British Columbia's Official Opposition wants the legislature recalled this month to attack legal loopholes that allow landlords to skirt the province's residential-rent controls.
With vacancy rates hovering near zero in major urban markets such as Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna, NDP Leader John Horgan says the problems facing renters are reaching crisis levels.
"Were the legislature sitting today, we could be inside this building talking about the housing crisis in British Columbia," he told reporters outside the legislature on Tuesday.
Deputy Premier Rich Coleman, who is also the minister responsible for Housing, has promised to close a loophole that allows landlords to skirt rent-control rules by pushing tenants to sign fixed-term leases with vacate clauses. Tenants are then offered the option of leaving their units at the end of a year or remaining – after signing a new lease with a rent increase far in excess of the maximum, which is set for 2016 at 2.9 per cent.
Mr. Coleman is waiting for ministry staff to propose countermeasures to put an end to the tactic, which has been used to boost rents by as much as 30 per cent.
It is not clear if legislators must be sitting for the government to take action. Mr. Horgan said the issue should be debated in the legislature this fall, but the scheduled session has been abandoned and the government says it does not intend to recall the legislature until next February, just ahead of the 2017 provincial election. Mr. Horgan said an NDP government would commit to a legislative calendar that includes both a spring and fall session.
Concerns about the rental lease loophole have been charted by housing advocates across the province. Paul LaGace of the Kitimat Housing Resource Project says he has been raising the alarm for the past two years in his community.
"It's not an isolated situation," Mr. LaGace said.
His organization estimates that 80 per cent of the town's 1,300 rental units are offered only with fixed-term leases, leaving few alternatives. He said some landlords are bypassing the province's rent-control rules, which allow for one rent increase every 12 months, by negotiating new terms under the threat of being forced to vacate.
"It is a serious issue. And some landlords are circumventing the rent control, and it is hurting the most vulnerable."
He said seniors and people with disabilities are the first to be squeezed out when they can't meet the escalating rent, and his organization has brought a complaint to the provincial Residential Tenancy Branch for adjudication.
Mr. Coleman has said he does not have enough data to determine if the problem is widespread, but Mr. Horgan said it is something the province should have been tracking before now.
"Tenancy advocates have been talking about this for over a decade as a challenge. It's become acute now with zero vacancy rates in large urban centres, but we've known for some time it's a problem," he said.
He suggested the Housing Minister, who is also responsible for developing a liquefied natural gas industry, has not spent enough energy on minding the housing portfolio.
"Mr. Coleman's fixation with LNG at the expense of addressing issues for renters is, I think, the problem," Mr. Horgan said.
"The guy has been the Minister of Housing for 15 years. The guy brought in the amendments to the Residential Tenancy Act that created this loophole."
Mr. Coleman could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, but issued a statement that suggested the fix would require a legislative session to address. "Legislative amendments will take some time to complete. While this work is ongoing, landlords and tenants will continue to be subject to the existing process for fixed-term tenancy agreements," his statement read. " If the parties willingly enter into a legally binding agreement that spells out the terms and agreements for the rental agreement, they must abide by those terms."