Residential Tenancy Branch given more power to investigate, levy fines

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The Residential Tenancy Branch will now have more teeth to investigate and levy fines against bad landlords and tenants, according to changes announced Wednesday by the B.C. government.

It’s among the first suite of measures in response to recommendations released in December by a government-appointed rental task force, which include an end to renovictions.

The tenancy branch’s beefed-up compliance and enforcement unit will investigate complaints and take action against landlords and renters who repeatedly break the rules. The five-person unit, headed by Scott McGregor, has already fined a Surrey landlord $5,000 after the landlord repeatedly ignored an arbitrator’s orders to do repairs in a suite.

The enforcement unit is looking into 21 active cases and McGregor said he expects more to be referred by the Residential Tenancy Branch.

The unit can issue fines of up to $5,000 a day for every day the infraction continues, McGregor said. The financial penalties will be registered in B.C. Supreme Court as a debt owed to the B.C. government.

The tougher enforcement measures come in response to criticism from tenants and landlords that the Residential Tenancy Branch is a toothless agency reluctant to levy serious fines that deter bad behaviour.

“What the task force heard, from both renters and landlords, was that too many people feel that there are no repercussions for breaking tenancy laws,” said Housing Minister Selina Robinson. “When we hear of renters receiving five, six, seven eviction notices, or a building full of renters being evicted for cosmetic upgrades, those landlords can absolutely expect to hear from the unit. Or when we hear of renters who scam landlords out of months of free rent and then move on to the next landlord, those renters can expect a call as well.”

The government is also funding a public-education campaign in the hopes that if renters and landlords know their rights and responsibilities, fewer cases will end up in arbitration.

NDP MLA Spencer Chandra-Herbert, who chaired the task force, cited one case where education about the Residential Tenancy Act saved 85 tenants from eviction. A Kelowna landlord had issued a mass eviction notice to renters because he wanted to renovate the suites, but when an Residential Tenancy Branch information officer told him it was illegal, he revoked the evictions, Chandra-Herbert said.

Landlord B.C., which represents 3,000 landlords across the province, and the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, a Vancouver-based tenants’ resource agency, will receive $65,000 and $70,000, respectively, to provide information to landlords and tenants.

Doug King, executive director of Victoria-based Together Against Poverty Society, said rather than more education, what’s desperately needed is government funding for legal aid so tenants can access legal services to uphold their rights.

“Typically, landlords are well aware of their rights — they know how to get around the gaps in the system and education is not going to help that,” King said.

The society provides free legal advice to tenants and helps them navigate the often daunting residential tenancy arbitration process, but the non-profit can barely keep up with the demand for its services, King said.

King is also disappointed that legislative changes, such as bans on rental restrictions in stratas and giving a renter first right of refusal to return to a unit following renovations, won’t be introduced until 2020.

“It’s really disheartening to hear we’re going to have to wait another year for real legislative changes to happen,” said King, adding the housing crisis demands an urgent response.

Andrew Boucher, a spokesman for Landlord B.C., said the agency will be touring the province talking to landlords about their rights and responsibilities.

“We do feel that most issues will be resolved through the education piece,” Boucher said. “That being said, there are always stories about bad landlords or bad tenants and that’s where we’re hopeful the compliance unit will come into force.”

In December, the rental task force issued 23 recommendations, including a call to put a stop to “renovictions” by allowing renters to stay during renovations to their suites. Evictions for renovations should be done only in rare instances of serious, major and long-term renovations, such as seismic upgrades, the report said.

Robinson said the public can expect to see a second phase of reforms this year, including compensation and relocation guidelines for tenants whose buildings are being demolished, and a process for collecting outstanding fines from landlords and tenants who refuse to pay.

Robinson said the $6.8 million over three years given to the Residential Tenancy Branch has already made a difference in improving the dispute resolution process.

People who call the branch are now waiting five minutes for advice, down from a 45-minute average in 2017.

kderosa@timescolonist.com