Tenants deserve real protection

Safe and secure housing is a cornerstone of overall health and well-being. The housing affordability crisis in B.C. is common knowledge, but less well-known is the fact that the lack of enforcement of tenancy laws threatens the safety and security of rental housing across the province.

Roughly one-third of British Columbians live in rental housing. They depend on B.C.'s tenancy laws to ensure that their rental housing is safe and reasonably well maintained, that they are not subject to continual increases in their rent, and that they have a degree of security because their tenancy can only be ended for specific reasons. Landlords also depend on the laws to protect their livelihood and property.

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However, these legal safeguards quickly become meaningless without an effective way to enforce the protections contained in the laws. Individuals may find they have no effective recourse when their rights are violated. More broadly, if it becomes common knowledge that there is no consequence for breaching the law, there is no incentive to comply. Respect for the content of the law is undermined.

In British Columbia, the Residential Tenancy Branch is charged with enforcing our provincial tenancy laws. It has the power to decide individual legal disputes between tenants and landlords, and to deter repeated violations of the law through its investigatory and penalty powers.

Unfortunately, as a recent study has found, due to chronic and drastic underfunding, the branch is unwilling or unable to make effective use of these powers. With a budget per case that is a mere 10 to 20 per cent of comparable tribunals (such as the Employment and Assistance Appeal Tribunal and the Workers' Compensation Appeal Tribunal), the branch faces serious hurdles in accomplishing its purpose.

In legal disputes between individual landlords and tenants, the branch repeatedly fails to meet the most basic standards of a fair legal proceeding, like getting to present your side of the story or knowing the case against you. These standards are fundamental hallmarks of fairness.

When the branch issues a decision in an individual dispute, it often contains errors, fails to reflect the arguments made in the case, or is simply unclear because the reasons given do not actually explain the outcome of the case. In addition, landlords and tenants involved in disputes before the branch describe the decision-makers as rushed and short-tempered, which leaves the parties feeling like their case has not been taken seriously or carefully determined. In a worst-case scenario, parties can leave feeling like they have been abused by a public servant.

There are limited legal options available to a person who is dissatisfied with the branch's decision. It is common to see, for example, a tenant evicted on two days' notice on the basis of a seriously flawed decision. The personal costs to that individual tenant are extraordinary, but there are also costs to the public, because these kinds of decisions often lead to homelessness and significant health consequences.

In addition to deciding individual complaints, the law grants the branch a range of tools to deter repeated violations of the law. Most importantly, since 2008 the branch has had the power to investigate and levy monetary penalties against parties for repeated non-compliance with the law. While the minister responsible for housing's stated intent was to hire staff to investigate and proactively "levy significant fines for bad behaviour," to date these powers have only been used by the branch a single time.

In that much publicized case, involving a landlord who repeatedly ignored orders mandating critical repairs to an apartment building, the branch issued a $115,000 penalty against the landlord. However, the branch then went on to enter into an agreement that essentially waived the entire fine if the landlord did little more than complete the repairs originally ordered and did not incur any new penalties within two years.

The message this sends landlords and tenants across province is that there is a very small chance the branch will actually investigate and fine a party who repeatedly violates the law and, even if a fine is levied, it can be negotiated away. In short, there are few to no consequences for repeatedly and flagrantly breaching the law.

The ongoing failure of the branch to effectively enforce B.C.'s tenancy laws compromises the protections contained in B.C.'s tenancy legislation. A functioning enforcement mechanism that protects B.C.'s rental housing and the parties that rely on it is in everyone's interest.

Kendra Milne is a social justice lawyer at the Community Legal Assistance Society and a research associate with the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She is also the co-author of On Shaky Ground: Fairness at the Residential Tenancy Branch, available at www.clasbc.net.

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