Only someone with a heart of stone could be unmoved by testimonials from renters who appeared before Vancouver council last week to speak in favour of Councillor Jean Swanson’s renters’ rights motion.
There was an east-side mom whose children seldom had the same friends attend a birthday party because neighbouring families have been pushed out of rental properties being renovated or sold. A 76-year-old West End resident explained the vulnerability of seniors such as herself whose rents are below average because they’ve stayed put for many years. They face pressure from unscrupulous landlords to move, because rents can be jacked up when long-term tenants leave. A woman was near tears as she described the mental anguish caused by a protracted fight to stay in her apartment. She said she supports the motion because it’s the only thing standing between her and homelessness.
Ms. Swanson’s motion seeks greater protections against “renovictions,” the term for evicting tenants for renovations so landlords can increase the rent.
Renovictions are decried by tenants’ rights groups as cash grabs that pit powerless renters against the property rights of powerful landholders. Landlords say sometimes evictions for renovations are necessary, and caution that tipping the balance too far will lead to failures to invest in repairs and slums. Theoretically, the standards-of-maintenance bylaw requires rental properties to be kept up, but renters who complain too loudly tend to get evicted, particularly if the landlord lives upstairs.
Nothing divides rich and poor like property ownership; those who don’t own almost always have less power, and gains made by renters have been painstakingly slow.
This week, Vancouver’s new council stood up, at least partway, for renters, who comprise the majority of city households.
Councillors voted unanimously in favour of two parts of Ms. Swanson’s multi-layered motion. The first and most important was to demand that landlords who displace tenants during renovations allow them to temporarily move out and return to their suites on the same lease and rent terms. This is in line with recently amended provincial guidelines resulting from a court case that sided with a tenant. The right-of-return policy is huge because it removes the incentive for landlords to renovate solely to force long-term tenants out.
Council also asked staff to study what would happen if the city asked the provincial government, which controls much of this file under the Residential Tenancy Act, for power to craft Vancouver-specific rental protections. Ms. Swanson wants the Tenant Relocation and Protection Policy (TRPP), which gives tenants considerable assistance relocating, to apply to all rentals, including basement suites. Currently, the only time the city can mandate the TRPP is in cases where development permits are issued and never for suites in single-family homes. She also wants the city to have power to regulate rent increases during and between tenancies.
Did the heart-wrenching stories heard over hours of public presentations move this politically disparate council to partly embrace this motion made by its most left-wing member? Perhaps. But it’s equally likely this was simply prudent politics. All the candidates who won a seat on council know the party that governed before them was turfed because it was seen to have failed on the housing file. Renters, if they are angry enough, do vote.
While a solo renter has little political sway, there is strength in numbers. Members of the fledgling Vancouver Tenants Union turned out in droves to speak to Ms. Swanson’s motion, and its members include some formidably intelligent, committed people. Even most property owners knew enough to steer clear of the hearings. You can bet that in the background, they will continue to lobby against greater renter protection. But it’s unseemly for them to publicly cry “poor me” in this political climate.
Motives aside, what matters most is that council with this motion has acknowledged the affordability crisis and indicated a willingness to push back against powerful landholders. Vancouver’s vacancy rate is still less than 1 per cent. And average rents in the city shot up 23 per cent between 2012 and 2017. Until more subsidized housing is built, existing affordable rental stock must be protected.