I spent the better part of my Friday morning at the Residential Tenancy Branch office in Burnaby. My goal was to sit down with a caseworker and discuss options available to a friend who rents in Metrotown. His rent was increased by 9.2 percent in just six months after his apartment building was sold to an offshore investor group. The building was then flipped to another group who raised the rent by $80 a month. Just before Christmas tenants received a letter with a court order attached. They were told to submit all previous rental agreements and send their all subsequent rent cheques to the new manager. Now my friend faces another potential rent increase at the end of the month. Renters need more protection
When I got to the office, which was relatively quiet, I took a number and was told the wait was approximately 30 minutes. I sat patiently, looking through my friend’s agreements and subsequently finding the answers to the questions I had. The answer is basically my friend is out of luck. The lease that raised his rent by $80 after six months was set to expire and the box promising to vacate the suite at the end of the term was checked. This loophole allows landlords to raise rents at will. If you choose this option, both the landlord and tenant must agree to it, but in a tight rental market, where older, affordable apartments are being demolished at record speed and no affordable housing being built to replace it this clause is not a choice. It is legalized extortion.
After a half hour, the bell rang for the first time, alerting another individual that his number had come up. There were four more clients ahead of me. Two clients had their children waiting and fidgeting with them. I had my own children waiting for me at home, and recognizing that I had the answer to my questions already, I decided not to wait the interminable amount of time it would take to get a face to face meeting with a caseworker.
Before I left, I asked the lady at reception if this was normal. She indicated it was a slower day. She also informed me that this quiet office handled all the disputes across the province. Could they use more staff? Definitely. Justice delayed is justice denied.
The RTB provides general information about residential tenancies and they can help you complete forms. Unfortunately, they cannot give legal advice. If you want legal advice you will have to hire a lawyer. They also provide a dispute resolution process. Applications for dispute resolution must be accompanied by a non refundable application filing fee of $100. While it may be possible in some circumstances to get fees waived and obtain free legal advice, this will cost additional time and energy many low income renters don’t have.
The RTB is also the recourse for landlords. During my visit, I overheard two landlords discussing the difficulties they face trying to evict renters that were illegally subletting their rented space, or allowing their homeless friends to crash indefinitely in the rental. As a landlord myself, this is a serious and costly concern. Landlords face the same wait times and fees as renters and deserve better from our government.
Overhearing the discussion, I began to question why are some tenants subletting or sharing their principal residences with seemingly questionable individuals. Obviously, there are too few housing alternatives for those living in poverty, escaping domestic abuse or facing demoviction. These “squatters” are, in fact, BC’s “hidden homeless.”
In country as wealthy as Canada, and without exception, every one of us should have a safe, comfortable home we can afford. Giving an additional $35,000 to an already qualified first time homebuyer will certainly get a lot of votes, but it will not address the demand for affordable, safe, comfortable homes for households with low to moderate income.
After my eye-opinion experience at its only office in BC, I am convinced that the RTB is profoundly underfunded. If the government can find $700 million to subsidize qualified home buyers they can find the money to invest in resolving disputes between renters and landlords.
They can invest in affordable rental homes close to transit. They can revise the Local Government Act and “tie” funding to ensure municipalities like Burnaby protect and replace affordable housing as it is demolished from the existing housing stock. This will help to reduce the “hidden homelessness” landlords are forced deal with.