New enforcement unit adds 'teeth' to B.C. tenancy laws
5-member unit investigates complex and urgent tenancy cases and can issue fines of up to $5K per day
Scott McGregor was just one week into his new job when he was assigned to investigate a housing dispute that would ultimately end with 65 people losing their mobile homes and a landlord losing out on her investment.
It was September 2018 and McGregor, 55, a former senior manager with Victoria police, had recently become the director of the British Columbia Residential Tenancy Branch's new compliance and enforcement unit.
"It was a really, really tragic set of circumstances all around," McGregor said from his office in Victoria, where he now leads a team of two compliance officers and two investigators.
The new landlord of the mobile home park in Northern B.C. had wanted to redevelop and expand it to adjacent Crown land to make way for workers of an anticipated LNG facility.
But she quickly discovered that the park was in a bad state of disrepair. She issued dozens of eviction notices, which the residents fought and won.
Then the Crown land sale didn't go through.
Realizing she wouldn't get a return on her investment, the landlord used a loophole to turn the entire property into green space. All the residents lost their homes.
"Yeah, so that was my first investigation," McGregor said.
22,000 hearings per year
British Columbia's Residential Tenancy Branch sets out regulations for all housing agreements between landlords and tenants in the province. It regulates rules like how much rents can increase and when landlords can evict tenants.
It's also where both parties can turn to resolve disputes; McGregor says the RTB arbitrators handle about 22,000 hearings per year.
But McGregor and housing critics agree that, until now, the branch's hearings didn't have any real consequences because there was no mechanism in place to enforce the outcome.
"There are impressions ... that there wasn't a lot of teeth in the legislation," McGregor said.
The new compliance and enforcement unit is part of the first phase of a series of recommendations issued last September from the province's Rental Housing Task Force in response to the housing crisis.
Other recent changes include funding to educate landlords and tenants about their rights, and increasing the number of RTB staff — which the Housing Ministry says has reduced call wait times from an average of 45 minutes in 2017 to only five minutes.
Fines up to $5,000 per day
McGregor says his staff take on urgent and complex cases, and can issue administrative penalties of up to $5,000 per day.
"I am really excited about it," he said. "I honestly feel like we can really make a difference here in an area that's affecting so many British Columbians."
McGregor has been in place since September, but the unit has only been fully staffed for three weeks. He says the unit has conducted about 30 investigations so far.
Some of the cases have been dismissed because of a lack of evidence, McGregor says, while others have been dealt with by simply issuing a verbal or written warning.
"In most cases we're achieving compliance just by letting them know we're here, there are consequences, they're very real, you should not ignore them," McGregor said.
Recently, the unit issued its first $5,000 fine against a landlord in Surrey who has appeared before the branch at five separate hearings for failing to make repairs and repeatedly trying to evict his tenant.
'Certainly an improvement'
Andrew Sakamoto, executive director of the Tenant Resource Advocacy Centre, says his organization wanted to see the province put forward bolder changes, but it's supportive of the new unit.
"Coming from nothing, this is certainly an improvement and I look forward to seeing what sort of difference that can make," Sakamoto said. "We'll have to see how it all plays out and whether or not that is enough staff to really make a dent."
McGregor is quick to point out that it's not just landlords he's going after. Of the 20-or-so active files he has on his desk, six involve tenants. Most often, he says, the tenants in those cases moved into their homes with no intention of paying rent.
David Hutniak, president of Landlord B.C., says he's a huge supporter of the new unit.
"We think this has been lacking for many years," Hutniak said. "I think there's only going to be good things coming out of it in the sense that both landlords and renters are going to know that there are consequences."