Update of Residential Tenancy Act a ‘challenge’

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Naoibh O’Connor / Vancouver Courier

“Complicated” and “fascinating” are among the words Vancouver-West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert uses to describe his work leading the three-member Rental Housing Task Force that will come up with recommendations to update the Residential Tenancy Act.

It’s a daunting position to be in — trying to balance often competing positions held by renters, landlords and other interest groups.

But Chandra Herbert, who spoke to the Courier June 14 while en route to Nelson, the latest stop on the task force’s 11-municipality tour around B.C. to collect feedback, said it’s a responsibility he welcomes.

“I’m really glad I get the chance to do it, as much as it might bring a bunch of challenges down the road in terms of actually coming up with something that works for most people,” he said. “It’s a challenge I asked for because it’s easy to point out the problems, as I’ve had to do for many years. Being able to impact the solutions is a much harder challenge but I’m glad I’ve got it.”

High demand for Vancouver feedback session

The task force had already visited Maple Ridge, Nanaimo and Kelowna when the Courier spoke to Chandra Herbert. Later this month, it returns to the Lower Mainland for forums in Vancouver (June 27), Burnaby (June 27) and Surrey (June 28.)

The Vancouver meeting, scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m. at SFU Wosk Conference Centre on West Hastings St., is already full. Space is limited to 200. As of June 13, 64 people were on a wait list.

Meeting locations were selected through an analysis by the Residential Tenancy Branch. It included a review of the number of rental units in a community and the number of applications for dispute resolution. Locations were also based on a mix of rural and urban areas, and the need to visit all regions of B.C.

When organizers realized the Vancouver session was going to fill up quickly, an additional meeting was scheduled in Burnaby. It’s also slated for June 27 but earlier in the day, from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m.

No more meetings will be added. Due to time and budget limitations, it was only feasible for the task force to travel to the 11 communities because meetings need to wrap up by the end of June in order for the review process to begin.

The task force, which includes MLAs Adam Olsen and Ronna-Rae Leonard, is expected to make recommendations to Premier John Horgan and Selina Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, in the fall of 2018.

The task force is not just relying on feedback from public meetings. It also met with numerous interest groups in May, and 17 organizations have filed written submissions.

While some landlord-tenants disputes have been well documented over the years, Chandra Herbert said he’s so far been surprised that there is unanimity about some concerns.

One subject raised by both renters and landlords is not being able to enforce orders, whether it’s landlords not being able to get compensation for damaged suites or evict problem tenants or renters having trouble getting suites repaired or damage deposits back.

“It shouldn’t have surprised me. People generally want systems to be fair and if they see people gaming the systems they want there to be consequences. I guess that’s no different here,” Chandra Herbert said.

Balancing act

Based in Vancouver, Chandra Herbert is used to dealing with larger landlords of multiple buildings, but at the smaller community forums he’s come across many landlords from smaller buildings or homes with suites.

He said they were excited about the task force’s visit because they felt they hadn’t been seen or heard in many years. They wanted it known that there are good landlords unlike the ones highlighted in rental horror stories in the news.

Issues that renters in larger cities have faced for many years, meanwhile, have started to arrive in smaller communities, including low vacancy rates and an inability to find affordable rent.

Chandra Herbert acknowledged weighing and balancing the various points of view being presented at the meetings won’t be simple.

The trick will be figuring out how to ensure renters’ rights are protected while making sure landlords have money to invest in properties to keep them liveable so the number of rental properties doesn’t diminish or they’re not pulled off the market.

“You’ll have one person say do this and another person say definitely don’t do that. We have to consider that we want people to have good quality, secure housing and that there are people who are also willing to provide it,” he said. “Because the government, so far, hasn’t be able or willing to, and maybe can’t provide all of the housing we would want for everybody. At least that’s historically, in Canada, what the case has been. We have relied on the private market. I expect that is going to continue for quite some time, for market housing anyway.”

Chandra Herbert, however, maintains most landlord-tenant relationships are working. The government’s job, he said, is to make sure rules aren’t too onerous while at the same creating rules that offer a basic level of protection and fairness.

The government also needs to do a better job of tracking data so it can make better estimations about how policy will impact people, he said.

“There’s a huge appetite for change on both sides because we haven’t looked at this legislation for over 16 years and the housing pressures have certainly become more acute. Certainly, folks I’ve talked to have talked about the impact of poverty, mental health and addiction issues in the rental market and how landlords are [feeling they have to be] more like social workers in some cases. The whole crisis has gotten worse over many years,” he said.

“It’s interesting when one person will think one answer will solve everything. It’s much more complicated than that. The best we can do is make sure the rules are clear, obvious, that they can be enforced, that there’s fairness — the idea that people should have secure housing and be treated fairly, and that landlords who provide [rentals] are treated fairly too, that they see that the process is there to protect them and their investment as well, within reason.

But both landlords and tenants, he added, need to understand Residential Tenancy Act rules.

“I’ve had to have some debates with [smaller landlords] who’ve said, ‘It’s my house, my rules.’ But you’re in a business relationship. You cannot, after the fact, decide you don’t like the smell of your tenant’s cooking and not allow them to cook certain foods,” he said.

“That’s another thing — a lot of people that I’ve talked to said a lot of the problems they’ve run into have been in large part because they don’t know the law. They don’t know the process and once the problem hits, it’s often too late to go back and try and learn your rights and responsibilities because things can move quite quickly. A big takeaway is if you don’t know the rules, as they exist now, or your responsibilities, learn them. Yes, [the task force] will make recommendations for policy and legal changes but I think education about the law and responsibilities, to me, right now, is a pretty obvious recommendation.”

Vancouver voices

As Vancouver is the epicentre of much renter frustration, given the close to zero vacancy rate, Chandra Herbert isn’t surprised its forum filled up weeks ahead of time.

But he said the task force has already heard from advocacy groups that represent thousands. There’s an online discussion forum, individuals can send in written submissions and space is still available at the Burnaby session.

“It’s one of the challenges of any consultation. There’s always going to be somebody who says, well, why didn’t you call me and ask me for my advice? Well, we’re making it as open as we can. Otherwise the consultation would go on for years and we’d produce no product.”

Once the meetings are over, task force members will continue to research issues before forming their recommendations.

Chandra Herbert said, in some cases, people have highlighted problems but no one has come forward with solutions for them. In other cases, the proposed solution would create another set of problems.

The task force will looking into how to deal with those issues, while coming up with themes for the recommendations and possibly approaching people again to get their opinions on potential fixes.

“It’s complicated. You pull on one lever and you create a problem somewhere else. We want to make sure we don’t do that, as much as possible, and make sure we get to some good solutions for the minister and the premier and for everyone else to consider,” he said.

noconnor@vancourier.com