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British Columbia B.C. critics slam funding cuts to renters’ protection agency

Amid an ongoing affordable housing crisis in and around Vancouver, renters and their advocates say British Columbia should have earmarked more – not less – money to a provincial agency struggling to protect their rights and settle disputes with landlords.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Amid an ongoing affordable housing crisis in and around Vancouver, renters and their advocates say British Columbia should have earmarked more – not less – money to a provincial agency struggling to protect their rights and settle disputes with landlords.

Last week, the pre-election budget announced the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) will receive $8.4-million next fiscal year compared with $8.6-million this year, which the government says reflects a return to normal after a one-time increase to help reduce a backlog in cases.

A spokesperson for the Natural Gas Development Ministry, the ministry currently in charge of housing, provided stats this week that showed the number of calls to the RTB this fiscal year are on pace to surpass last year's record of roughly 307,000.

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Last July, 34 arbitrators were currently hearing cases, which are administered over the phone, but that dropped to 29 this January, according to the latest official data.

As of this January, the percentage of callers who abandon their initial attempts to reach the agency dropped to 11.6 per cent from about 23 per cent last July, which is when The Globe and Mail first looked at these stats.

The average time each caller waited went up from 34 minutes to 39 in January.

Critics argue that's not good enough for a system they say is so slow and complex it leaves many renters in the Vancouver region feeling they often have little choice but to accept a landlord's terms, even if they're problematic – or illegal.

Andrew Sakamoto, executive director at Vancouver's Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre (TRAC), said he routinely hears from tenants too exasperated with the system to pursue justice and was hoping that this year's budget would increase the money available beyond the roughly $8-million the RTB has received over the past seven years.

"It's very disappointing that instead of a small cut there wasn't a big increase in funding," he said. "TRAC has a good relationship with the Residential Tenancy Branch and I do think that they do a relatively good job with the resources they have.

"But they just don't have the funding required: to staff the phone lines they need to to address all the calls; to have enough arbitrators to take on all the hearings and applications they get; and to do a good job of critically thinking about the decisions they hand down."

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Prices of single-family homes have dropped in the wake of B.C. introducing a foreign-buyer tax to cool the market last summer, but rents remain a disproportionate amount of the average person's income in Metro Vancouver. With vacancy rates hovering near zero in Vancouver, some landlords have found loopholes to throw out tenants in order to chase bigger rents.

Those tactics include using vacate clauses in fixed-term contracts, which allow landlords to demand entirely new leases – with unlimited rent increases – at the end of a specified time period, typically a year; so-called "renovictions," in which a landlord legally evicts a tenant for major renovations and then doubles or even triples the rent for whoever moves in next.

David Hutniak, CEO of Landlord B.C., which represents the rental housing industry, praised the Residential Tenancy Branch for recently improving the average time it takes to enforce possession orders to force out problem tenants. Still, he added that hiring more arbitrators would be a welcome move for all parties. He said the RTB signalled last year that the doubling of dispute filing fees from $50 to $100 was, in part, to help add more of these staff members.

Vancouver MLA David Eby, the New Democratic Party's housing critic, said he was surprised fewer arbitrators were currently hearing cases compared to last summer, according to the latest data.

"They said [doubling the fee] was to increase services for people," he said. "But what we see now is that was just a cash grab, there will not be an increase in services."

Kristina Lemieux, a freelance arts administrator, said friends of friends still approach her about how to deal with the branch after she successfully won an appeal against a landlord who tried to jack her rent up far beyond the allowable increase.

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"Mostly I tell them the goal of my fighting the eviction was not to stay in my home," she said. "The goal was to make a stand, because I had the time, the education and the capacity to do so."

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