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For Renters, the Air Conditioner Wars Are Heating Up

As some landlords warn away from plugging in cooling units, here are tenants' rights and options.

Jen St. Denis 21 Jul 2023The Tyee

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

A New Westminster city councillor says renters need better protection during extreme heat events, and two Metro Vancouver health authorities are also calling for strata and rental managers to reconsider existing bans on air conditioners.

The push comes as one New Westminster landlord recently warned tenants against installing air conditioners, despite the fact that the municipality had the highest per-capita rate of deaths during the June 2021 heat dome, a dangerous extreme heat event that caused the death of 619 people in British Columbia.

New Westminster includes several neighbourhoods full of older apartment buildings that often house elderly renters living on fixed incomes. During the June 2021 heat dome, Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said, many of the 28 deaths that occurred in New Westminster happened in these apartment areas.

Nakagawa and Coun. Tasha Henderson plan to introduce a motion at the next council meeting calling for better renter protections after several tenants received notices warning them not to install air conditioners.

Ryan Le Neal lives in a typical older rental building near New Westminster’s Moody Park. On June 1, Le Neal got a notice from his landlord warning tenants that management would not authorize “any tenants to install A/C units” and those who did were breaching a “material term of the tenancy” and could be held liable for any damage caused by an air conditioner.

Le Neal installed a portable air conditioner shortly after the 2021 heat dome when 619 people died. People were more at risk if they were low-income, elderly or living with a mental health condition or a disability.

Le Neal said temperatures in his apartment rose to 38 C during the heat dome and he was unable to sleep in his stifling apartment.

The notice Le Neal and other tenants received on June 1 warns that older buildings “are not equipped to maintain the high usage of electricity air conditioners require,” but Le Neal, who works as an elevator technician, said he checked with several electricians to make sure his small A/C unit is OK to run. He says his air conditioner uses about the same amount of electricity as a hairdryer.

On June 27, the province announced it would fund a BC Hydro program to give 8,000 free air conditioning units to low-income people, including renters living in apartment buildings and social housing.

Le Neal said he’s concerned that the notice he received would make some vulnerable tenants afraid to install their own air conditioner. Brook Jensen, an organizer with the New Westminster Tenants Union, said the group is aware of tenants in eight buildings who received identical notices.

Le Neal’s building, 1117 Hamilton St., is owned by a numbered holding company, and John Roderick Mackinnon is listed as the director of that company. The address listed for Mackinnon in company registry documents for another holding company is a Vancouver home owned by Dinesh and Krista Chand. B.C.’s Land Owner Transparency Registry lists Krista Chand as an interest holder of 1117 Hamilton St., along with Mackinnon.

Dinesh Chand previously came to the attention of New Westminster’s city council in 2019, when the landlord issued eviction notices to tenants two days after Christmas because he intended to renovate their building. At the time, the small Metro Vancouver municipality was struggling with a wave of renovictions that were affecting low-income tenants, many of whom were elderly.

The landlord’s lawyer, Michael Drouillard, told The Tyee that some air conditioning units can cause damage to buildings through water leaks, or use too much electricity. He said landlords are able to regulate the use of air conditioner through a tenancy agreement, and require the tenant to pay for any damages.

Drouillard said his client is aware that tenants can ask for accommodation to use an air conditioner, but the landlord of 1117 Hamilton hasn’t received any accommodation requests.

The notice that Le Neal received doesn’t include any information about making an accommodation request to use an air conditioner.

Nakagawa said city employees have been working with apartment building managers to try to designate at least one air-conditioned area in each building. But for people with disabilities or chronic health issues, that may not be adequate, Nakagawa said.

"We know that people who have chronic health issues, disabilities, elders who maybe can't leave their unit,” she said.

Currently, landlords in B.C. must be able to provide heating to tenants during the winter and municipalities can order landlords to fix heating systems if they’re not working. In New Westminster, a city bylaw says that landlords must provide heating equipment in rental units that are capable of keeping the temperature at at least 22 C in every room.

But there is no corresponding requirement for cooling, said Nakagawa.

That’s something municipal politicians attempted to resolve at a recent Union of BC Municipalities convention. But a resolution to require landlords to be able to cool a rental unit failed.

Nakagawa and Henderson plan to bring a motion forward at New Westminster’s next council meeting that calls for city staff to explore the option of creating a bylaw to mandate cooling standards. The motion suggests that such a bylaw would require systems to cool rooms to at least 26 C.

The motion also asks the city to write to the provincial Ministry of Housing to confirm that any upgrades to cool apartments wouldn’t trigger a rent increase or a renoviction of tenants.

Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health have also spoken out about the need to allow cooling systems in apartments and condos.

“Historically in the Lower Mainland, rental and strata housing units have tenancy agreements, or strata bylaws, that can prevent the installation of air conditioning and other cooling measures, sometimes because of concerns about the building envelope, power usage or aesthetics,” said Dr. Michael Schwandt, a medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health, in a statement released Thursday.

“However summers are now getting hotter in the Lower Mainland and we all need to reconsider previous practices.”

The health authorities say they are recommending strata councils and landlords remove barriers to installing air conditioners.

The Tyee also spoke to one Downtown Eastside outreach worker who said they were initially told a client who lives in a single-room occupancy hotel would not be eligible for one of the free air conditioners because the client did not have his own BC Hydro account.

However, when The Tyee reached out to BC Hydro, the Crown corporation clarified that people without a BC Hydro account and those who live in apartment buildings and SROs do qualify for the program, but that an application form needed to be updated to make that clear.

The Tyee is not naming the outreach worker because their employer did not authorize him to speak to the media.

There have been several heat waves this summer in B.C. and the province is currently experiencing the worst wildfire season on record. While temperatures haven’t yet risen to the dangerous levels seen from June 25 to July 1 in 2021, other regions around the globe have experienced the weather phenomenon. According to the Weather Network, four simultaneous heat domes are currently in place in the southwestern United States, the north Atlantic, Northern Africa and China. All have shattered temperature records.

While meteorologists initially said heat domes like the one British Columbia experienced are a one in 1,000-year event, Sarah Henderson, scientific director for environmental health services for the BC Centre for Disease Control, recently told CBC she expected to see another heat dome “within the decade.”  [Tyee]

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