Opinion: Defunding the Renter’s Office is a body blow to Vancouver tenants

Jan 30 2023, 10:09 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Priyan M. Samarakoone, housing lawyer and chair of the board of the Vancouver Green Party.

Staying housed in Vancouver has never been more difficult.

Beyond the skyrocketing cost of home ownership, rental housing has become increasingly unaffordable. It’s no secret that steep increases in monthly rent over the last two decades have not been matched by increases in average income. In Vancouver, an increasing number of households spend over one-third of their monthly income on housing alone, with some spending more than half.

As a result, many move elsewhere. This depletes the city’s labour force, talent, and potential. Vancouver’s future is envisioned to be one that thrives on diversity, innovation, and growth. Simply put, we cannot work successfully to achieve this vision with our current approach to housing.

To date, not nearly enough has been done in Vancouver to address these challenges. Affordable rental housing is disappearing – now largely limited to those fortunate enough to have lived in units for more than a decade that are essentially “rent-controlled.”

As a housing lawyer who has spent the last 10 years helping tenants remain in their homes, I have seen an increasing number of landlords willing to use whatever means necessary (commonly renovation-related evictions or “renovictions”) to evict long-term tenants in order to capture market-value revenues from new tenants, who can be charged up to twice as much. The Residential Tenancy Act provides only minimal safeguards for such evictions.

Legal remedies can be arduous and often require accessing detailed information about building permits and zoning information to mount a successful challenge to an eviction notice.

In 2018, Vancouver City Councillor Pete Fry tabled a motion designed to assist tenants facing coerced or illegal evictions. Fry’s Motion established a Renter’s Office that provided Vancouver-specific information about permits, zoning, and bylaws. It helped tenants facing eviction find affordable housing alternatives and helped guide substantial policy and institutional direction.

It functioned as a proactive measure preventing “renovictions.” In effect, the Renter’s Office helped prevent and reduce homelessness caused by unfair or illegal eviction.

Last week, with neither advance notice nor substantive discussion and against the advice of the City staff, the ABC Party majority on Council voted to defund the Renter’s Office.

Although ABC councillors expressed support for existing provincial programs, defunding the Renter’s Office – a vital city resource – will harm renters in Vancouver and worsen the city’s housing crisis, which is already considered to be at a critical tipping point.

The Renter’s Office does not work in isolation. Rather, it acts as a “force multiplier,” working together with community-based and Provincial agencies to assist tenants in Vancouver who are facing eviction. Closing the Renter’s Office will burden already resource-constrained community organizations that help re-home the unhoused.

In my work as an attorney specializing in housing advocacy, I have navigated the patchwork of provincial agencies such as the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre (TRAC), Access Pro Bono (APB), and the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS) that form “civil legal aid for renters.” In combination with the City of Vancouver’s Renter’s Office, these vital agencies work collaboratively, with the assistance of legal professionals and community workers, to help prevent families facing eviction from becoming unhoused.

When I am not able to defend effectively against eviction, the support of City and community-based agencies, including the Renter’s Office, has been invaluable. Losing the Renter’s Office will hurt those who need help the most, including young workers, struggling families, and new immigrants – the very lifeblood of Vancouver’s future.

Closing the Renter’s Office sends a clear message that the ABC majority in Council has little interest or knowledge in helping tenants in Vancouver obtain and retain safe and secure housing. This is another body blow to more than half of Vancouver residents who are renters. They deserve better.

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