Jean Swanson: Tinkering with the Residential Tenancy Act won’t provide housing security

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      Last week, the province introduced legislation to make some minor changes to the Residential Tenancy Act. 

      In the future landlords will have to give four months' notice when they evict someone, up from two months. If landlords evict for a renovation, the old tenant has a right to rent the newly renovated unit at market rates.

      This isn’t good enough. If the government truly wants to give renters housing security, ensure that huge portions of people’s income aren’t going to rent, and bring in an effective poverty-reduction strategy, they need to implement real rent control, based on the unit not the tenant. 

      Right now, when a tenant leaves, or dies, or is harassed out, bought out, or evicted by the landlord, the rent can go up as much as the market will bear for the next tenant. This is the major cause of housing insecurity in a climate with vacancy rates under one percent. 

      Housing is insecure because as long as landlords can raise rents as much as they want if they get new tenants, they have an incentive to get rid of longer-term tenants.

      This is why average rents in B.C. are going up by more than the so-called annual “allowable” increase of four percent; it’s one reason why average rents of newly listed apartments in Vancouver are over $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom unit.

      Legislation saying that the old tenant can move back to a renovated place at market rents is virtually useless. Market rents in a renovated place are probably a lot higher than the old rent before the tenant was evicted.

      I personally have tried to help numerous tenants who have been given illegal eviction notices, or even offered money to move so the landlord can rent their unit out to the next tenant at a higher rent.

      The epidemic of renovictions and other unjust evictions is one of the primary reasons the Vancouver Tenants Union was formed last year. Residents in the West End, Grandview-Woodland, Mount Pleasant and other neighbourhoods have been raising the alarm about this issue for a decade.

      The B.C. Liberals ignored them, and at one point Housing Minister Rich Coleman even floated eliminating rent control altogether. We expect much more from the B.C. NDP, but we need substantive changes that go the root of the problem—not mere tinkering.

      When the NDP government announced a new rental housing task force last week, it said this was necessary because the current housing crisis "has left both renters and landlords vulnerable".

      But precarious tenants don’t share the same interests as landlords and property managers, who own and run many of the buildings where tenants face renovictions, and we need to pressure all levels of government to prioritize the interests of the most vulnerable among us.

      There’s another reason that we need rent control on the unit, not the tenant.  If the province is serious about wanting an effective poverty-reduction strategy it has to figure out a way for people living in poverty to keep the money they get from higher welfare rates, higher minimum wages, and lower childcare fees. 

      Without real rent control on the unit, not the tenant, a lot of that money, which is supposed to reduce poverty, will simply be funnelled into higher rents.

      For example, in 2016 in the Downtown Eastside, the average rent in privately owned and run SRO hotels was $548. In 2017, after a $100 increase to welfare and disability, average rents went up to $687.

      I remember when the welfare rates went up by $50 a month in 2007. Right away, most SRO rents also went up by $50. Without rent control, antipoverty measures might just end up subsidizing landlords.

      So we need more drastic changes to the Residential Tenancy Act to protect tenants. And making rent control apply to the unit, not the tenant, is a first step. The good news: it’s one plank of a poverty reduction strategy that won’t cost the government a lot of money.

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      Jean Swanson is an antipoverty and social justice activist, former city council candidate, and writer.

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