The B.C. government is putting more people at risk of homelessness by doubling the cost of resolving landlord-tenant disputes through the Residential Tenancy Branch, anti-poverty advocates say.
The Together Against Poverty Society warned Friday that raising application fees to $100 from $50 will deter cash-strapped tenants from standing up for their rights.
“This will impact the levels of homelessness, the levels of people living in sub-standard housing,” said Kelly Newhook, society executive director. “If you’re wrongfully evicted, and you don’t have the money, you don’t know there’s a fee waiver, then you’re out of a house and you’re in a very precarious situation in Victoria to be looking for anything affordable.”
She noted that the vacancy rate in Victoria is 0.6 per cent.
Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for housing, quietly signed off on the fee increases through an order in council Dec. 17. The fee hikes, which apply to both tenants and landlords, took effect at 4 p.m. Friday.
In a statement posted online, the government said it’s the first time the branch has raised filing fees since 1998. It said the money will be used to hire additional arbitrators to deal with an increasing number of dispute-resolution hearings. The tenancy branch received more than 22,000 applications for dispute resolution in 2014-15 — a five per cent increase over previous years.
“In the short term, these resources will be focused on reducing wait times for urgent application hearings, such as obtaining an order of possession or an early end of tenancy,” the statement said.
But Newhook said the changes create yet another barrier for tenants in a system already plagued by office closures and long waits for service.
“We would call for an immediate reversal of this decision,” she said. “We do think this is the government trying to get money from the people least able to afford it.”
The government says it waives fees for low-income people and that about 20 per cent of applicants for dispute resolutions pay nothing at all.
But Yuka Kurokawa, an advocate at TAPS, said many tenants have never heard about the fee waiver because the Residential Tenancy Branch closed its Victoria office last June.
“So people can’t go and speak face-to-face with someone to learn this information.” she said.
“They have to either know already that there’s a fee waiver process, or they have to somehow find their way through the complex website, or they have wait on hold for seemingly hours on the tenancy branch information line.”
Vancouver-Point Grey MLA David Eby, the NDP’s spokesman on housing issues, said it’s no surprise that Coleman kept quiet about hiking the fees.
“Generally, both landlords and tenants agree that the system doesn’t work,” he said.
“It’s hard to enforce judgments and it takes way too long. So to double the price of a broken system is adding insult to injury. It’s no wonder they didn’t issue a press release.”
In addition to making life more difficult for renters, the fee increases will put additional cost pressures on landlords at a time when there is a desperate need for rental housing, Eby said.
“These are the people who are providing what limited rental housing there is,” he said. “It’s incredibly problematic that [the government is] not trying to find ways to encourage additional potential landlords to rent their basement suites or their secondary suites, and instead are punishing them in this way, because we desperately need rental housing.”