly owned housing properties. Coast’s Behavioural Agreement tries to enshrine the power of the manager, through various front desk staff, to refuse admission to guests and to evict residents for infractions that are so broad that they can be universally applied to practically anyone at any time.

… to evict residents for infractions that are so broad that they can be universally applied to practically anyone at any time.

The web of conditions that enable Coast to perform arbitrary evictions include: submitting to monthly staff inspections, including searches for signs of “using illicit drugs,” and complying with orders to clean or declutter the unit. This provision extends this power to an unreasonable and extralegal level, untethering the landlord demands of cleanliness from landlord’s RTA power to order tenants to remove clutter that poses a fire danger or an inconvenience to other tenants.

The clause that makes “use of illicit drugs” the grounds for eviction is arbitrary, invasive, and depends upon a landlord’s violation of a tenant’s right to privacy, under the RTA, and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, under Section 8 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Behavioural Agreement section 10 says that the tenant “will not exceed the maximum allowable overnight guests of 14 overnight stays per calendar year.” A statement from a group of housing advocates and lawyers, including CLAS, First United Advocates, Pivot, TAPS, and TRAC says that tenants whose landlords block access to guests can sue their landlords for loss of quiet enjoyment under the RTA, and that it is also possible to file a complaint through the BC Human Rights Tribunal.

Where does Coast Mental Health get the number of 14 days? A good guess is that some subsidized housing providers, like Metro Vancouver Housing, interpret the RTA order that “the landlord must not stop the tenant from having guests under reasonable circumstances” as a maximum of 14 days per calendar month. Metro Vancouver Housing reasons that if someone stays in the unit more than half the month, the household composition, and therefore the household income has changed. Even that claim would have to be tested before an arbiter in a particular circumstance, but Coast’s 14 days per year is absurd and unreasonable.

Section 11 says that a resident can be evicted for “verbal and/or physical assaults to other clients [or] CMH staff.” Mike said he’s concerned with the language of “verbal assault.” He said he knows people who have been evicted from Coast Mental Health buildings for swearing at or even arguing with staff and he is worried that the “verbal assault” clause could be used to quiet dissent.

In practice, these clauses equip staff with a totalitarian power of arbitrary authority. Other tenants have told me that they live in fear of desk staff in their buildings because they are never sure if they are committing an evictable offense at any time. In one of Coast Mental Health’s Maple Ridge modular housing buildings, residents and guests were so afraid to tell staff they had been in another resident’s room that an overdose death went unreported for two days.

Coast Mental Health’s Behavioural Agreement leads off with the claim that it is “designed to provide the client the opportunity to make the transition to safe, quality housing.” Mike said that’s where it goes wrong, right at the beginning. He said, “I’m not a client, I’m a tenant. And why does it say I’m supposed to transition to safe, quality housing? I thought I am living in safe quality housing!”

Mike said the pressure from Coast Mental Health staff in Alouette Heights has him feeling “more threatened” and more insecure than when he was homeless. “I know the staff is going into my unit when I’m not there. I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel like being here,” he said. “I feel like I’m being punished for something. They tell me who I can and can’t have in my unit. I’ve lost friends because they tell me who I can and can’t hang out with.”

Mike says he is already careful about who he brings into his apartment. “I’m calmed down now, I’m not so involved in drugs anymore. I don’t need the drama,” he said. So he doesn’t understand why staff are so controlling about who he does bring into his home.

First page of Coast Mental Health’s “Behavioural Agreement” forms (Attained by VOLCANO)

The “Behavioural Agreement” includes a clause that the resident “will participate in [their] recovery in cooperation with staff in programs including Recovery Star and other programming” and “meet at minimum every 2 weeks with [their] Key worker and/or Manager/ PC as required in order to support my tenancy and ensure I am obtaining the supports and services necessary to maintain a successful tenancy.”

Mike was incredulous about being forced to work with his “key worker” on recovery. He said, “I told staff that I quit doing speed and one staff said ‘yeah right.’ It was my key worker.” Mike says he was in recovery with this staff person, and had been in shelters with him, where they had tensions. “I told them I don’t want to work with him, but they made him my key worker for 2 years,” Mike said. “I never met with him once.”

Mike said they so far haven’t forced him to sign the Behavioural Agreement, but when he told staff he didn’t want to sign, they asked him if he was looking for a new place to live. Mike said, “It feels like they’re trying to intimidate me.”

It is important to know that Supportive Housing Operators like Coast Mental Health do not have the right, under Provincial legislation, to write alternative tenancy agreements that contradict the rights that tenants have under Provincial law. Tenants in a Supportive Housing building in Victoria won a long fought and clarifying legal battle against the PHS Community Services in 2018, where a Supreme Court Judge ruled that low-income tenants in supportive housing buildings have no fewer rights than tenants in market rentals. And in June 2020, the Province released a “Residential Tenancy Policy Guideline” about shelters and supportive housing, saying,

Supportive housing is long-term or permanent living accommodation for individuals who need support services to live independently. The Residential Tenancy Act applies to supportive housing, unlike emergency shelters and transitional housing which are excluded from the Act.

Under section 5 of the Act, landlords and tenants cannot avoid or contract out of the Act or regulations, so any policies put in place by supportive housing providers must be consistent with the Act and regulations.

In other words, Coast Mental Health is violating tenants’ rights by trying to force them to sign an extralegal Behavioural Agreement. That agreement is not worth the paper it is printed on. If they try to make you sign, say no. If you can’t say no, ignore it and fight every violation of your rights as a tenant.

If you live in a supportive housing building and your rights are being abused, reach out to Red Braid for help organizing to fight back, 604-630-1722

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