Former tent city residents can’t be blocked from having friends and family stay overnight at their new home at 844 Johnson St., the Residential Tenancy Branch has ruled.
The Portland Hotel Society, the non-profit agency that runs the supportive housing facility, cannot force guests to show identification or prohibit visitors under 19, an arbitrator decided.
“It’s a recognition that blanket guest policies don’t always work for everyone living under the same roof,” said Yuka Kurokawa, the Together Against Poverty legal advocate who helped 11 residents file the complaint and navigate the landlord-tenant dispute resolution process.
The society is appealing the decision, saying identifying guests and barring overnight stays is crucial to protect residents’ safety. In its submission to the Residential Tenancy Branch, the agency included a letter from a Victoria police inspector who said non-residents have assaulted, intimidated and extorted residents, and forced some out of their suites.
The group of residents, who call themselves Super InTent City, argued the guest policy is an invasion of privacy, discriminatory against low-income tenants and restricts access to friends and family.
Under the guest policy, staff have the right to refuse any guest entry. Guests must be 19 years of age or older, tenants must accompany their guests at all times and visiting is allowed only between 8:30 a.m. and 10 p.m. Guests are not allowed to stay overnight to ensure they don’t become “de facto residents.”
The society made the case that non-residents are threatening the safety of tenants, pointing to the letter from the police inspector. It stated that police have been called to the building after residents have been assaulted, threatened or extorted by people who do not live at the facility. The police inspector said there have been serious incidents including seizures of fentanyl, knives, firearms and ammunition.
“In the most serious of these cases, the perpetrators were found to not be residents of the building,” states the letter. The inspector also said people with criminal histories including gang ties have forced people out of their suites.
“We have heard directly from many residents that they live in fear of these non-residents and are afraid to speak up or notify [landlord] staff.”
The society said the fentanyl epidemic means it’s safer for tenants to accompany guests at all times, citing an example of one guest who died of a fatal overdose in a room after being left alone by the tenant.
Key to the decision was whether or not 844 Johnson St. falls under the Residential Tenancy Act. Residents said they signed tenancy agreements with the understanding they would have rights under the act.
Lawyers for the Portland Hotel Society argued the tenancies were exempt from the act, because residents live in a 147-unit “home-based health facility” with a full-time nurse, mental-health staff, social workers and a safe injection site for residents struggling with mental health and addiction issues. Tenants have to sign a “home support consent” form, which states support staff can access the rooms for regular cleaning, safety checks and to look for fire hazards.
The Residential Tenancy Branch has previously ruled that a similar Portland Hotel Society-run supportive housing facility on the Lower Mainland was exempt from the act.
The arbitrator ruled that the Johnson Street building was created as a response to a housing crisis, not a health crisis, and therefore is a residential property, not a home-based health facility. That means the landlord can’t stop tenants from having guests “under reasonable circumstances” or make restrictions based on age and visiting times.
There’s no evidence seeing a guest’s identification will prevent harm to residents because even with these policies in place, police have still had to be called to deal with non-residents, the arbitrator found. The landlord failed to prove that letting guests stay overnight would exceed the building’s maximum occupancy or violate fire and safety codes, the decision said.
It stated that if a specific guest has caused disturbances or committed crimes, that guest can be banned. A resident who continues to bring in unruly friends can be evicted.
Doug Swait, one of the residents who filed the complaint, said he’s happy with the decision but frustrated the Portland Hotel Society has not changed the guest policy.
“They’re still playing games with the guest policy,” Swait said. “The guest policy, it’s not to protect anybody. All it is is a fishbowl for the police.”
Andy Bond, spokesman for Portland Hotel Society, could not say whether the guest policy has been changed in light of the ruling. He said he could not comment on the ruling because of the appeal. “Our buildings are not able to provide shelter to all of those in need, and the guest policy helps to create conditions that allow both our staff and residents to feel that the building is secure and safe for all,” the society said in a statement.