Critics doubt Residential Tenancies Branch will start saying no to landlords who push for rate hikes
For some renters, promised 2-year rent freeze will hinge upon body that has consistently ruled against them
A Manitoba government promise to freeze rents for two years will rely upon an oversight body that has consistently ruled in favour of landlords.
The province made the pledge this week in its new budget, which offered financial relief to all property owners, including landlords, by slashing their education property tax by 25 per cent this year.
In an attempt to also assist tenants, the Progressive Conservative government said it will prevent landlords from raising rents in 2022 and 2023.
But the one body standing in the way of that promise is the Residential Tenancies Branch, which is empowered to approve landlords' requests for above-guideline rent increases, provided they argue the material improvements they made to the property are significant enough they need higher rents.
And if history is any indication, the tenancies branch tends to approve rent hikes whenever they're asked.
Of the 310 requests to boost rent higher than the 2.4 per cent ceiling in the 2019-20 fiscal year, the branch approved every one — which impacted more than 20,000 units.
The document, obtained by the Opposition NDP last year through a freedom of information request, show some renters saw increases of between 30 and 50 per cent.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the RTB too often favours the property owners who call for rent increases.
"There needs to be a balance there, of course, to ensure that properties can be properly maintained and updated to keep with the times, but really we have to shift the balance more in favour of the renter right now because things are just getting less and less affordable for them," Kinew said.
The government says the difference this time around is the RTB will be asked to consider the education property tax rebate the landlords are getting.
'Kind of a directive' to RTB: Fielding
"What we're doing, and part of the legislation going forward, is they have to take that [rebate] into consideration," Finance Minister Scott Fielding said.
"Sometimes there's justifiable reasons why they may [need to raise rents, there may be some infrastructure improvements that happen … the same process when the NDP are in power and the conservatives are in power."
But by and large, Fielding said the government's instruction to the branch is "kind of a directive."
He added that under the former NDP government, all 2,079 rate hike requests in their last six years in power were also approved, though he wasn't aware if the requested hike amount was always accepted.
Josh Brandon, a community animator with the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, isn't confident the RTB will suddenly start rejecting most applications.
"It's very difficult for the Residential Tenancy Board to ascertain what are the costs that the landlords are paying that are associated with regular maintenance versus something that's a real improvement to the property," he said.
"Tenants could end up paying more even with the rent freeze."
Renters shortchanged: Brandon
He believes tenants received little in the budget, especially compared to the property owners who may receive hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.
In order to partially pay for the 25 per cent reduction in their education property tax, the province is cutting tax offsets (like the $700 tax credit) by 25 per cent as well. The government says freezing the rent will offset the loss of the higher credit, as renters would have paid more if the rent increased by the current 1.6 per cent cap.
Ed and Heather Olfert hope the branch starts to reject landlords more often.
They were slated to face a 18 per cent rent hike for their one-bedroom apartment in Osborne Village last year, until the couple put in the paperwork to appeal the decision of the Residential Tenancies Branch. Their landlord got wind and offered to greatly reduce the size of their rate hike so long as they pulled back their appeal.
"If we can get our rent frozen, we'll be very happy and we probably won't move," Heather said, "but if they can still get more money out of us, try to squeeze us, then I'm not going to be very happy."
"I won't stick around here then," Ed added.
The NDP is planning to introduce legislation that would address what Kinew believes is an unfair system for renters. His party's private member's bill would only pass if it receives the support of the Tory government.
With files from Camille Kasisi-Monet