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No Magic Bullet: Tenant Rights in B.C.

Posted on 1 December 2011

Summary: Even though the province of B.C. has a branch that can order landlords to repair or upgrade their rental units, it’s up to municipalities to make sure the work gets done. And many cities, including Prince George, have no mechanism to do this. So what are renters supposed to do when they have a problem? And who can fix it?

Local government doesn’t matter?

I’ve been working on the story of the Victoria Towers fire for the last while. About 100 residents were displaced when an early-morning fire forced their evacuation on November 3. I didn’t do the initial coverage (that goes to intrepid news report Betsy Trumpener), but I’ve been working on the follow-up. It’s nearly a month a later, and residents have been living in hotels and are moving on to other, more permanent re-locations. Here’s what I’ve done so far:

Out of this, I’ve had a few former tenants tell me that they felt like the maintenance of the Victoria Towers was less than stellar. I must stress here that as I write this that no official cause of the fire has been released. Anything you might hear is pure speculation. I have no idea what caused this fire, and I wouldn’t hazard a guess. This blog post is not about what caused the fire, the fire is just what brought me to what this blog post is about: inspection and maintenance of rental units.

I wanted to look into the complaints, and I wanted something official, not just people telling me they didn’t like the way things looked. Tony told me that he had, in fact, filed complaints with the Residential Tenancy Branch about the building. Indeed, both the Prince George Free Press and the Prince George Citizen reported on these complaints. For the Citizen, Arthur Williams reported:

“Residential Tenancy Branch officer T.A. Evans ruled that Victoria Towers owner Pacific West Properties failed to meet its obligations.

Evans ordered Pacific West Properties to complete 15 repairs on the unit to the bathroom, plumbing, ceilings and rest of the unit.”

I contacted the Residential Tenancy Branch on behalf of CBC, and received an email that included this information:

“· The Residential Tenancy Act requires landlords maintain a rental property in a state that is suitable for occupancy – and meets all health, safety and building standards required by law. · However, the province has no jurisdiction to force property owners to fix-up their buildings – that responsibility lies with local government.

· Municipalities establish standards of maintenance that are enforced through the local government’s own by-law enforcement procedures.

· We can’t comment on who applied to RTB, but we can tell you that a dispute was heard and RTB ordered repairs to be made to the building and provided monetary compensation to the tenant applicant.

· There was no further application, so we don’t know if the landlord complied with the repairs. Again, enforcement of safety codes is the responsibility of local by-law enforcement officers.”

This is where the story stops being about the Victoria Towers altogether.

It surprised me that even though the province has a mechanism that rules on tenant-landlord disputes, it’s up to local governments to enforce them. How do they do this?

As part of my research, I spoke with Tom Durning of the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre. He suggested one of the better mechanisms is a Standards of Maintenance Bylaw. From the TRAC site:

“Municipal Standards of Maintenance (SoM) Bylaws allow local government to force landlords to keep their rental buildings in good repair. Although not all municipalities have SoM bylaws, TRAC strongly encourages all municipalities to not only pass these bylaws but strictly enforce them.”

And from the province:

“A standards of maintenance bylaw provides local government with the ability to meet the needs of tenants who live in unsafe and unhealthy accommodation due to poor building maintenance. The province has heard from many tenants who are frustrated by the sub-standard and deteriorating housing conditions in which they find themselves. The 1992 report of the Provincial Commission on Housing Options noted that while the location and extent of poor housing was generally well known to community organizations and local government officials, there was no mechanism to allow local officials to require improvements. Local governments also indicated an interest in using a standards of maintenance bylaw to expand their authority to maintain the affordable housing stock in their community and protect it from premature demolition. The Commissioners concluded that most municipalities would be willing to enact minimum maintenance standards bylaws if they had the authority to do so.

Now that the authority to adopt a standards of maintenance bylaw exists, a model bylaw has been provided to serve as a starting point for use in drafting a bylaw suited to local conditions.”

So I contacted bylaw services in Prince George. Turns out there is no Standards of Maintenance Bylaw here.

There is, however, a Standing Committee on Homelessness that has been looking into the issue. City councilor Murry Krause is on that committee, so we called him.

And here’s the thing. Even though the Standards of Maintenance Bylaw seems like a solution, Krause says their research says otherwise. There’s a few issues. First is the issue that comes along seemingly every city policy these days: cost. You can have this rule, but what will it cost to enforce it? How many extra staff will you have to hire to make it effective?

The second big issue he raised is that of whether or not it would be effective. Like other bylaws, it would be complaints-driven (ie the city would look into things if someone complained, not just by randomly inspecting apartments and other rental units). The problem? Most people living in units that would need to be upgraded are those living in the cheap places. And people who live in the cheap places are usually living there because they are poor, on some form of income assistance, or otherwise vulnerable and marginalized. They are in these places because they don’t feel like they have any other options. They don’t want to run the risk of being out on the street because they start complaining.

There’s other problems, too. From a Tyee article on landlord problems in Vancouver, speaking with then-mayoral candidate Peter Ladner:

“There is some difficult history in enforcing the Standards of Maintenance bylaw,” said Ladner, “where we’ve been challenged in courts and tied up in legal cases and wasted a lot of resources not achieving what we wanted to achieve. It’s inexcusable that people should be living in these kinds of conditions, but the city’s actual powers to change that are not clear.””

Murry Krause is of a similar opinion. In his interview on Daybreak, he said, “It’s about us not passing feel-good legislation, it’s about us making sure that we put mechanisms in place that work.” What that is isn’t clear.

In my conversation with him, Krause seemed to be of the opinion that it involved improving access to affordable housing through the city and/or government so that low-income people aren’t at the mercy of low-cost-but-not-great-to-live-in rental units. But it’s still under investigation. As he said:

“I certainly don’t have a magic bullet.”

Indeed.

See also:

 

Filed under: British Columbia, CBC, Prince George

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