New tactics, same old game

After New West moved to protect tenants from bad faith evictions, unscrupulous landlords have adapted, advocates say

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By Virender Singh

In New Westminster, where the local government has taken a leading role in protecting tenants, advocates say bad landlords have found a new tactic to unfairly remove renters from their homes.

Back in 2019, when so-called “renovictions” were a hot-button issue in several Metro Vancouver cities, the City of New Westminster was applauded by some tenant advocates for tackling the issue at the municipal level.

In many B.C. municipalities, including New West, landlords were issuing mass eviction notices, informing residents they needed to move out of the building to allow extensive renovations.

This phenomenon, known as “renoviction,” was becoming increasingly common, renters’ advocates said, motivated by landlords’ desire to kick out long-time tenants and dramatically increase the rents for the units.

In May 2019, in response to what the city called “numerous complaints regarding renovictions,” New West’s council approved bylaw amendments aimed specifically at deterring renovictions and protecting tenants who might be displaced by large-scale renovations.

According to the city, “the amendment was successful and resulted in a significant decrease in the number of reported renovictions and inquiries of concern. The city is considered a leader among municipalities across the nation for this work.”

Since that time, the B.C. government has changed provincial legislation to deter renovictions, and the City of New Westminster’s anti-renoviction regulations were repealed when the province’s new rules came into effect in 2021.

However, tenant advocates say that while there has been a decrease in bad-faith renovictions since New West, and then the province, brought in those rules, unscrupulous landlords have found a new tactic since then to pressure residents out of their homes.

“A local adaptation”

Brook Jensen, a volunteer organizer with the New Westminster Tenants Union, said he has seen abuses of so-called “caretaker evictions.”

Section 49(6) of the Residential Tenancy Act allows a landlord to end a tenancy if they need to convert the rental unit for use by a “caretaker,” meaning someone living there, working for the landlord and responding to people’s maintenance requests.

“The caretaker clause ramped up when the City of New Westminster put in their renovictions restrictions in 2019,” said Jensen. “I really see it as a local adaptation to the hole being plugged by the municipal law.”

New Westminster resident Michael Donnelly remembers two days after Christmas in 2019, when every tenant in his building received eviction notices, supposedly so the landlord could complete renovations.

Many of Donnelly’s neighbours accepted $5,000 payments to simply leave, he said, but he filed a dispute against the landlord, a local property owner who had already made the news for controversial mass evictions in other Metro Vancouver municipalities.

Donnelly, however, stuck it out all the way to the arbitration hearing whereupon he accepted an offer to move to a two-bedroom apartment in another building owned by the same landlord, under the same tenancy agreement.

Once the renovations for his previous building were completed, Donnelly’s suite was put up on the market for $2,250 a month — more than double what he had been paying.

The caretaker never moves in

A year and a half later, Donnelly had just about settled into his new place when he received another eviction notice. This time around, the landlord stated the purpose was to put a caretaker in Donnelly’s suite.

“That caused a lot of anxiety to me,” said Donnelly. “I don’t make a lot of money and to afford the rental market rate now would be very hard for me.”

Working with other tenants who had received similar notices, Donnelly produced an affidavit to prove that his landlord had displayed a pattern of operating in bad faith.

Donnelly also managed to connect with the caretaker who was supposed to move into his suite, he said. This individual informed Donnelly that they had declined the offer.

So, he said, it appeared the landlord had no plans to move a caretaker in at all.

Donnelly won the second arbitration hearing and now continues to live in his two-bedroom apartment.

The rental housing crunch in B.C.

Richard Rogers, executive acting director of the B.C. Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB), says his team has started working on adding more staff and reducing the lengthy wait times for the hearings.

“It’s never going to be a comfortable thing for most people who ideally don’t want to be in this situation, so we are trying to make this process as easy for them as possible,” said Rogers.

Rogers says he is not aware of renovictions or caretaker evictions becoming a trend in New Westminster, based on the complaints that RTB has received.

Rogers said the RTB is also working doubling the size of its Complaints and Enforcement Unit, which addresses significant and repetitive breaches of the Residential Tenancy Act, by both bad landlords and tenants, and applies monetary penalties to the offending parties.

According to Jensen, lack of “vacancy controls” – meaning rent controls attached to the unit, not the tenant — and the rising cost of rent in the market create an incentive for new owners buying a building to find ways to clear out tenants.

These strategies, he says, are all designed to boost landlords’ profits, but they harm tenants.

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