British Columbia

Landlord accused of pulling 'bait and switch' with apartments, using deceptive leases

Tiffany MacDonald wasn’t expecting luxury when she moved her eldest son into an apartment in Vancouver’s West End as he began his first year of college, but she did expect him to live in the home he'd seen in an online listing.

Vancouver's Plan A Real Estate Services defends use of 'travel accommodation' agreements

Tiffany MacDonald reviews the documentation for her son's apartment lease in Vancouver in her home in Ajax, Ont. She says the unit looked 'nothing' like it did in the listing. (CBC News)

Tiffany MacDonald wasn't expecting luxury when she moved her eldest son into an apartment in Vancouver's West End as he began his first year of college, but she did expect him to live in the home he'd seen in an online listing.

The Haro Street apartment, managed by Plan A Real Estate Services, was described as a renovated unit, and the pictures shared by the landlord showed a clean, modern space, according to MacDonald.

But when her son and his two roommates arrived with their parents to take possession last month, MacDonald alleges the reality was much different.

"The apartment itself — nothing is what the pictures are," she said from the family home in Ajax, Ont.

Photos shared with CBC News show different appliances, counters and cupboards in the kitchen, and different flooring and countertops in the bathroom, compared to Plan A's listing. Other photos show mould in the washing machine, water damage under the bathroom sink, a broken shower head, broken locks on the windows in the bedrooms, and a patio door that would not fully close.

"I felt I had failed my kid. I couldn't believe I was leaving him here," she said.

The bathroom in MacDonald's son's apartment on Haro Street is shown as it appeared in a listing from Plan A Real Estate Services at left, and as it appeared in person at right. (Plan A Real Estate Services/CBC News)

This type of allegation is nothing new for Plan A. CBC reported on a similar case where tenants say they were misled about the condition of their unit, and the company has been penalized by the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) on at least two occasions for what tenants describe as "bait and switch" manoeuvres with the apartments they were promised.

MacDonald's story lines up with those RTB decisions in other ways as well.

When her son and his roommates signed a 10-month agreement with Plan A beginning on Oct.1, it wasn't a standard apartment lease.

Instead, it's what Plan A calls a "Furnished Travel Accommodation Tenancy Agreement." A copy of the agreement, provided by MacDonald, includes a clause that says both the landlord and the tenant agree B.C.'s Residential Tenancy Act does not apply.

Plan A has come under fire from the RTB on numerous occasions for its use of these agreements, and the provincial body has described them as blatant attempts to avoid accountability under B.C. law.

An RTB investigator has recommended that administrative penalties be levied against Plan A in response, though a final decision has yet to be made after a judge removed the RTB's director of compliance and enforcement as the decision-maker.

Landlord defends practices

Anoop Majithia, Plan A's managing director, denied MacDonald's claim that her son did not get the unit he agreed to rent.

"In all material aspects, the apartment was exactly the same: building address, unit number, size, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, balcony etc," he wrote in an email.

Majithia said the kitchen and bathroom appeared to be different because of recent updates, and maintained that the company responded to all of the students' maintenance requests promptly.

The kitchen in MacDonald's son's apartment on Haro Street is shown as it appeared in a listing from Plan A Real Estate Services at left, and as it appeared in person at right. (Plan A Real Estate Services/CBC News)

He also asserted that Plan A only uses travel accommodation agreements after determining that a tenant is using the property for vacation or travel.

"If it's the tenant's primary residence, they get the standard long-term lease," he said.

Asked how the company determined that a 10-month tenancy agreement for a group of students was for travel purposes, Majithia said MacDonald's son and his roommates all signed their initials to a clause in the agreement confirming it was for travel.

MacDonald said this was her and her son's first time dealing with a rental property, and no one noticed the unusual terms in the agreement.

'Not an uncommon rental scam'

Robert Patterson, a lawyer and legal advocate at the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, said he has seen cases where landlords pull a "bait and switch" with a rental property.

"It's not an uncommon rental scam," he said, adding that tenants from out of province or other countries tend to be targeted.

He said he's also heard of other cases where landlords use travel accommodation agreements to try to avoid renter protections.

But simply calling something "travel accommodation" doesn't make it so in the eyes of the law.

"The core question at the end of the day is, is this person renting this as their home or renting it while they're on vacation?" Patterson said.

"It is a very simple question to answer."

A review of the 52 most recent decisions about Plan A from the RTB turned up a number of concerns about the company's business practices. In 11 of those decisions, it's specified that the tenants had signed travel accommodation agreements rather than traditional leases.

In one case where the RTB found that Plan A had wrongly withheld a tenant's security deposit after she had moved out, an arbitrator wrote that these agreements are "attempts to rent a unit, falsely under the guise of travel or vacation accommodation, and contract outside of the act."

The arbitrators in some of these cases point out that if a tenant has to pay a security deposit and arrange for electricity through BC Hydro, the arrangement can hardly be considered a vacation rental.

Two cases of tenants who said the company pulled a "bait and switch" with their apartments both involved travel accommodation agreements.

In both cases, the arbitrator rejected any suggestion that the Residential Tenancy Act didn't apply and ordered Plan A to pay back double the tenants' security deposits.

In one 2019 case, an unnamed tenant said the unit he moved into was dirty and damaged, and he was unable to use the bedroom, kitchen and parts of the bathroom for the month he lived there.

The unidentified tenant quoted in a March 2021 decision said he'd signed an agreement to rent a specific unit, but Plan A told him it was no longer available and moved him into a less desirable basement suite instead.

The tenant told the board he tried to end his tenancy, but Plan A threatened to keep his security deposit.

"The undisputed evidence is that the tenant was not provided the rental unit agreed upon in the tenancy agreement … and that the landlord behaved in any manner they chose to force the tenant into accepting unfavourable circumstances," the decision says. 

Decision coming on possible penalties for Plan A

Majithia of Plan A alleged that in the cases identified by CBC, each of the tenants had agreed their rentals were for travel purposes, but changed their minds later.

"None of these tenants had the right to switch the agreed upon use for the property and did not get consent from Plan A to do so," he said.

He added that residents are only moved into different suites from the ones they were promised in "very rare and exceptional circumstances," including necessary maintenance.

"I 100-per-cent agree that tenants should know exactly what they are renting before they sign an agreement and should receive the same unit, in the same condition when they move in," Majithia said.

He said to make sure that happens, Plan A insists that all prospective tenants visit a suite in person or do a live video tour.

MacDonald's son signed a 10-month travel accommodation agreement for an apartment in this building on Haro Street in Vancouver's West End. (Kiran Singh/CBC News)

According to a B.C. Supreme Court judgment handed down earlier this year, a senior RTB investigator reviewed Plan A's conduct in response to complaints, and recommended administrative penalties in connection with its use of these agreements in 152 cases.

Scott McGregor, the RTB's director of compliance and enforcement, told Plan A in a scathing Oct. 28, 2020 letter that investigators have identified "serious, deliberate and repeated contraventions" of the law, the judgment says.

McGregor was supposed to make the final call on any penalties, but he has been prohibited from deciding the matter after a judge ruled that his letter showed evidence he had prejudged the case.

Majithia said Plan A is currently working with the RTB to get "clarity" on when travel accommodation agreements are appropriate.

A spokesperson for Attorney General David Eby, B.C.'s minister responsible for housing, told CBC that a decision has yet to be made on whether Plan A will be penalized for its use of these travel accommodation agreements. Eby declined to comment for this story.

As for MacDonald's son and his roommates, they moved out of the apartment last week after they say Plan A failed to fix the problems with their unit. 

MacDonald said she isn't expecting the students' $1,900 security deposit to be returned, but she wants other families to be aware of the potential pitfalls of renting from Plan A.

"If I can help one person to not go through the nightmare we had to go through, it'll be worth it," she said.

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