The 2021 heat dome, British Columbia’s deadliest environmental disaster to date, killed 619 of our friends and neighbours. Two years later, B.C.’s tenants are still unprotected in the face of extreme weather.
In January, Environment Canada announced that the country will experience warmer seasonal temperatures in the coming year. When the next extreme weather event hits our province, we expect hundreds more vulnerable tenants will suffer, unless strong, urgent action is taken to protect them.
So far, the government response to 2021’s heat dome may be too late to protect tenants this year. Of those who died in the heat dome, 67 per cent were confirmed not to have in-unit air conditioning yet the B.C. government is already three months past a deadline to review a program aimed at providing air conditioners to those most impacted by heat.
Last year, the City of Vancouver adopted, in principle alone, a rule that requires new rental buildings to have cooling facilities by 2025. This does not help tenants now, and also will not protect those who cannot afford to move to expensive new buildings if the rule ever comes into force.
Many tenants had to rely on public cooling facilities to survive 2021’s heat dome and subsequent heat waves in 2022. But some tenants, particularly seniors and those with mobility challenges, told us about their difficulty accessing government-provided cooling centres that are far from their homes and not reliably open.
As part of our ongoing research partnership between housing and climate researchers and advocates, we have collected stories from tenants left struggling in units that were not built for the realities of a changing climate: high temperatures, wildfire smoke, increased flooding and sudden cold snaps. One senior tenant told us that she feels “trapped in [a] place that is my living quarters” — trapped by the reality of the climate crisis and also by the reality of B.C.’s housing crisis.
These two crises are now intersecting in dangerous ways, with the lack of decent, affordable housing making it harder for tenants to survive extreme weather events. In the nation’s eviction capital of Metro Vancouver, tenants often refrain from making legitimate complaints to their landlords and don’t ask for repairs or accommodations out of fear of being targeted for eviction in the guise of renovations.
These are rational fears: during the 2021 heat dome, some tenants were even threatened with eviction for trying to keep their units livable. Senior tenants we’ve spoken with live in fear of losing their rental units: with market rents four or five times higher than they can afford, eviction can be a recipe for homelessness.
So, what can be done? Tenants must be able to access cool spaces in their own buildings, whether in their own units, or in common areas. Time is of the essence in a heat emergency. If the effects of heat waves have already taken their toll, it may be too late to take advantage of cooling centres.
We heard harrowing stories of tenants suffering from heat exhaustion: “You lose your capacity to think,” one tenant told us. “You don’t even know you are in danger.”
We must listen to and learn from tenants who are fighting to survive under these extreme circumstances. Tenants worked together to protect each other these past two summers — and may have to again this summer. We documented stories of suffering and injustice, but we also heard inspiring stories of tenant ingenuity, co-operation and action.
A senior we spoke with described how, after the gruelling experience of the 2021 heat dome, she rallied with her neighbours to convince her landlord to install air conditioning in a common room. It worked and was, in her words, a “life-saver” for tenants in her building in 2022.
BC Housing has announced an expansion of cooling rooms in some of the buildings they administer, but that won’t help tenants in market rental buildings. All landlords must be required to provide air-conditioned rooms in their buildings this summer and going forward. In buildings that do not have common spaces where air conditioners or heat pumps can be installed, landlords must be required to temporarily turn vacant units into cooling rooms.
Landlords will push back of course, but cooling rooms are not amenities, they are necessary to save the lives of vulnerable tenants. In the battle between landlords’ profits and tenants’ lives, we cannot allow profits to win out.
Requiring cooling rooms is a necessary short-term step that will directly save lives and reduce suffering, but they will not protect everyone. Vulnerable tenants point out that they still face barriers to using communal cooling rooms. Seniors and disabled people in particular face the risk of contracting COVID in crowded rooms. Others face communication and language barriers, or are kept away by the lack of privacy. Cooling rooms also don’t solve the underlying injustices at the heart of the problem.
Tenants, like everyone, have a fundamental right to a livable, affordable and accessible home. In-unit cooling would help protect that right. But we also heard vulnerable tenants' concerns that their older buildings do not have the electrical capacity to support cooling devices in every unit. Tenants rightly fear that building-wide retrofits or redevelopment will lead to unaffordable rent increases and wide-scale evictions. Under our current tenancy laws, these outcomes are likely.
To protect both tenants’ lives and their homes, government must ensure that all housing is retrofitted to be resilient to our changing climate, and enact laws that protect tenants from displacement and unfair rent increases.
Tenants in B.C. have been left to battle for survival in the midst of a housing and climate crisis for far too long. In order to make good on government’s commitment to the human right to housing, we must ensure that every British Columbian, whether tenant or homeowner, can access livable, secure housing, especially in a changing climate.
Our actions today will shape a future in which homes will serve as a safe, secure refuge or a place where the unequal effects of climate change are felt most acutely.
The ongoing research mentioned in this article is jointly led by the UBC Centre for Climate Justice and B.C. Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre and is supported by a team of research assistants including Rachel Stern, Rona MacNicol and Amelia Linett.