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Rights + Justice

Who Will Help Vancouver Renters Now?

Advocates raise the alarm about a council decision to close Vancouver’s Renter Office.

Jen St. Denis 27 Jan

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

Vancouver is the eviction capital of Canada, with more forced moves than any other city, according to data from Statistics Canada.

Advocates say they’re concerned that Vancouver council’s move to kill the city’s Renter Office will leave tenants less protected, especially as new zoning to allow higher density development along the Broadway corridor brings more demolition of existing apartment buildings.

But councillors with the ABC party – who hold a comfortable majority on council – said the office was duplicating services for renters, who would be better served by non-profit organizations that provide legal assistance, like the Tenants Resource and Advisory Centre, or TRAC.

ABC councillors voted on Jan. 18 to close the city’s Renter Office and transition its work to non-profits, and provide an additional $250,000 in grants to support those organizations. Coun. Lenny Zhou introduced the motion to close the Renter Office with no advance warning, leading the three opposition councillors – Adriane Carr, Christine Boyle and Pete Fry – to be taken aback by the sudden move.

ABC promised to cut unnecessary spending during the October election campaign.

“Some of this responsibility does not fall under the jurisdiction of the city, and we are not experts in this area,” said Zhou.

“As a municipal government we should focus on what we’re good at and leave others to the provincial government.”

The Renter Office was created in 2018, when sharply rising rents had created a dire situation for many renters across Metro Vancouver. Lower-income and elderly renters were hit the hardest when landlords tried, and often succeeded, in evicting them to do cosmetic renovations to their apartments and charge much higher rents to new tenants.

B.C.’s rent control legislation limits how much rent can be increased every year. But when tenants move out or are evicted, property owners can raise the rent by as much as they want.

As they faced losing homes they’d lived in for decades, many elderly renters found that their fixed incomes no longer covered even the lowest market rents.

Vancouver’s Renter Office is mainly responsible for enforcing the city’s tenant relocation policies when renters are forced to move because a building owner wants to redevelop the property.

Under those policies, landlords must pay renters financial compensation based on their length of tenancy and help them find a new place to live that costs around 30 per cent of the tenant’s income. The office employs three social planners, three planning analysts, a lawyer and a part-time communications co-ordinator.

The office also refers tenants to non-profits like TRAC, which provides legal advocacy and advice for renters.

Burnaby, which brought in stronger tenant relocation policies after a devastating wave of mass evictions, also has a dedicated renters’ office.

Zhou pointed out that Vancouver’s Renter Office only answered around 370 inquiries a year – a little more than one call per day. Any issues that have to do with evictions must be dealt with by the Residential Tenancy Branch, a provincial office that arbitrates renter and landlord disputes and provides information about the Residential Tenancy Act.

But Fry told The Tyee that the Renter Office does more than handle calls. Staff who work in the Renter Office advocate for tenants with other departments, including the one that issues building permits.

He pointed out that Renter Office staff act proactively to make sure the city’s tenant policies are being followed by other city departments and property owners, while TRAC and other non-profits are reactive, stepping in when tenants are having a problem with their landlord.

“When you go back to 2018, we saw the public, the [Vancouver] Tenants Union, they were all very active around the issue of displacement and affordability and their interests were not being represented at city hall,” Fry said.

“That's why there was really sort of an intentional piece here to ensure that there were people dedicated to the issues of renters across the city.”

Boyle said that ending the Renter Office amounted to breaking a promise made to renters when the Broadway Plan was approved. A previous city council voted yes to the plan only after more stringent protections for renters who live in that area had been added.

“When we look at the 50,000 renters in the Broadway Plan and the changes coming to that area, I feel really strongly we have a responsibility as a city to make sure that the renter protection policies that we put in place are being upheld properly,” said Boyle.

“Funding this office was a key part of that.”

The Vancouver Tenants Union has been frustrated that the city’s tenant policies have been focused on relocation rather than preventing displacement.

Rebecca Love, the co-chair of the union’s steering committee, said she never refers renters to the Renter Office for help; instead, she refers people to TRAC, where lawyers are on hand to provide expert advice. She described the Renter Office as something that “looks good on paper.”

But closing the Renter Office sends a clear message to renters, Love said. “If nothing else, it’s kind of a mask-off thing for council to do. We knew they were not going to be renter-friendly, and now everyone knows.”

The ABC councillors who voted to close the Renter Office argue the opposite is true: by directing more funding to non-profits who help renters, they say, renters will be helped faster by knowledgeable staff.

Love said the closure of the Renter Office does provide a silver lining for the scrappy grassroots Vancouver Tenants Union.

“We have found that higher-income, middle-class tenants tend to think the system will save them. And when it doesn't, they fall into despair and are ready to roll over,” she said.

“It takes a bit of time and convincing that it is up to them and their neighbours to band together and make their own demands, which is far more powerful than any ‘rights’ or pittance handed down from the city or province.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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