For years, tenants and their advocates have lobbied for stricter rent control in B.C., and for years, provincial governments have balked at the idea, fearing that further limiting rent increases will stall badly needed new rental development.
Now renter unions say they’re trying a new approach: organizing from the bottom up, pushing for collective bargaining power and allying with labour unions in order to change the power imbalance between renters and landlords.
The Vancouver Tenants Union formed in 2017, after a historic jump in rent rates and a rash of aggressive eviction attempts that were especially difficult for older tenants living on fixed incomes. Other tenant unions are also in place in Victoria and some smaller cities like Nelson. But up until now, they’ve acted more like advocates or political activists than unions.
“It started off as sort of a model where some individual advocates would help tenants at the Residential Tenancy Branch, to try and win things,” said Mazdak Gharibnavaz, a member of the Vancouver Tenants Union.
“That was supposed to kind of work, but over time we saw that didn't work.”
The B.C. government has repeatedly rejected vacancy control, which would limit the amount landlords could raise rents when one tenant moves out and another moves in.
But since 2016, municipalities and the province have tried to improve tenant relocation plans and strengthen renter protections in other ways. Vancouver has introduced vacancy control for single-room occupancy hotels, a particularly vulnerable form of rental housing, while Burnaby has tried to improve its dismal record of allowing hundreds of affordable rental buildings to be demolished near SkyTrain stations.
Vancouver and some other Metro Vancouver cities have also continued to boost construction of new rental buildings — a move that should, in theory, reduce the pressure on both new and existing renters.
Despite those moves, pressure on renters seems to be higher than ever.
In 2022, renters across the province are facing another massive rent spike, eviction pressures and few available rentals when they’re pushed out. And some tenants going through supposedly stronger tenant relocation processes have felt betrayed both by city staff and developers.
The VTU and other tenant unions in B.C. want the right to organize and to negotiate rent rates and rental contracts for their members. And they want to expand their membership to include not just people who are interested in a political fight, but are part of what Gharibnavaz calls “the renter class.”
“We're trying… the kind of organizing that you would see in labour history, historically,” Gharibnavaz said.
Pierce Nettling lives in Victoria and is involved in a campaign called Rent Strike Bargain, which is lobbying for the ability of tenants’ unions to engage in collective bargaining with landlords. Nettling said tenants in B.C. have been working directly with labour unions to organize and grow their membership. He listed the BCGEU, CUPE local 15 and 3338, Unite Here local 40, the Vancouver and New Westminster district labour councils and the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers Association as unions that have endorsed the campaign.
“We go directly to labour unions and we get them to endorse us,” Nettling said. “Then we work with them to do a rent survey in their own union, so that they can identify who in the union rents. And then with them we do sort of teach-ins and workshops to build labour solidarity.”
Kari Michaels, executive vice-president of the BCGEU, said many of the union’s members are renters who are affected by rising rents. These members, she says, are being pushed out of their neighbourhoods and living in sub-standard housing.
“We know as a trade union that when you work collectively to assert demands that you have a better chance at winning those demands,” Michaels said.
Earlier this spring, the City of San Francisco passed legislation that gave tenants the right to organize within their buildings, use common areas to meet, and — in buildings with five or more units — form tenant associations. The ordinance requires landlords and tenant associations to “meet and confer with each other in good faith.”
Nettling pointed to another example in Sweden, which has had tenant associations for a long time and where “renter power” led to a non-confidence vote in 2021 over the ruling party’s attempt to loosen rent controls.
“It's not a new concept,” Nettling said. “Our campaign is actually historically focused on bringing this to light so that we can familiarize tenants with this.”
Tenant anger in B.C. is now a key dynamic in plans to densify cities and build more housing. Nettling dismissed Victoria’s plan to densify single-family home neighbourhoods, saying it will only line the pockets of real estate developers. In Vancouver, the Vancouver Tenants Union opposes a plan to allow taller buildings along Broadway where a subway extension is under construction, saying it will put too much pressure on existing renters who live in older, more affordable rental buildings in the areas along the subway extension.
Because of past experiences with “loopholes” in tenant relocation plans, Gharibnavaz said, the VTU isn’t convinced by a promise from Vancouver’s mayor to allow tenants to return to new buildings at the same rates they were paying.
Instead of allowing older rental buildings to be torn down or tenants pushed out by landlords seeking market rents, Gharibnavaz suggested governments look at buying up single family home lots in the neighbourhoods along Broadway and building affordable housing that way.
“Why is the assumption that the first people that you go to is renters who have lived in buildings for decades?”
Hot, Hot Housing is a reported column on the housing crisis in Vancouver and beyond, published in The Tyee every Friday. Got housing stories of your own? Whether it’s market hijinks, tenancy horrors or survival tips, you can email us at [email protected].