City’s proposed tenant protection reforms will not change the status quo

On Thursday, December 10th, Vancouver City Council will vote on new Tenant Relocation and Protection Guidelines. Council will also vote on a list of recommendations to the Province for changes to the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA).

These basic changes and recommendations are a welcome first step, but ultimately fall short of what is necessary to protect affordable housing and begin solving the housing crisis in Vancouver. The new Tenant Relocation and Protection Guidelines deliver some notable improvements over existing city policy, but are fundamentally insufficient to stem the tide of displacement.

These changes are too little, but they are also too late for a City Council elected on the promise to end homelessness by 2015. The proposed guidelines will at best soften the blow of eviction for a small number of tenants. The new reforms only apply when a development permit has been approved, and as such exclude the large number of tenants who are illegally evicted before this stage. They also exclude the large number of tenants who live in secondary rental units and tenants who are evicted by renovations that do not require a development permit.

It is important to note that what the City has termed a “relocation policy” is actually closer to an evictions support strategy, because the necessary affordable housing for relocation does not exist and because the new rental and social housing being built is not reasonably affordable, especially for low-income people. Some of Carnegie Community Action Project’s main concerns about the City’s rental recommendations are as follows:

Vancouver needs a stronger Rate of Change bylaw

The existing rate of change guidelines stipulate that the demolition or change of use of any rental housing unit is not permissible unless a housing agreement provides a 1 for 1 replacement of such rental housing units, on or off site. The problem with the rate of change bylaw is that it does not include any requirements regarding affordability. In practice this has meant that developers and landlords tear down low-rent housing and replace it with rental buildings at double or triple the previous rents. Yet, the new guidelines (Appendix B) do not change or strengthen the rate of change by-laws to address this loophole.

We need the Right of First Refusal at the same rate

One of the potentially promising changes is that tenants will have a right to first refusal in the case of demolitions and renovations, which stipulates that they will be able to move back into their unit at rates slightly below the new market rent. The problem is that in the current market climate, this guarantee will not mean much. The buildings being demolished are often older buildings with lower rents and with low-income tenants. Even with a 20% discount, new market rental (frequently renting for $1,700 for a 1-bedroom) is far out of range for the average renter, and especially for low-income tenants on welfare. The City should add a stipulation which requires landlords to rent the units for the same rent after renovations or redevelopment.

The City’s request to the Province that rent increases be tied to the unit instead of the tenant should be applied to all rental units, not just SRO units

As part of their recommended amendments to the RTA (Appendix D), the City asks the Provincial government to create a special category for SRAs that would tie rent increases to the room or unit, as opposed to the tenant. This is an absolutely necessary amendment, but it is urgent that this recommendation be extended to all rental housing, not just SRO hotels.Tying rents to the unit instead of the tenant is one of the most effective ways to stabilize rents, hinder speculation, and prevent evictions and renovictions.

Implement stronger measures to protect low-income housing

Low income tenants are usually illegally evicted before development permits have been approved. Eviction of vulnerable tenants often happen without landlord’s going through proper permitting and tenants are often unaware of their rights and recourse. This problem is not addressed by the new guidelines and it is unclear how the City aims to address these loopholes.

Increase funding for community organizing

Tenant community organizing plays a crucial role in raising awareness of tenancy rights and in preventing illegal evictions. Often renters can’t take on their landlords alone because it is too dangerous and they risk more than they gain if they fight back. While we appreciate the report recommendation of a $40,000 grant to one or more non-profit societies with expertise in mediating landlord and tenant conflict – it is far from enough. Compared to the $80 mil increase in the annual police budget since 2008 and the millions of dollars each year provided as subsidies for developers through STIR, 40k is a grain of sand on the beach.

Build social housing, instead of expanding rent supplements programs

It is alarming that the City does not call on the Provincial government for expanded social housing programs, and instead continues to call for an expanded rent supplement program (Appendix C). Rent supplements are not only more expensive than building social housing, but they also fail provide security of tenure or add any new affordable housing units to the housing stock. Rent supplements are also a subsidy to market forces, most often ending up in the pockets of landlords who use them to charge higher rents. The City needs to immediately lobby the province and federal government for funding for social housing, and should set aside city-owned land for the development of social housing.

Address the underlying causes of rising rents and evictions

The City says it wants to protect tenants, but at the same time they are pushing through policies that accelerate the upscaling and demolition of affordable housing, especially housing for low-income tenants. What they give with one hand, they take with the other.

The Housing and Homelessness Strategy targets for new affordable housing (5000 new secured market rental housing, 5,000 social housing units and 2,900 supportive housing units by 2021) are insufficient. Moreover, because of the City’s recent watering down of the definition of affordable and social housing the actual number of units affordable to low-income people is significantly less than what it appears.

Most of this new housing, the City wants to provide through social mix developments. However, social mix accelerates displacement of low-income tenants and destroys more low-income housing than it creates. Although Woodward’s includes 125 units of welfare-rate social housing the climate of investment and gentrification it produced destroyed at least 404 privately owned SRO hotel rooms.