Wait times lead to loss of housing for renters

Fewer residential-tenancy offices and more disputes mean it takes a long time to get to the front of the line

Times are tough for Vancouver resident Janice Johnston. Toward the end of last year, she had to bury her husband, find a new job, and deal with an eviction notice from her landlord.

A friend volunteered to appear on Johnston’s behalf before the Residential Tenancy Office in Burnaby because she can’t miss a day at work. She lost the case to keep her West End apartment, which her landlord wants to renovate. She has to move out by the end of January.

Johnston related to the Georgia Straight that she had tried calling the RTO a number of times. All she got a recorded voice advising her of the wait time. In one instance, she waited 88 minutes before hanging up. She tried e-mail and got no response.

Johnston said that although she can still appeal the eviction and even go to court, she’d rather let it go. “I’m done,” she said. “I want to get on with my life.”

Kris Anderson is the spokesperson for the Tenants’ Rights Action Coalition. “There is definitely an ongoing problem of people not being able to access the RTO,” he told the Straight.

Anderson said that the problem goes back to the decision of the B.C. Liberal government to close residential-tenancy offices in Vancouver, Surrey, and Nanaimo between 2002 and 2004. The move left only the offices in Burnaby, Victoria, and Kelowna to deal with disputes involving landlords and tenants for the entire province. According to a TRAC estimate from two years ago, B.C. has about one million tenants.

“They’ve moved to a new system. It’s more like a call centre. They got rid of a lot of staff,” Anderson said. He noted that although landlords and tenants alike are affected, renters don’t have as much time or resources to fight. “A lot of people don’t have access to the Internet,” he said. “For people who are older, it doesn’t work out for them going out to Burnaby or having to use the telephone system.”

Anderson anticipates that there will be a greater need for public access to RTO offices, particularly the one in Burnaby. “With the [2010] Olympics, there’s going to be more people coming to Vancouver to work and who’re going to be renting,” he said. “There’ll be potentially more problems as the crunch for rental housing really gets bad.”

If government projections are any indication, it appears that disputes between landlords and tenants are on the rise.

Compared to 18,000 dispute-resolution proceedings for the fiscal year 2005–06, almost 30,000 such proceedings are expected for 2006–07, Paul Woolley, communications director of the Ministry of Forests and Range, told the Straight. Woolley’s boss, Rich Coleman, is also the B.C. Minister Responsible for Housing and has jurisdiction over residential-tenancy offices.

“It’s an increase in business and we’re adjusting to that,” Woolley said. He noted that nine dispute-resolution officers have been hired recently, bringing to 28 the number of arbitrators for the province.

Woolley admitted that average wait times for people calling residential-tenancy offices “can approach an hour”. He said that seven more information officers will be hired because residential-tenancy officials “recognize that wait times have been an issue”. Woolley also said that for the fiscal year 2006–07, the RTO expects approximately 190,000 calls. “Call volumes tend to peak at certain times of the month, and some of the efforts will be to deal with those call volumes specifically when rent is due,” he said.

Woolley did not provide an explanation for the projected increases in disputes and calls to the RTO. “We don’t have search capabilities to pinpoint the precise reason,” he said. “However, we [have] put in place technological upgrades which should make this possible in the future.”

Sharon Isaak is a member of the Vancouver-based Renters at Risk Campaign. She was at the Burnaby RTO accompanying another West End tenant facing eviction when the Straight spoke to her. “They’re [the RTO is] completely overwhelmed,” she said. “People wait for hours to file paperwork.”

Isaak said that they were told by staff that if a tenant were to fax a document to the office, it would be looked at only after four or five days. She claimed that staff also told her that e-mails don’t get read for three weeks.

“The process of challenging evictions through the RTO and the Supreme Court is incredibly time- consuming,” Isaak said. “That makes the system almost inaccessible.”

Isaak knows Johnston personally. She said: “Janice represents the majority of tenants, who can’t fight.”

Aaron Jasper, a director of the West End Residents Association, told the Straight that the group has joined the Renters at Risk Campaign to advocate for tenants who are being squeezed out of their residences. He said: “This whole problem is a trend that is regional, and it’s getting worse.”