Derrick O'Keefe: COPE has a plan to smash rent hikes in Vancouver

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      The annual allowable rental increase in British Columbia and Vancouver is now a maximum of four percent, based on a formula of two percent plus inflation. Today, tenants learned that rents can go up by 4.5 percent in 2019, the largest increase permitted since 2004. That needs to come down, because renters in Vancouver need immediate relief.

      In the midst of this affordability crisis, COPE’s proposal for a temporary rent freeze is one practical emergency measure we can take right away as part of a longer-term plan to open up more nonmarket and truly affordable housing.

      The B.C. government could do this right away, and it wouldn’t cost it a thing. A temporary rent freeze is better policy than the $400 annual rebate the B.C. NDP promised during the election campaign; that rebate wouldn’t even cover the annual rent hike for most tenants, and essentially would amount to a subsidy to landlords.

      But if the B.C. government won’t do it, COPE has a plan to implement a four-year Rent Freeze, using municipal tools in Vancouver including By-law 4450, which covers city business licensing. When landlords apply for a business licence each year, which currently costs $71 per year per rental unit, the Rent Freeze can be made a requirement of the licence. As with the long-overdue Empty Homes Tax and short-term rental regulations, fines can be applied to landlords who don’t comply. COPE will also implement a mandatory landlord registry to track rents and rent increases.

      Any application of municipal powers to licence and regulate must meet the standard of being for a clear municipal purpose. We believe this applies to stronger rent control and other urgently needed measures to address the housing crisis. The skyrocketing of rents we’ve seen over the past decade due to a lack of vacancy control coupled with the annual allowable rent hikes continue to cause evictions, homelessness, and many costs to public health and safety. They’re also causing real harm to small businesses throughout Vancouver, as our neighborhoods are hollowed out and as our family budgets are squeezed and we’re unable to spend at local shops due to out-of-control housing costs. 

      It turns out, COPE and our campaign are not the only ones to advocate for municipalities taking the issue of regulation of rental rates into our own hands.

      Last year, the B.C. Chamber of Commerce issued a position paper urging municipalities be given the power to increase the percentage of the annual rent hike above the provincial maximum. Unfortunately for the corporate interests behind this proposal, the Vancouver Charter (section 272-1-f) does not allow municipal regulation of businesses that contravene statutes from other levels of government.

      The Chamber of Commerce might like cities to allow rent increases of more than four percent per year, but that would violate the terms of the provincial Residential Tenancy Act. In contrast, our proposal to temporarily freeze rents at zero percent would comply with the RTA as it stays well under the maximum rate of increase.

      On Thursday, COPE candidates held a rally outside of a rental building on East 16th in Mount Pleasant, the Capri Apartments, which was marketed to investors with the strongly implied enticement that they could conduct a wholesale renoviction program. Here’s what the online sales brochure said: “Rents are significantly under market, providing investors an opportunity to further enhance the revenue as suites turnover or by undertaking a comprehensive renovation program.”

      Shortly after our Thursday press conference, this line was removed from the online sales brochure.

      Twenty-three households could face significant rent increases or be out on the street if and when a new buyer takes this opportunity to enhance their revenues. And thousands more tenants in the West End and other neighbourhoods have already been pushed out or are facing the threat of renoviction.

      That’s why COPE’s plan for a Rent Freeze includes pushing to stop renovictions, both by using city permitting powers to make sure tenants are no longer permanently displaced by renovations and by lobbying the province to implement vacancy control where rent increases are tied to the unit, not the tenant. The Barrett government introduced this form of rent control back in the 1970s, and it’s time today’s NDP government brought it back.

      As we wrapped up yesterday’s press conference in Mount Pleasant, a tenant named Travis who lives in the building asked to speak. Travis spoke passionately about the anxiety his fellow renters in the building face and supported COPE’s call for a Rent Freeze and a ban on renovictions. Jean Swanson then invited Travis to take the final swing at our rent-hike piñata, and Travis smashed it on the first try. (See photo below)

      So far COPE is the only party in this year’s municipal election that is forcefully advocating for a reduction in annual rent increases. It’s my hope that other parties and candidates will join us in pushing for these policies. The renters I’m talking to on the doorstep all express a sense of anxiety and urgency. As a renter myself, I feel it every day. We need action on housing affordability and security, and we need it now.

      The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition both included a call for a decrease in the annual allowable rent hike in their submissions to the B.C. government’s recently completed rental housing task force. The CCPA’s position paper included forceful arguments rebutting the common right-wing talking points against rent control, and pointed to the importance of nonmarket, publicly funded housing: “The government can and should establish stronger renter protections, and should feel empowered to more effectively use zoning powers to direct the kind of housing built. And fundamentally, the government itself will have to do more of the heavy lifting when it comes to directly building new affordable rental stock.” 

      Renters occupy a majority of the housing units in Vancouver, but we’ve never occupied more than a tiny fraction of the seats on city council. For most of Vancouver’s history, believe it or not, renters were not even allowed to vote or to run for office. 

      Renters' issues have never been front and centre in municipal election campaigns. Until now. This year our voices will be heard. And if enough of us turn out to vote, we’ll win more seats at the table at Vancouver City Hall.

      Derrick O’Keefe is a long-time peace and social justice activist in Vancouver, a founding member of the Vancouver Tenants Union, and a COPE candidate for city council along with Anne Roberts and Jean Swanson.