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Les Leyne: All-housing theme is all-consuming

Lesser-known changes to housing policy are being introduced, to back up the high-profile ones
The B.C. legislature in Victoria. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

In a legislature that is currently consumed with the housing crisis, obviously the sweeping big-picture measures get most of the attention.

In just the past month, two such bills reset the landscape on two major components of the pervasive housing problems. The rental world was rocked on Oct. 16, when drastic curbs were imposed on short-term rentals to open more suites for permanent residents.

Then on Nov. 1, single-family zoning provisions in virtually all of urban B.C. were wiped out to allow for multiple units on those lots. That move was signalled last spring so there wasn’t much surprise. But the enormity of the change will take months more to sink in, and the ramifications will persist for years, if not decades.

Behind those major moves are some other changes that drew less attention, but could still be significant.

One of them is buried in a miscellaneous statutes act, a measure where grab-bag assortments of changes to different laws are bundled together for efficiency’s sake.

One of those changes continues the all-housing theme, by rewriting the law to do with the Residential Tenancy Branch. The amendment might address one of the hidden drivers that created the explosive growth of short-term rentals, at the expense of people needing places to live.

That’s the pervasive fear on the part of property owners that a tenancy could turn into a horror story that costs them tens of thousands of dollars and eats up months of their lives.

There was some reference to that while debating the short-term rental crackdown. The theme is continuing while MLAs scrutinize changes to residential tenancy law.

The amendments apply to both landlords and tenants. But the debate was more about problem tenants than problem landlords.

It’s a rewrite of the current bogged-down system of resolving disputes that is designed to create a quick-march route toward settlements.

The changes allow for quick oral decisions rather than written ones, and will permit refusing or dismissing complaints immediately if they have no chance of success. They also set out a “facilitated settlement process” where decisions will be made much quicker.

Government and opposition MLAs alike have recognized that people renting out accommodation are increasingly reluctant to do so based on bad experiences.

Opposition critic Mike de Jong said: “They are saying no as a direct result of the negative, in some cases, horrible experience they had with the residential tenancy branch.”

For families renting out rooms or carriage houses to tenants who cause problems, he said, “It’s virtually impossible to do anything about that and certainly impossible to do anything about it in a timely way.”

De Jong said there is no acknowledgement of the financial pressure on a family when it takes a year to 18 months to get an order and another six months to enforce it, “and then that family goes down into that basement and is confronted by $40,000 worth of damage.”

BC United MLA Karin Kirkpatrick said previous NDP regulations at the tenancy branch made short-term rental of suites more attractive than leasing them.

“This has been one of the drivers of a 20 per cent increase in Airbnb units the last year alone,” she said. It also contributes to thousands of suites simply being left vacant.

Even the tenancy branch itself acknowledges that more hearings and fewer staff mean wait times are three times longer than they were in 2020, she said.

On Monday, the opposition referred to a half-dozen horror stories where individual homeowners were victimized by bad tenants, the laggard branch or both. The NDP tried to strengthen the branch five years ago, but it doesn’t seem to have worked.

Elsewhere on the housing crisis watch, another big bill dropped Tuesday related to how the services and amenities needed by all those new residents on formerly single family lots are to be funded.

The current municipal process of negotiating payments from developers to cover the cost of amenities needed after a rezoning is being eliminated. Amenity cost charges will be set by municipalities “up front.”

The Union of B.C. Municipalities said it will provide more certainty. “But other common practices, like funding affordable housing through amenities, have not been addressed and our members will be looking for the province to address this gap.”

Still more is coming today, with a bill to prompt more housing near transit hubs and community amenities.

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