Vancouver tenants find 'strength in numbers' to fight soaring costs, evictions in city's hot housing market

​Rising rental costs, evictions and a scarcity of units in Vancouver's densely populated West End were among the reasons for Gail Harmer's decision to join the Vancouver Tenants Union, which is advocating for the rights and protection of tenants.

'So many people are getting pushed out of their homes,' says Wendy Pedersen of the Vancouver Tenants Union

A volunteer with the Vancouver Tenants Union, which hopes to represent thousands of renters across the city for an annual membership fee of $1 a year. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

Rising rental costs, evictions and a scarcity of units in Vancouver's densely populated West End were among the reasons why Gail Harmer joined a group that is taking a new approach to advocating for the rights and protection of tenants.

The Vancouver Tenants Union formed last spring in response to a growing number of renters who say they fear eviction or being priced out of their homes and neighbourhoods. The group's membership has grown to nearly 1,000 people across the city.

Harmer said while she's been "exceptionally lucky" in having no problems with her tenancy, she joined the union to help those around her who fear eviction, as landlords change and their units and buildings fall into disrepair.

"The principle of union is that there is strength in numbers of the people who are affected," she said.

Wendy Pedersen, a steering committee member, said the union was formed to help educate renters about their rights and provide practical and emotional support to people in disputes with their landlords.

"Even if people know their rights, they can't make complaints or push back too hard against their landlord without risking eviction and backlash of various forms," Pedersen said. "When they come together as a group, they are way more secure."

'The housing crisis is out of control'

In 2011, more than 50 per cent of Vancouver households were rentals, says Statistics Canada in the latest numbers it has available.

The group initially formed to support low-income renters in run-down single-room accommodations in the city's Downtown Eastside, but Pedersen said the need for a citywide union became apparent as more people outside the area contacted them looking for help.

"The housing crisis is out of control and so many people are getting pushed out of their homes," she said.

Regulations in B.C. cap annual rent increases for an existing tenant in a unit, but landlords are free to raise rents by any amount when a renter moves out.

Rising rental costs, evictions and a scarcity of units in Vancouver's densely populated West End were among the reasons for Gail Harmer's decision to join a group that is taking a new approach to advocating for the rights and protection of tenants. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Pedersen said that gave landlords an incentive to take advantage of loopholes in the regulations by flipping leases or giving notice of their intention to renovate or redevelop a site to push out tenants.

"When someone moves out, the rents are jacked up two or three times higher, or beyond what people can afford," she said.

The union has rallied around some tenants facing eviction over renovations and successfully helped them keep their homes, Pedersen said.

Abusing regulations to increase profits

David Hutniak, chief executive officer of LandlordBC, said it's frustrating to see some landlords abuse regulations to increase profits.

"That is not how the industry operates. It's certainly not best practice," he said.

The bulk of rental housing in B.C. is secondary units, such as basement suites or condominiums bought and rented as investment properties, Hutniak said. Unlike landlords whose sole business is renting apartments, these landlords don't always educate themselves on the regulations.

"It just never ceases to amaze me that someone decides to do a rental and they don't know what the heck the Residential Tenancy Act is. I mean, why would you expose yourself to that kind of risk?" he said.

"You're not going to know your customers' rights and responsibilities either."

A recent Vancouver Tenants' Union convention included several workshops for renters. (Doug Kerr/CBC)

LandlordBC launched an online registry last year for landlords to promote themselves and learn about the regulations in the process of signing up for the service, Hutniak said.

B.C.'s NDP government closed a number of regulatory loopholes in recent months.

Hutniak said the changes were needed as loopholes were increasingly abused by some landlords in recent years, tarnishing the industry.

'The natural consequence of capitalism'

The changes were also welcomed by the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, but spokeswoman Zuzana Mudrovic said with skyrocketing land values and demand outpacing supply, prices will only go up.

"It's just the natural consequence of capitalism," she said. "What would prevent that? In the absence of a rent freeze, I'm not sure."

The Vancouver Tenants' Union wants to see a freeze and stricter long-term controls that would prevent significant increases between tenant turnovers.

Members of the Vancouver Tenants Union say they hope to create housing policies that better serve renters. (Doug Kerr/CBC)

Pedersen said there are better systems in Quebec or Prince Edward Island, where rent control applies to housing units, not people, so the cap remains in place when tenants change.

But Hutniak said freezing rental prices would only dissuade the development of more properties, which is desperately needed to improve affordability.

"If we had a three- or four-per-cent vacancy rate, (we) wouldn't be having this conversation," he said.

Canada-wide drop in vacancy rates 

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. reports vacancy rates in 2017 fell below two per cent for many cities including Metro Vancouver, the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa, Charlottetown, Victoria and Kelowna, B.C.

The agency said while availability shrank in those cities, prices climbed.

The Vancouver Tenants Union launched in April 2017. (Vancouver Tenants Union)

The average cost of a rental unit in Kelowna last year was $1,045 a month, an 8.6 per cent increase from 2016.

The only exception was Charlottetown, where the province imposed a cap and average rents remained steady between 2016 and 2017 at $825 a month.

Countrywide, the federal agency said average vacancy rates in cities last year fell to three per cent in October, down from 3.7 per cent a year earlier.