Possible 43 per cent rent hike for West End tenants raises questions

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VANCOUVER, BC: NOVEMBER 20, 2013 -- A typical lane in the West End neighbourhood in Vancouver, BC., Wednesday November 20, 2013. (Ric Ernst / PNG) (Story by Jeff Lee) TRAX #: 00025471A [PNG Merlin Archive]
The West End features a number of rental buildings. Ric Ernst / PNG

Just when Vancouver renters thought they had enough to worry about during the city’s affordability crisis, the landlord of a West End walk-up has dusted off an obscure clause in the Residential Tenancy Act they hope will earn them rent hikes of as much as 43 per cent.

Spencer Chandra Herbert

The clause is so rarely used and tricky to prove that its re-appearance had renters and landlord advocates alike scratching their heads this week. It also sent West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert on the offensive Monday, and raised questions about the provincial government’s efforts to protect renters.

Landlords are restricted in the amount they can increase rents. This year, it’s 3.7 per cent, which breaks down to the cost of inflation, plus two per cent.

There are some ways landlords can argue for additional increases on top of that base amount, and one is if they believe their tenants are getting a good deal compared to other similar renters in the same geographic area.

That is what’s being tried at 1565 Harwood Street by Martello Property Services on behalf of registered owner Immobiliere Canada Investment Ltd. Martello is seeking increases ranging from 16 to 43 per cent per unit, said Chandra Herbert. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

David Hutniak. PROVINCE

Here’s what went through the mind of David Hutniak, the chief executive officer of LandlordBC, when he heard someone was using the clause: “I was thinking ‘who the hell’s doing this?’ I was shocked.”

Burden of proof falls to the landlord in these cases. They need to provide — as a start — significant evidence, including nearby rents for units of comparable size, shape, age, construction, ambience and amenities, and increases are only granted in “exceptional circumstances,” according to the B.C. government website.

If that wasn’t a deterrent, a 2010 B.C. Supreme Court ruling “pretty much eliminates this as a tool for any landlord to even contemplate,” Hutniak said. That ruling overturned an arbitrator’s earlier decision against the tenants, and the landlord was ordered to repay rent.

“I can’t imagine what this landlord has that would cause them to be confident that (they) will be successful,” said Hutniak.

Chandra Herbert has tried three times to strike the geographic area clause from the tenancy act through private members bills. In each case the B.C. Liberal party let them die on the order paper, said the New Democrat. “They won’t let them even come to a vote,” he said.

Rich Coleman. Gerry Kahrmann / Postmedia News

Housing minister Rich Coleman, offered reporters in Victoria rationale for keeping it in place Monday: “The option for a landlord if they don’t have a sustainable building is to tear it down. Then we lose rental stock, and it just becomes condos.”

Andrew Sakamoto, executive director of the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, said that of the 7,000-plus calls his centre received last year, just six were related to the geographic area clause. For him, the far bigger issue for renters is a fixed-term lease loophole that some landlords have used to hit tenants with higher-than-legal rent hikes.

Coleman said last fall he would have solutions to the problem by the start of the spring session, which began last month. But on Monday he had bad news for any renters stuck in such a lease.

“We said we were going to do the work. We’re doing it. It’s just a bit more complicated than I thought it would be,” Coleman said, offering no revised timeline.

In its 2017 pre-election budget, the province included reduced funding for the residential tenancy branch, which hears disputes between tenants and landlords.



With files from Rob Shaw