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'I have nowhere to go': B.C. is Canada's eviction capital, new research shows

The vast majority of evictions in B.C. — 85 per cent — are deemed to be at “no fault” of the tenants; the national average is 65 per cent.
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Linda de Gonzalez and Rodney Hill received letters from their landlord threatening to sell the strata units they rent unless they agree to a rent increase, one that they and many others in their building say they can't afford. JASON PAYNE, VANCOUVER SUN

Roughly one-in-10 households that rent in B.C. say they were forced to move during a recent five-year period, a significantly higher eviction rate than any other region in Canada, says a new University of B.C. report.

This province is an outlier in the national data for another reason revealed for the first time: The vast majority of evictions in B.C. — 85 per cent — are deemed to be at “no fault” of the tenants, and that rate is far greater than the national average of 65 per cent.

That means in B.C., compared with other provinces between 2016 and 2021, tenants were far more often asked to move for reasons such as landlords needing to use the property themselves, selling it, or demolishing or renovating it, the report says.

This is in sharp contrast to previous research that showed, between 2004 and 2017, that evictions in B.C. were more commonly due to something the tenant had done, such as failing to pay rent, and very infrequently for reasons such as landlords wanting to move into their units.

“Evictions have long been viewed as a response to ‘bad tenants,’ ” says the report, Estimating No-Fault Evictions in Canada: Understanding B.C.’s Disproportionate Eviction Rate in the 2021 Canadian Housing Survey.

But more recently, attention has shifted to evictions being driven by the “financialization” of the housing stock, defined as “the increasing treatment of housing as an investment asset, rather than as a social good,” the report says.

“While these (no-fault evictions) can involve evictions for genuine personal use, they are often financially motivated, caused by the landlord’s belief that they can sell the property for a profit or increase the rent if they evict the tenant or renovate the unit,” says the new report, co-authored by researcher Silas Xuereb and Craig Jones, associate director of UBC’s Housing Research Collaborative.

“The average price of a home and average market rent are higher in British Columbia than any other province. Average housing prices are nearly $300,000 higher than the national average and monthly rents are $500 above the national average, providing increased incentives for landlords to evict tenants to raise rents or sell the property.”

Jones said his research team didn’t expect to uncover the fact that such a large majority of evictions in B.C. over the last five years would involve no fault by the tenant, but he cautioned that he can’t say how many may have been done in bad faith.

The data Jones used in the report comes from Statistics Canada’s Canadian Housing Survey, which for the first time in 2021 asked respondents for the reasons their landlords asked them to move. It’s the first tangible glimpse into the scope of the reasons behind evictions across the country; this data doesn’t exist at the provincial level because most governments, including in B.C., only track the evictions that tenants challenge, not the overall number that take place.

A new survey of 443 evicted tenants by Vancouver-based non-profit First United, published Saturday in The Vancouver Sun, found only one-third of those facing evictions filed complaints with B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB), the government agency responsible for dispute resolution services for landlords and tenants. First United’s Eviction Mapping project also found no-fault evictions were far more common than cases in which tenants hadn’t paid the rent, caused damage or were evicted for bad behaviour.

Jones’s report estimated that, based on the federal data, 253,000 to 331,000 renter households containing 531,000 to 770,000 renters were evicted between April 2016 and April 2021. A B.C. breakdown wasn’t provided, but this province would represent a significant portion of these numbers as it leads the nation in evictions.

B.C.’s estimated rate of 10.5 per cent of renters being evicted over a five-year period towers over the rates of other large provinces, such as Ontario (6.1 per cent), Quebec (4.8 per cent) and Alberta (3.1 per cent), the report found.

Linda de Gonzalez is one of the unlucky ones facing the loss of her longtime home.

The Surrey resident received a letter last month from the landlord of her building, Winsome Place, where she has rented her modest, two-bedroom apartment for two decades. The 70-year-old pensioner was asked to agree to start paying $1,450 on June 1, a jump of 43 per cent from her current monthly rate of $1,014.

“It really was utterly and completely devastating. I literally felt my stomach fall out,” said de Gonzalez, who worries she would never find a replacement apartment within her budget for her and her pet birds. “I just sat on the floor and I cried and I cried and I cried. And I kept thinking what am I going to do? I have nowhere to go.”

The landlord’s letter stated that operating costs, such as property taxes, utilities and repairs, had increased beyond the two-per-cent annual rent hikes allowed by the provincial government. If de Gonzalez refused to sign the rate-hike agreement by May 10, her suite could be sold.

Her Newton-area building, home to a mix of seniors and young immigrant families, had always operated like an apartment building. But unbeknownst to de Gonzalez and her neighbours it’s actually strata-titled, meaning each of the 72 suites could be sold separately.

When May 10 arrived, de Gonzalez decided not to sign, saying she had have no money left for groceries after paying her other expenses.

“I decided that if they’re gonna kick me out, then I’ll end up living in my car with my birds in the back seat,” said the retired accounting clerk.

But she isn’t giving up without a fight: She’s reached out to her MLA, the housing minister, the Surrey mayor and a city councillor. She hopes public pressure will lead to a solution for the tenants in the 30 units in the building who received similar notices.

Although provincial law restricts annual rent increases to two per cent, landlords are permitted to raise rents higher than that if they get permission from the RTB or if they get their tenants to agree. Therefore what de Gonzalez’s landlord is trying to do is legal, said Zuzana Modrovic of the non-profit Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre (TRAC), which has been helping the Winsome Place tenants.

It’s a difficult situation for tenants, Modrovic said, because even if they agree to pay more rent, there is nothing stopping landlords from raising it again or selling the units.

The prevalence of evictions in B.C. isn’t only about “bad actor” landlords, said housing lawyer Priyan Samarakoone, although he has seen unscrupulous property owners in his work helping tenants through disputes. The problem, he said, is more fundamentally about the rental supply here being so heavily reliant on privately owned housing, whether it’s apartment buildings, basements suites or investor-owned condos.

“B.C.’s housing is based so much on (private) landlords providing a sporadic mosaic of different types of tenancies, and there’s a bunch of inconsistencies on how different landlords apply the rules,” said Samarakoone, who is also chair of the Green Party of Vancouver.

“We’ve moved so far from government-provided housing, and we’ve gone so much into this system of private landlords, and we’re not providing the adequate safety net.

“The RTB, they’re overworked, they’re underpaid, and they’re underqualified to do some of that work.”

Even when landlords follow all the rules, it’s not realistic to expect the private sector to provide affordable housing if it means they’re losing money due to external pressures such as variable interest rates.

“Those pressures will compel them to make decisions, and some decisions are not in bad faith, they’re just doing it so they’re not going in to the red,” Samarakoone said. “If it’s private owners, how can we expect there to be affordable housing? Everybody’s trying to make a profit.”

Jones’s report confirmed evictions were more common with private landlords, and far less common in co-ops and non-market housing. B.C. needs more purpose-built rental housing — something that governments have embraced in recent years, but there is a lot of catching up to do after decades of inaction, Jones said.

He’s not just speaking as a researcher, but as a renter in Vancouver. Roughly a decade ago, he was evicted twice over a four-year span and thought he would need to leave the city to find stable housing, but then he and his wife moved into a co-op where they have been ever since.

“I really feel like we have a home here with some real security of tenure,” Jones said.

But it takes time to construct new buildings, and there are changes that could be made at the RTB in the short-term to help tenants during this housing crisis, said First United lawyer Sarah Marsden.

This includes requiring landlords to apply to end tenancies, similar to the law in Ontario, which would make the RTB aware of all formal eviction attempts; more flexibility with the rule allowing eviction if the rent is more than five days late, especially if the amount owing is small; and if a tenant loses a dispute before the RTB, extending the time they must vacate the unit beyond two days, because this short period deters many from pursuing disputes, said Marsden.

One positive change made by government was creating new rules in 2021 to reduce renovictions, which until then had been a very common scenario in B.C. The new legislation seems to have dramatically reduced the incidence of renovictions, advocates say. But, they say, since then, there has been a surge in “landlord’s use” evictions, which allows tenancies to be ended with two months’ notice if the landlord or a close family member wants to move into the unit.

“Landlord’s use” was identified as a “concerning trend” in Jones’s report, and both Marsden and Modrovic said it could be clipped if government took the same action as it did with renovictions: requiring the landlord to file paperwork to prove which relative is moving in and why they need to live there.

In an email to Postmedia News, the Housing Ministry said: “Staff are currently exploring options on how to cut down on unlawful evictions, including evictions for landlord’s use,” but didn’t elaborate. It said the RTB is doubling the size of its Compliance and Enforcement Unit, and is “refreshing” its website to ensure tenants and landlords can find the information they need.

David Hutniak of the industry group Landlord B.C. rejects the idea that renovictions have been replaced by landlords ending tenancies for personal use, arguing it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Renovictions “were occurring in purpose-built rental” buildings, he argued, while ending tenancies for personal use mainly takes place in the secondary market, when owners want to reclaim their basement suites or condos.

“I totally disagree with that. They’re not related at all,” Hutniak said. “There’s no connection there because the secondary market never did renovictions.”

He added landlords caught lying about ending tenancies for personal use face “harsh” new penalties of reimbursing displaced tenants with up to 12 months’ rent.

That may be true, Modrovic said, but if the landlord can hike the rent high enough for a new tenant, then it wouldn’t take long to make up for that financial penalty.

It remains “incredibly difficult” for people to find rental housing they can afford in the current rental market, Modrovic said.

However, they added, “If there’s light at the end of the tunnel, it does seem that the government is at least somewhat receptive to what advocates say the problems are. And we are hopeful that we will see some change to what we see as the biggest problems.”

lculbert@postmedia.com

dfumano@postmedia.com

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