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The Patricia Hotel on East Hastings Street in Vancouver, pictured on Sept. 9, 2021, is now run as supportive housing with 195 units.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

New changes to British Columbia’s tenancy policies will make it more difficult for operators of supportive housing units to remove tenants who are putting other residents and staff at risk, say non-profit housing providers who maintain the change will make them more reluctant to take on difficult people with mental-health and addiction issues.

Operators of supportive housing units also say the new policy, which takes effect at the end of next month, could make it more difficult to find and keep staff, and could also put them at risk of disciplinary or legal action if a worker got hurt.

“Everyone is reeling about this,” said Micheal Vonn, the executive director of one of the province’s largest social and supportive housing operators, PHS Community Services. “We are painted into a corner. We want to keep supportive housing going but they [the province] have to find a way to do it without us getting sued by one group or another.”

The changes make it clear that tenants in supportive housing have the same protections under the Residential Tenancy Act as any other renter, a position civil liberties advocates applauded. But supportive housing providers say that means an eviction process for someone whose behaviour puts others at risk could take months.

Ms. Vonn and Carolina Ibarra, the executive director of Pacifica Housing, which operates mainly on Vancouver Island, said the tenants they serve have specific needs. They said those in supportive housing are not people down on their luck needing a cheap place to live, but rather, have some significant mental-health and addictions challenges.

Supportive housing providers offer their tenants help with meals and support for mental, physical or addiction problems, and provide life skills guidance.

“These are people with the highest acuity. What works for regular tenants doesn’t work for them,” said Ms. Ibarra.

Typically, if supportive housing operators are having difficulty with a resident, they will try to move that tenant to another room or another building, in order to reduce conflict with a neighbour, or they will clean up a room filled with hoarded materials. But, even if the tenant remains housed, that can count as an eviction and a tenant could appeal that to the province’s residential tenancy branch.

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Despite their concerns, operators welcomed the province’s move to allow them to do room checks without 24-hour warnings and to restrict visitors. Regular landlords do not have such powers.

The province’s new rules will allow operators to do “wellness checks” – regular room checks to make sure there is no hoarding or vermin, or rooms being taken over by gangs for drug storage – and policies that can limit or prohibit guest visits to a room or the entire building.

Lawyer Danielle Sabelli, at the Community Legal Assistance Society, said those changes are disappointing and unnecessary and will take away tenant rights.

However, she said requiring supportive housing operators to meet the stringent requirements of the Residential Tenancy Act before evicting someone is a much-needed improvement.

She said the new rules still offer providers options for dealing with problematic tenants, from calling police in serious cases of assault or by applying for an expedited ruling from the residential tenancy branch if they want an eviction.

“If a tenant has assaulted a landlord, there’s not a lengthy process. It can happen within 12 days.”

She also said more education for staff and more resources could help minimize the need for evictions.

“Safety has to be balanced with tenant autonomy and dignity,” she said. “And tenants shouldn’t have these policies imposed on them when they have no other choice of where to live.”

But Ms. Vonn, a lawyer who was policy director for the BC Civil Liberties Association for years, said the problems that supportive housing providers must confront have increased. Operators have had to ensure their tenants are not threatened by neighbours dealing drugs or weapons, setting fires or hoarding sometimes toxic materials.

“We’re not providing housing in any ordinary sense,” said Ms. Vonn. “This isn’t about a neighbour yelling at a neighbour. It’s threatening behaviour and we don’t have eight months to go through a process.”

Even seven or eight days can be a risk for staff and other tenants, she said.

B.C. introduced the new rules last week after the B.C. Court of Appeal issued a statement saying the province needed to provide clarity after a contentious case in which a tenant was challenging the no-guest policy at one supportive housing unit.

The Supreme Court and Court of Appeal ruled that the housing is transitional or temporary, even though the tenant had been there for three years, and so the tenancy law didn’t apply. But the appeal court’s statement said there was too much confusion over what was transitional and temporary and what was supportive and permanent.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Micheal Vonn's former role with the BC Civil Liberties Association. She served as the organization's policy director.

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