Politicians who ignore renters could face eviction from office

Apartment renting: dreaming the impossible dream. | Photo by Scott Johnson

There are more than half a million renters in British Columbia. In Vancouver fully half of us rent, although you wouldn’t know it from the way homeowners, developers, and real estate agents dominate the media and political discussion of housing. While those in the market get all the attention, the worst victims of our city’s out-of-control housing market are those who can’t afford to own and can barely afford to rent.

As I’ve written before, tens of thousands of Vancouverites live one paycheque or one renoviction notice away from losing their homes. If you can’t make rent, or can’t afford your landlord’s rent hikes, homelessness or at least relocation out of the city looms. Countless low- and middle-income people have already left the city, heading either to the slightly-cheaper suburbs or out of the Lower Mainland altogether.

Renters in Victoria are also feeling the squeeze, and the crisis is no longer even confined to the province’s major cities. Too many simply can’t afford to live in B.C., and for those who still can too much of our lives is spent working, often at multiple jobs, to pay the rent.

Despite this crisis, the B.C. Liberal government has shown precious little interest in offering meaningful support to renters. Take, for example, the issue of fixed-term leases with vacate clauses, a tactic landlords have been using to jack up rents way above the legislated annual limit (currently 3.7 per cent for 2017). Back in October, Rich Coleman, the minister in charge of the housing portfolio, told the Globe and Mail he was looking into a remedy to close this loophole, “If they’re using something that’s a legal document to game the system – because of a shortage of supply – that’s where I get concerned.”

At the time, Coleman said his staff would have an answer on how to fix the situation in 30 days. Five months later, as a brief pre-election session of the legislature was winding down earlier this month, Coleman conceded that there would be no solution brought in until sometime after the upcoming vote in May. In other words the government, when confronted with numerous reports of rent-gouging by landlords, dithered and then effectively shrugged its shoulders.

In a sense, it’s understandable the government just couldn’t find the time to get a simple measure implemented to help protect renters. A lot of MLAs own multiple properties, so as landlords themselves it might be hard for them to empathise with lowly tenants. Let’s remember, also, that it can be hard for constituents to get a politician’s attention at the best of times, and renters don’t tend to be able to buy $1000 tickets to attend B.C. Liberal fundraisers.

More seriously, the organization of this provincial government’s cabinet suggests a lack of focused ministerial attention on the housing crisis. Coleman, in addition to being in charge of housing, also happens to be the minister in charge of natural gas development. It must be hard to find time to deal with housing issues when you’re also in charge of desperately courting foreign investors to follow through on their plans to export B.C.’s liquefied natural gas. The B.C. Liberals won the 2013 election on a flagship promise of an LNG “bonanza” which has yet to materialize, and the oil and gas industry is a huge source of corporate donations to the governing party, so perhaps it makes sense that the needs of renters have been neglected.

While the government’s treatment of renters can be explained, it cannot be excused. As a renter myself, I’ve recently been in touch with others in Vancouver who are fed up and are planning to raise these issues with all parties during the upcoming election campaign by holding town hall forums and by going door-to-door and talking to other tenants. Whoever wins in May, they need to be pushed to build more affordable and social housing and to open up the Residential Tenancy Act to close loopholes that landlords are abusing.

All politicians in B.C. need to know that there’ll be a price to pay for ignoring renters’ concerns. It’s not like renters are a marginal group that can easily be ignored. There are more than 520,000 of us. With a little more collective organization, we can have a lot more power. If politicians don’t heed the demands of renters this May, they might even find themselves evicted from office.