B.C. roommates say they need legal protections just like other renters

Government has no plans to include special provisions in tenant legislation

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by DANIEL JOHNSTON

When Vancouver artist Rynn Sparrow moved into a two-bedroom basement suite without a lease in February 2023, they immediately started having issues when their new roommate neglected to pay rent. 

“He was a nightmare to deal with,” Sparrow told the Langara newspaper the Voice.

Sparrow was, by the Residential Tenancy Branch’s policy guideline, an occupant as they moved in as a roommate without a lease. 

According to the guideline, an occupant has no rights or responsibilities under the lease, unless the landlord and the existing tenant agree to change the tenancy agreement.

“This guy would never pay rent on time, it was like two weeks late every time and whenever he’d pay, he’d miss it by like $200,” said Sparrow. “Being out like $200 to $500 a month for weeks at a time was really financially scary for us.”

Sparrow and their upstairs neighbours (who were on a lease) gave their roommate notice three months in advance that they wanted him out. “He was acting essentially as a squatter for a while because none of us wanted him here, but we didn’t know if we could kick him out.”

More protections are needed for roommates

Sparrow says it’s imperative for protections to be put in place for roommates. 

“It’s so stressful because there’s a lot of abuse that happens in these situations,” they said. 

“A lot of people have landlords who are very hands-off, or don’t necessarily care enough to provide those eviction notices to people.”

Sparrow said there should be legislation that allowed for situations like theirs “to be handled independently by the tenants.“

Warren Bowen, an advocate with the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, said that in 2023, the centre took more than 14,000 calls, many from renters seeking help over conflicts with roommates. But there was little that they could advise.

“Unfortunately, there’s no rules or guidance set by the province on what should happen between roommates. It’s kind of the wild west out there,” Bowen said. 

According to Bowen, roommates or occupants can fall into various categories in the Residential Tenancy Act, depending on their tenancy status. In situations where they are all are under one tenancy agreement lease or where all roommates sign individual tenancy agreements with the landlord, they’re protected by the act.

However, he said that what have become increasingly common are situations where only one roommate — the “head tenant” — is on the agreement. 

That means the other roommates pay rent to the head tenant, who in turn pays rent to the landlord. 

“Those roommates are not covered under the Residential Tenancy Act, so they have no rights against the landlord and the landlord has no responsibility to them,” said Bowen.

“If you don’t have your name on a tenancy agreement with the landlord, either as a co-tenancy or you don’t have your individual one, you’re just a roommate. You’re not considered a tenant under the act, and what we can do for you in that situation is very limited.”

The RTB doesn’t handle disputes between roommates as its sole purpose is hearing disputes between tenants and landlords. 

According to Bowen, this makes these situations challenging. “They need to go to the civil resolution tribunal or small claims court, but there’s not a dedicated tribunal like the residential tenancy branch that will hear their case.” 

One of the ways that Bowen says roommates can protect themselves is by signing a roommate agreement, available on the TRAC website. 

Kiana Laballe, whose chosen name is Canyon, is an Indigenous artist living in Vancouver. In March of 2022, Canyon moved into a new place as an occupant but things with their roommate, the leaseholder, went south fast. 

They watched the roommate abuse those around them. “Seeing the way that this person would treat their neighbours and even treat their kid was really scary,” they said. 

When the end of the first month came, Canyon’s roommate tried to increase the rent, and Canyon then learned that their roommate hadn’t even told the landlord they had moved in.

Canyon started making plans to move, but the situation exploded when they confronted their roommate about her behaviour. “I told her maybe a week or two before I was supposed to move that you know, I just didn’t like the way she treated people,” Canyon said. 

“That was like when things just went completely downhill.” The roommate tried to lock Canyon out and said they would have to move out two weeks early, despite rent for the month being paid.

There was nothing Canyon could do to fight the early eviction. “If you’re a roommate and your name isn’t legally on the lease, they can kick you out whenever you want, whether you paid rent or not for that month, which really sucked,” they said.

With the housing prices in Vancouver rising, Canyon also thinks that protections for roommates are needed. “Rent is so high, it’s almost impossible to get a place on your own. Most people have to get roommates just to stay living out here,” they said.

Roommate rentals are increasing

According to Statistics Canada’s 2021 Census, Roommate households are the fastest-growing housing arrangement for young people. In 2021,15 per cent of Canada’s population between the ages of 20 and 34 reported living in a roommate household, an increase from a reported 11 per cent in 2001. From 2001 to 2021, the number of roommate households across all age ranges increased by 54 per cent. 

Census data also shows that more Canadians are living with roommates further into their 30s and 40s, and that, the growth in renter households was more than double that of owner households from 2011 to 2021. 

In August of 2023, B.C. Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon told journalists that his  government would be looking to add more protections for roommates on the same lease.

But just a few months later, ministry communications manager Liam Butler back pedaled in an email to the Voice.

“The province is not considering occupant-related changes to the Residential Tenancy Act at this time,” Butler said. “The province is currently exploring potential improvements to make tenancies fairer for co-tenants, including improving education and awareness.”

Bowen doesn’t understand why B.C. government won’t prioritize legislation protecting roommates.

“A lot of people live with roommates. A lot of tenants have roommates. A lot of homeowners have roommates,” said Bowen. “For a lot of people, the only way they can afford to live in Vancouver is with other people.”

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