Seven-Year Residential Tenancy Battle Shows Dispute System Is a 'Joke,' Say Tenants

In Sparwood, landowner and tenants agree on one point: BC's RTB needs to be fixed.

By Andrew MacLeod 17 Jun 2016 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative bureau chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, April 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

After seven years of fighting, one thing a Sparwood mobile home park owner and several of her tenants agree on is that the provincial government's Residential Tenancy Branch has failed to help them satisfactorily conclude their dispute.

A Vancouver lawyer who specializes in housing and tenancy issues says the frustration on both sides is typical in a system where the government has failed to give the branch the resources it needs to properly handle the volume of cases it receives.

In a May 11 decision, arbitrator V. Hedrich found that the owner of the Elk Valley Mobile Home Park in the District of Sparwood could not increase the rent for six tenants until either the tenants agreed in writing that their water pressure had been fixed or a "certified plumbing specialist" investigated and confirmed in writing that the problem was fixed.

The ruling was the latest in a string of six wins for the tenants going back to 2009, when a Residential Tenancy Branch arbitrator first found the tenants should pay reduced rent due to the weak water pressure and other maintenance issues at the park owned by Elk Valley Investments Ltd.

"I am not satisfied that the landlord has complied with the orders of previous Arbitrators," Hedrich wrote in dismissing Lori Koop's most recent application to raise the rental rates at the park.

But less than two weeks later on May 23, without having followed the path set out by the arbitrator, Koop again gave the tenants notice she intended to raise their rents starting in September.

Tenants exasperated

To the tenants, the protracted dispute amounts to harassment from a landlord who has repeatedly disregarded arbitrators' rulings. "Ours is a perfect example of how the system isn't working," said Bobbie Saga, who lives in the mobile home park with her husband.

The system isn't working because the government doesn't care to make it work, she said. "I see this as a bigger story than just me."

The tenants wrote on May 25 to the minister responsible, Rich Coleman, expressing their frustration with a process they call "a joke" and asking him to help put an end to the dispute, preferably by fining the landowner.

"There has been zero penalties to discourage bad behaviour and a merry-go-round process that has left tenants exasperated," they wrote. "The landlord's recent move to force us to pay an increase or go back to arbitration seems like harassment with a hint of utter contempt for the six tenants left standing by this unjust and lengthy process."

Koop, who has run the park since her husband John died in 2014, said simply, "I'm within my rights to increase the rents." She said she has "problem" tenants.

She put The Tyee's call on speakerphone and allowed her friend Wolf Trelenberg, who has done work at the park, to speak for her.

Problem fixed, says landowner

The six tenants rent their pads for $170 a month, which is the same rate as in 2009 and significantly lower than the other 50 tenants at the park, all of whom seem to be happy, Trelenberg said. The mobile home park has expenses -- including for grading roads, hauling garbage and removing snow -- that the six tenants' rate of rent isn't enough to cover, he said.

The May 23 notice of rent increase given to one of the tenants said that the $177.50 a month rent would rise by $8.50 a month in September.

Koop and Trelenberg allowed that Koop's late husband was loose about following the regulations for mobile home parks and that improvements were needed, but said Koop has been working with the district to make sure the park meets standards. "I do have to get my park legalized," she said.

However, Trelenberg said the water pressure problem was fixed years ago, which was confirmed by someone certified to install water pumps, but the Residential Tenancy Branch arbitrators didn't accept that person's qualifications and haven't looked closely enough at the file.

Hedrich's ruling from May said that evidence of an opinion from a journeyman plumber was needed.

"Nobody has sat down and really taken a look at it, because if they did, they would laugh," Trelenberg said. "This isn't working. The arbitration board is not working."

Arbitration hearings tend to be run through the Residential Tenancy Branch's Victoria office, he said. "A couple people we talked to down there, I don't know if they even know where Sparwood is. I'm serious." Nobody from the branch has ever come to see what's happening on the site, he said.

Branch quick, not deep, says lawyer

Joshua Prowse, a lawyer with the Community Legal Assistance Society in Vancouver, said a significant number of disputes between landlords and tenants require several notices from the Residential Tenancy Branch or get batted back and forth between the branch and the courts, he said. "Anecdotally, we see this sort of thing a lot."

The problem, he said, is the branch lacks the resources to do as thorough a job as it should. "At its core, the Residential Tenancy Branch specializes in quick and dirty decision-making," he said. "The Residential Tenancy Branch is under-resourced for what it's doing."

The branch handles some 20,000 disputes a year, which is more than any other similar tribunal in the province, including the small claims court system, Prowse said. The branch also spends less per hearing than other tribunals, but to achieve that efficiency, depth is sacrificed, he said.

A typical Residential Tenancy Branch adjudicator will handle three hearings per day or 13 a week, each requiring a significant amount of work to understand the issue, talk with the parties and write a report, he said. The majority of hearings under the system are held in under half an hour, he added.

"Ultimately that leads to problems," he said.

Meanwhile, nobody is stepping back to look at how well the process is working for landlords and tenants, Prowse said. Someone should assess whether people who use the system feel satisfied that they've been properly heard and that the arbitrator got the facts right, he said.

A housing ministry spokesperson said the provincial government is spending $585,000 to hire three new arbitrators in the Residential Tenancy Branch, which should reduce waiting times for hearings. "The RTB is also developing new technology and processes that will enable residential tenancy disputes to be resolved faster and more efficiently," she said by email.

In a case where a landowner fails to comply with rulings, a tenant can apply to the Residential Tenancy Branch "for monetary damages for losses and in some cases request aggravated damages," she said.

If there's a pattern of non-compliance, a tenant or landowner can report it to the branch's executive director who can consider assessing administrative penalties or fines, she said by email. "The goal is to encourage compliance," she said. "In most cases, administrative penalties work as an effective deterrent without the need to actually impose the penalty."

Stress creating health problems

In Sparwood, both sides say that over seven years they have accumulated files of paper several inches thick from the case and that having it drag on has been very negative.

Trelenberg said of the landowner, "I'm worried about Lori's health because the stress on her is astronomical."

And tenant Saga recently spent a week in the hospital following a heart attack she blames on stress from the dispute. "It's one thing after another, and it's non-stop," she said. "It's a warning sign for me. I'm getting older, and I can't do things like I used to."

While the Residential Tenancy Branch has had the power since 2006 to assess administrative penalties, or fines, against landowners or tenants who break the law, it has used them only rarely. In one high-profile Surrey case, the branch waived an $115,000 fine against a landowner.

The spokesperson for the housing ministry said that following a review released in March the government is considering legislation to strengthen the administrative penalties framework, which would give the branch more powers to investigate and fine bad landowners or tenants.

Saga said she thinks changing the law is unnecessary. "The legislation needs to be enforced, not rewritten."

She said the next step for the tenants in Sparwood is to ask the province's Ombudsperson to look into why the branch has almost never assessed administrative penalties, including against repeat offenders.

Trelenberg said Koop is meeting this week with a lawyer to discuss her options and that maybe the time has come that she should accept one of the offers she's had to sell the property, even though doing so would likely see it redeveloped with more expensive housing.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Housing

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