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To Protect Renters from Displacement, BC Needs Vacancy Control

It could offer more security. Why are some so quick to dismiss it?

Elliot Rossiter 13 Oct 2023The Tyee

Elliot Rossiter is a faculty member in the department of philosophy at Douglas College.

At the Union of BC Municipalities conference last month, Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon was asked about whether the province was considering vacancy control, which would tie legally allowable rent increases to units rather than to individual tenancies.

The context underlying this question is the recent advocacy for vacancy control by the BC General Employees’ Union, which was supported by numerous groups in the province such as the BC Federation of Labour, the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, the Vancouver Tenants Union and the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre.

Despite the advocacy of these groups, Kahlon affirmed that the province was not contemplating a vacancy control policy.

Kahlon further noted that he was following the recommendation of the provincial government’s task force on rental housing: “When you bring advisers together to give you advice, you should take it.”

The province’s Rental Housing Task Force explicitly rejected vacancy control in Recommendation 10 of its 2018 final report.

But the discussion in this report does not provide adequate grounds for rejecting calls to reconsider vacancy control in our present context.

The case for rethinking vacancy control

First, the report does not engage in any robust analysis of vacancy control; it simply reiterates boilerplate criticisms from landlords and developers that such a policy would hinder upkeep, reduce supply and increase bureaucracy.

There are convincing reasons for doubting these standard criticisms of vacancy control. The full 57-page BCGEU report by Daniela Aiello presents a remarkably thorough analysis and defence of vacancy control, including detailed rebuttals of common objections made by the development industry.

While critics sometimes assert that a consensus of economists opposes vacancy control, Aiello notes that there is a diversity of views in economics scholarship on the impacts of vacancy control policies in various contexts.

A fuller appreciation of these views suggests that vacancy control has significant promise for preventing displacement, reducing inequality and discrimination, and realizing greater economic security for renters.

Furthermore, according to Aiello, the evidence that vacancy control policies by themselves cause reductions in the development of rental supply is weak. Likewise is the evidence that the deregulation of tenant protections causes increases to the rental supply, including within the history of British Columbia’s rental housing market.

Second, it is worth recognizing that the Rental Housing Task Force report rejects vacancy control not definitively but conditionally: the conclusion of Recommendation 10 encourages the province to collect data on bad-faith evictions to assess the effectiveness of tenant protections and “to make adjustments, if necessary.”

A bad-faith eviction occurs where a tenant is evicted under false pretences, such as where the stated rationale may be for landlord use or other provisions in the Residential Tenancy Act, but where the real reason is to remove existing tenants from a unit in order to charge higher market rents to new tenants.

It is not clear what, if any, data the province is collecting on this topic. But recent research from the University of British Columbia and First United demonstrates that bad-faith evictions are a significant problem within the province’s rental market and that current tenant protections are ineffective.

Thus, following the logic of Recommendation 10 of the Rental Housing Task Force report, adjustments to tenant protections, which should include revisiting vacancy control, are necessary.

Research shows that BC is a hotbed for profit-driven displacement

In a report for the Balanced Supply of Housing project at UBC, Silas Xuereb and Craig Jones show that British Columbia has significantly higher rates of evictions than the rest of the country and that 85 per cent of the province’s evictions are no-fault evictions.

The report attributes the prevalence of these evictions to pressures around profit-driven displacement, where the financial incentives of selling a property or raising rents lead landlords to evict tenants from their homes, despite these tenants paying rent and respecting the property.

An interim report from First United’s B.C. Eviction Mapping project also confirms the prevalence of these forms of profit-driven displacement. This report further notes the disproportionate effects of this kind of displacement on Indigenous, racialized and disabled members of the community — a significant portion of whom are evicted into homelessness.

At a bare minimum, the procedure for engaging in evictions for a landlord’s use should be reformed so that the burden of proof falls on the landlord to demonstrate in advance that this use is genuine before a tenant is evicted.

But while the laxness of current procedures is a problem, the more fundamental issue is the incentive that exists for landlords to displace tenants and significantly raise rents for units in between tenancies, which would be most effectively limited through vacancy control.

This incentive contributes to both the slow violence of harassment and neglect experienced by many renters feeling pressured to leave their homes and the acute violence of renters losing their homes and having their place-based connections severed through displacement.

Given the prevalence of bad-faith evictions, the province should enact a vacancy control policy that removes the incentives for landlords and investors to displace tenants for the sake of increased profit.

A call for ‘constructive politics’

A common view expressed by critics of vacancy control is that the judgments of economists should be taken as decisive in resolving debates about the policy.

For instance, LandlordBC’s white paper against vacancy control cites the oft-quoted perspectives of economists Paul Krugman and Assar Lindbeck that economics as a discipline is united against this policy because of its supposedly destructive effects on rental housing markets.

But aside from the fact that one can find disagreement among economists on this issue, the question of whether to implement a vacancy control policy is one that should be decided within the domain of politics and not of economics.

Housing markets are not the product of immutable laws of economics; instead, they are the result of our contingent and collective choices, and we can choose to do better in ensuring that housing markets respect the right to adequate housing.

While the perspectives of economists are valuable to consider, they should not necessarily be taken as decisive on their own because they must be weighed against a broader set of views within political communities, including tenants whose lives are most affected by the structure of rent regulations.

Vacancy control is ultimately a political question because it is fundamentally a question of values.

It is a question of whose interests should be advanced and protected in housing markets — investors who profit from turning over units to charge higher rents, or tenants who fear displacement.

Any defensible view of justice in housing politics would not allow investors to profit from the suffering of tenants through displacement. We should enact stronger tenant protections, such as vacancy control, to stop the injustice of profit-driven displacement.

The rhetoric of “crisis” can sometimes be deployed to justify limiting tenant rights for the sake of expanding our housing supply, where it is asserted that we must do all that we can to remove barriers to investment and development because we are in a housing crisis.

It is true that we need more housing; but this is no excuse to disregard the rights that tenants have to adequate housing, which should include being protected from the fear of displacement.

There is also no meaningful understanding of the housing crisis that does not reflect on the past: the history of housing in Vancouver is a history of speculation, dispossession and displacement from colonization through to the present.

There is no resolution to the housing crisis that does not involve putting an end to profit-driven displacement. To hold otherwise risks perpetuating injustices rather than remedying them.

To genuinely address the problem of profit-driven displacement, we should engage in what Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò refers to as “constructive politics,” which would move beyond performative consultation or tokenistic representation in housing politics.

A constructive housing politics would aim to share decision-making power with those who lack adequate housing, including those who have been displaced or who are at risk of displacement, and to strive together to alleviate housing insecurity and deprivation in concrete and meaningful ways.

In this spirit, the provincial government should engage with renters more substantively to create and enact a well-designed vacancy control policy that stops profit-driven displacement and that liberates tenants from the fear of losing their homes.  [Tyee]

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