photos: Photo courtesy the Vancouver Tenants Union.

Right to rent: Introducing the Vancouver Tenants Union

July Cover Story: The rent is still too damn high! Tenants unionize to fight back

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On a bright afternoon in early June, I meet Sarah (her name has been changed to protect her identity), a renter in Metro Vancouver and organizer with the newly formed Vancouver Tenants Union.

Sarah is a mother of two, who relocated to the West Coast from eastern Canada. Since arriving in Vancouver, she has struggled to find adequate and affordable housing for her family.

"When I first moved to Vancouver, I felt pressured to find a place, and wound up signing a lease for an overpriced one bedroom in New West. Now my kids are in school, and we have an eviction notice," she says. "I want a home, but I know I can never buy a home. I'm born and raised in Canada, I work seven days a week, and I can barely afford to live here."

Sarah's story is not unique. Accounting for more than 50 per cent of Vancouver's population, renters in the city continue to find themselves in precarious or vulnerable positions, made to feel defenseless against the whims of their landlords. It is this sense of powerlessness that the newly formed Vancouver Tenants Union hopes to combat through connection, action, resistance, and organizing.

Cleaning up the Act
"We are trying to encourage a feeling of collectivity by bringing people together so that they don't feel so alone in their housing struggles," explains Kelly Gerlings, one of the union's founding members. "We are trying to build on the power associated with people coming together and knowing their rights."

In Vancouver, many people either know a renter, or are a renter, who has been wrongfully evicted, renovicted or demovicted, have had their privacy breached, struggled to get repairs done, been intimidated, or have experienced a myriad of other disruptions and disadvantages as a direct result of the imbalance of power between landlord and tenant.

Coupled with a 0.5 per cent vacancy rate, skyrocketing rent prices, and problematic policy works to ensure that renters in Vancouver are left in an unsatisfactory situation.

"In B.C. there is a systemic bias to favour landlords. It sort of goes without saying that real estate and development have been overly represented by the provincial and municipal governments in power for the last several years," says advocate, Liam McClure.

The Residential Tenancy Act is the provincial law that states what your rights are as a tenant. The Residential Tenancy Branch is the government office that provides information about the act, and where both tenants and landlords can file rental complaints.

"The tenancy policies prevalent in the [act] reflects the government's allegiance to landlords," says Derya Akay who has learned the ins-and-outs of the act while fighting his own landlord at the Belvedere, an apartment building at Main and 10th that is being threatened with renoviction. "Even the way that you file an arbitration serves the landlord more than the individual. The [branch] expects you to have extensive legal capability, which isn't the case for most tenants in Vancouver that are under pressure or attack."

A landlord's perspective
"Both landlords and tenants are entitled to justice under the Residential Tenancy Act and the Residential Tenancy Branch needs to deliver that. I would say that it's not delivering that well for either party right now," asserts Landlord BC executive director David Hutniak. "There is definitely a funding gap that needs to be addressed at the branch level. Staff are overworked and under-resourced, and interacting with them as a tenant or a landlord is cumbersome."

Landlord BC is a provincial organization that provides education, resources and support to landlords and property managers across B.C. In response to the newly formed tenants union, Hutniak stresses the importance in the two organizations working together.

"We totally appreciate that there is huge frustration and concern on behalf of renters in B.C. Housing markets with vacancy rates that are persistently very low, makes us concerned too," says Hutniak. "We understand why renters would see a value in forming a renter alliance, and there's actually a lot of things that we should be collaborating on here. Many don't realize that our industry, of being responsible landlords, is aligned with a lot of the union's concerns."

When considering the mounting rental affordability crisis, Hutniak suggests that the government needs to provide more incentives and support to renters, as well as to the private sector.

"Landlord BC has been a very strong, vocal voice for renter support programs, and until we see a three or four per cent vacancy rate, the government needs to really look at helping those who need help the most, with rental supplemental programs," he says. "The government also needs to provide some incentives to get the private sector to build rental housing.

“Without support we're competing with the condo developers, and we just can't build an affordable product."

Fixed-term leases
Included in the act is the controversial fixed-term lease provision, which has been extensively used by landlords as a loophole for eviction and raising rents in Vancouver since the act was amended in the early 2000s.

This caveat allows landlords to skirt rentcontrol rules enforced in the Residential Tenancy Act by pushing tenants to sign fixed-term leases with vacate clauses, giving landlords the power to evict tenants or increase the rent with little warning. McClure describes the fixedterm lease provision as being "just one example of the exceptional gifts given to landlords in Vancouver," with the measure working to actively undermine tenants.

Because the fixed-term lease loophole is largely unregulated, there is little data on the true reach of this issue.

Despite this, throughout Vancouver, there are countless stories of tenants being negatively impacted as a direct result of landlords utilizing this lease.

"We've heard a lot about landlords misusing this agreement. There's a cohort of our industry that have taken advantage of the fixed-term lease loophole, and we very publicly denounce that kind of behaviour," notes Hutniak.

Most commonly, once the fixed-term lease expires, landlords increase the rent of a unit beyond the Residential Tenancy Act's regulated limit, and evict tenants if they are unable or unwilling to pay the extra costs.

In some cases, landlords have increased the price of a unit by up to 30 per cent.

This issue is exacerbated by the city's incredibly low vacancy rates, which pushes people to sign precarious rental agreements, or makes them feel pressured to pay more than they can afford.

Provisions like this illuminate the kinds of bureaucratic obstacles renters are forced to endure. Despite being declared a fundamental human right by the United Nations, accessing and maintaining housing in Vancouver—and across B.C.—has become an arduous task, with the government and system mostly working to support the city's booming real estate industry.

It is important to note that the few rights afforded to tenants in Vancouver are, in general—much worse than the rest of Canada, in fact. Vancouver's housing policies are some of the weakest in the country. "Most provinces don't operate this way. I'm from Montreal, and in Quebec tenants have more rights. The majority of people living in Vancouver think that this is normal and that's bad because it desensitizes people," says Sarah.

500 strong
Conceived by frustrated renters and members of local housing rights and advocacy groups, the Vancouver Tenants Union was formed in response to Vancouver's worsening rental situation.

Now in its fourth month, the union's message of tenant solidarity has resonated with a considerable number of Vancouverites, already accruing more than 500 members from nearly every corner of the city. Their monthly meetings are led and coordinated by an interim 15-person steering committee, who are for the moment, responsible for guiding the organization's progress.

The union says it wants to give power back to the people and help to mitigate the sense of urban alienation that has, for years, worked to disenfranchise renters.

Mirroring labour movements of the past, the union intends to unite tenant voices in solidarity so that they can better fight against the inequitable policies and landlords who take advantage of them.

In effect, they hope that by equipping individuals with information, tools, legal supports, mutual aid, and community, tenants will be better informed about their rights, and more organized to resist many of the oppressive and pervasive tactics employed by landlords, slumlords, developers, and governments.

"When people think of the tenants union, they shouldn't think of it as this entity that's going to be a superhero," explains steering committee member, Neil Vokey, "we want to mobilize renters and provide education and training so that we can better advocate for ourselves and be a collective voice."

Currently, the union has four central demands inform its work. These include, real rent control, eviction protections, more housing and better incomes for all, and ending housing discrimination.

According to union organizer Gerlings, real rent control means "ensuring that rents are not tied to the tenant." By making it so that rent is connected to the unit rather than the renter, housing costs can't be capriciously raised by landlords beyond the Residential Tenancy Agreement's annual limit, which sits at 3.7 per cent.

Implementing eviction protections, including fixing policies and closing loopholes that benefit landlords, is something that has to happen at a policy level. Gerlings asserts that in order to do this, we need to look more scrupulously at the Residential Tenancy Act. "It's necessary to renegotiate the act to ensure that it's rights, policies and provisions aren't so heavily skewed towards landlords."

In creating more housing and better income for all, the union is calling on the province to build 10,000 units of social housing available at welfare and pension prices to fill B.C.'s low-income housing gap. "Right now, social housing is typically a 250-unit building, with roughly six units of low-income housing, and the rest priced just under market rates.

That's not affordable housing," contends advocate McClure. Additionally, the union wants to see the provincial government increase the welfare and disability rates that have stagnated for the last 10 years.

Lastly, ending housing discrimination means prohibiting landlords from discriminating against a potential tenant for any reason. "How many more stories do you need to hear of people being denied housing because of their race, income level, or because of the number of children they have," says Gerlings. "Everyone should have an equal right to housing."

Gaining momentum
Speaking to their demands, steering committee member Molly Billows explains, "these aren't new ideas.”

“Things like rent control, raising the rates or building more social housing are demands that have been made for decades,” she says. “We're not trying to reinvent the wheel, instead we'd like to adopt those ideas, fight for them, and get more momentum behind them."

In a city that has seen huge speculation in real estate and development, the union has attracted a lot of attention in a short amount of time; despite this, it's still difficult for many renters to feel confident in organizing or speaking out.

"There is no Ford factory in Vancouver, what we have is real estate," says Vivienne Bessette, another member of the union's steering committee. "We are paying for this huge mechanism of real estate to move in this city, that's what everyone's rent is. It's intimidating because your landlord can just come, and do any kind of horrible thing and you can try to fight it, but everyone knows that because of the way the city works, you're probably better off leaving.

“All of us have a right to housing though, and that is why we need to push back."

Luckily, the union is not alone in their fight. Across North America, various tenant unions have been established to protect the rights of renters.

San Francisco’s union
One of the longest standing and most influential organizations is the San Francisco Tenants Union. Executive director Deepa Varma, attributes the San Francisco’s union 40-plus years of success and 4,000-person strong base to their dedicated members, and the maintenance of a core set of principles and values that have remained relatively unchanged since it's inception.

"One of the things we've done is make sure that we don't rely too much on government money. This has allowed us to have an independent voice so that we can better advocate," says Varma.

"We've also created an inclusive community that is accessible to everyone regardless of income, where they live, or the issues they are facing as a tenant."

Beyond offering solidarity and supports, San Francisco’s union has successfully changed municipal policy by tirelessly advocating for the implementation of rent control and eviction protections in the city. "What we've seen is that more and more people are becoming renters.

Lifelong renting is going to be a reality, so we need to organize a more robust system that protects tenants," Varma contends.

Victoria’s rental crisis
In Victoria, the struggle to improve the situation for renters is also a reality. With a staggeringly high homeless rate of 0.4 per cent, a 0.5 per cent vacancy rate, and increasing rent prices, with the average price for a one bedroom rental now sitting at $912 per month, the need to protect tenants in Victoria has become a serious concern—paralleling the onerous situation felt by many in Vancouver.

Kristi Fairholm Mader, executive director at Ready to Rent, a housing advocacy, support and education organization based out of Victoria, has seen the housing landscape change significantly for Victoria residents. "Last year we saw the vacancy rates drop by quite a lot and rental prices go up, actually, skyrocket."

"We've also had more people coming to us because they've been evicted, and are finding it difficult or costly to get rehoused. We regularly encounter people who have been forced to do things like couch surf or stay in their car for several months, before they are able to find new rental housing,"

Fairholm Mader says. "For those people outside of the double income, working professional, no kids, no pets, bracket, we've seen that the challenge in securing rental housing has increased considerably."

Fairholm Mader feels that the government and other stakeholders need to intervene before the escalating housing crisis worsens in Victoria. "The housing crisis here is a really complex problem that requires a multi-faceted solution. I think that there needs to be a real shift around who we are building housing for, and to ensure that the housing that is being built and approved, and the policies that are being implemented, addresses the needs of renters," she suggests.

"This is important because it's continuing to get worse for tenants. The group of people in Victoria who face barriers to finding housing is increasing—we're seeing a real expansion of who is being impacted by the rental crisis."

The widespread network of tenants struggling to maintain a quality of life in cities that are becoming increasingly unliveable, has spurned on renters to band together and disrupt the systems that methodically work to push people out.

Basic need
"Forty years of austerity politics in Canada have helped to get us to this point," says Vancouver union organizer Gerlings. "It's not by chance that our housing situation here, it's totally by design, and we want to begin to un-work that design."

Adding to Gerlings assertion, Billows says, "hopefully what this means is that the Vancouver Tenants Union, and similar groups, will help to change the rhetoric around housing and homelessness. It comes back to the fact that if we don't have shelter or homes, we can't move through society, it's one of the most basic needs of all people."

As the union’s path continues to unfold, many will be watching to see if its work changes the housing climate in Vancouver.

"We're not here to do anything new, and we're not here in isolation, but we are here to centre marginalized voices and centre the people who are the most vulnerable—by doing that we raise the bar for literally everybody else in the city," Gerlings proclaims.

"Eventually, we are hoping to tip the scale of power in our favour."

 

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