Vancouver City Councillor Calls for Increased Protection for Renters

By: Jackie Wong

The West Ender

Vancouver’s rental vacancy rates will remain below one per cent in 2009, according to the latest rental-market report from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The report, released last week, shows that Vancouver has a rental-apartment vacancy rate of 0.3 per cent, one of the lowest rates in the Lower Mainland next to North Vancouver (0.2 per cent). As of October 2008, there were only 160 private apartment units vacant out of 54,442 total units in Vancouver. The report suggests that the low rates are the result of a combination of factors, including a tight job market, a decreasing number of first-time buyers entering the arena of home ownership, and more than 30,000 people having moved to Vancouver from other provinces and countries last year.

Despite the CMHC report making official what many have known for a long time, Vancouver city councillor Tim Stevenson says loopholes in the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA) continue to be exploited by landlords, forcing tenants from their homes in order inflate rental rates far greater than the legislated four-per-cent annual increase. A number of apartment tenants claim such loopholes have led — or will lead — to mass evictions this year, including many West End buildings that have been profiled by WE in the past year because of turbulent landlord-tenant relationships.

Stevenson brought forward a motion to city council Tuesday (December 16) asking the province to amend the RTA, in the hope that changes will offer better protection to already vulnerable tenants. Proposed changes include requiring landlords to allow tenants that have been evicted for renovations to reclaim their units at the same rent they were paying prior to renovations; limiting annual rent increases beyond the standard four per cent; extending the notice period for evictions from 60 to 90 days; requiring the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) to approve the termination of tenancies for the purpose of renovations before eviction notices can be issued; and requiring that landlords report rent rolls, rent increases, tenant turnover, and evictions to the RTB, from which it will compile an annual public report.

“It’s not hard to look at this situation we have now and realize that there need to be some changes made,” Stevenson says. “With the national rental rate being now what it is… they [the province] will be far more cognitive of the problems.”

Stevenson added that the Vision Vancouver-dominated council has struck a positive working relationship with BC Liberal housing minister Rich Coleman, despite Mayor Gregor Robertson’s role as a member of the opposition when he was an NDP MLA. “It’s a somewhat symbiotic relationship, in that we obviously need them to make some changes, and it’s in their interest to work with us, given that the election’s coming up in May as well,” Stevenson says. “I think that we now have a real opportunity here with the provincial government to find solutions. There are problems which haven’t been addressed previously.”

Before Stevenson’s motion was officially brought forward to council, however, he had already come under fire from critics who contend that his proposed changes to the RTA will not help create more affordable housing. One of those critics is Manny Riebeling, a realtor specializing in properties downtown and in Yaletown. “Investors won’t renovate or upgrade their buildings unless [the buildings are] useless and, thus, demolished,” he says. Instead of amending the RTA like Stevenson suggests, Riebeling recommends a tax incentive program for investors to motivate them to build rental properties. As for the best course of action in creating affordable housing, Riebeling suggests “innovative ideas that help people own a property and not just rent it,” such as life leases, equity co-ops, development funds, and charity donations.

As it stands, current market conditions are not, as the CMHC reports, making things better for renters. According to the report, less than 300 new rental-apartment units were completed in Vancouver by October 2008. Stevenson’s motion notes that more than half of all households in Vancouver are rentals.

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