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A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled that an east Vancouver housing co-op that failed to get tenants with extra bedrooms to move into smaller units was “oppressive and unfairly prejudicial” to families who needed the extra space but couldn’t get it.

And, in a case that speaks volumes about the current tensions and conflicts over the lack of low-cost housing in the region, Justice Francesca Marzari noted the co-op amended its policies in 2018 to make it even more difficult to get “over-housed” households – those with more bedrooms than people living in the unit – to move.

“I am unable to conclude that the board reached a fair resolution of conflicting interests, or that such amendments can fairly be said to be in the best interests of the co-op,” she wrote. “In a co-operative housing association where all the units are collectively owned and where the unit allocation for the last 40 years has been on the basis of housing need, this is a significant departure.“

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Justice Marzari ordered the association to make changes to its policy so the one-bedroom-per-occupant allocation is followed and to require that any overhoused tenants take the first or, at most, second smaller unit that became available.

The decision is the result of a lawsuit launched by the parents of a family of four who had been living in a two-bedroom basement suite for six years while other members of the co-op continued to occupy three- or four-bedroom units even after their families shrank.

The lawyer representing the parents, who aren’t being identified because there is a publication ban on their children’s names, said the decision was bold and unique.

“When initially researching, it was difficult to find cases on point. There was nothing like this,” said Deborah Labun.

People in the co-op and non-profit-housing sectors say the decision will push providers to ensure their allocation policies are fair.

In Vancouver, where there is a microscopically small vacancy rate for rentals and even dumpy single-family houses can go for $1-million or more, the issue of overhousing has been a hot topic. One economist has calculated that there are 800,000 empty bedrooms in the region, largely the result of older couples staying on in the large homes they raised families in.

That issue is even more acute for those in subsidized housing projects, which have become more attractive to those searching for affordable homes. Those projects, where tenants jammed into too-small units typically know all the details of who has extra bedrooms in their complex, also operate on the principle that housing should be allocated fairly on the basis of household size and composition.

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“It’s a huge issue, the big issue in the sector,” said Thom Armstrong, executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C. He said many co-ops were built in the 1980s with often vague agreements about how to deal with the issue of matching household size to unit size.

As stressed families fight for more space in a co-op or non-profit, they can run into the same problem as the family in the lawsuit – policies that don’t seem to be clear cut or effective in getting people to move to the right size of unit.

“And now you’re trying to apply it when there’s a crisis in housing,” Mr. Armstrong said.

Many boards and housing managers are having a difficult time as a result.

“It’s a question of balancing the responsible use of a scarce resource versus security of tenure,” he said. “You want to keep people in the community, but you want to use your resources wisely.”

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