Tenant unions in BC want collective bargaining rights

Faced with skyrocketing rents and a growing number of investor landlords, tenant attorneys are pushing the BC government for collective bargaining rights that would give them more power to negotiate with building owners.

Although tenant unions have existed in the county for decades, they have never received the same legal recognition and protection as unions. are ripe for change.

“We want tenants to be able to come together and organize themselves in their buildings and in their neighborhoods and in cities — on any scale that makes sense to them,” campaigner Will Gladman told CTV News. “In addition, we want landlords to be compelled to meet and negotiate with those tenant associations in good faith.”

There’s nothing stopping tenants from organizing now, but Gladman said the official government-recognized status would allow them to operate “without fear of reprisal” from building owners.

The campaigners’ vision would be for tenants to negotiate with landlords and sign agreements that could limit rent increases when tenants leave, or force owners to make overdue repairs.

Landlords in British Columbia are already limited on how much they can raise rents on occupied units — but once a tenant leaves, owners are free to charge “what the market can bear,” Gladman noted.

Proponents blame the lack of regulation for the staggering rises in rents in recent years. A report from Rentals.ca found that new tenants in Vancouver paid 23 percent more in February 2022 than those who moved in just a year earlier.

PROGRESS SOUTH OF THE BORDER

While some may consider the Rent Strike Bargain campaign’s goals far-fetched, organizers point to San Francisco as proof that change is possible.

The city recently passed an ordinance requiring landlords to recognize tenant rights and meet with tenant associations up to four times a year. If a landlord does not do this, tenants can request a rent reduction.

“It’s really exciting,” Gladman said. “In San Francisco, of course, they’ve achieved this at the municipal level, while we have to achieve it provincially. So there will be some differences in the implementation, but essentially we’re looking for the same thing.”

Rent Strike Bargain has been in touch with David Eby, BC’s housing minister, but has been given the impression that his focus remains on “supply side, market-based solutions” to the rental crisis.

Asked for comment on Wednesday, Eby issued a statement to CTV News saying he appreciates the “insightful research the Rent Strike Bargain campaign has provided on these important issues.”

The minister pointed to some of the tenant protections the NDP has implemented since taking power five years ago, including closing the loophole in the fixed-term lease that allowed landlords to raise rents beyond what was allowed​ under the Housing Rental Act.

“I have asked the ministry staff to investigate policy and legislative changes to further protect tenants. Helping tenants remains a priority for this government,” Eby added.

Gladman said the campaign isn’t putting a lot of effort into lobbying the county — at least not yet.

For now, members are busy building tenant unions across the county, including in Nelson, where a new union is celebrating its launch this weekend.

They also build relationships with various unions. Rent Strike Bargain has already been approved by locals from the BC General Employees’ Union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Unite Here, the Teaching Support Staff Union and the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers Association.

“There is a very energetic labor movement in BC right now,” Gladman said. “But all the profits that the unions can make for their members, for their workers, are just immediately gobbled up by landlords.”

(Pete Cline)

INVESTORS BUYING RENTAL PROPERTY

For advocates, the threat of rising rents shows no signs of abating in BC, especially as real estate investment trusts or REITs continue to pick up rental properties.

Thom Armstrong, CEO of the Co-op Housing Federation of BC, said these properties are seen as easy profit generators for county REITs, whose goal, unlike some local mom-and-pop owners, is “the highest return.” . possible on investment.”

“That’s incompatible with maintaining an affordable supply of purpose-built rental housing,” said Armstrong, who suggested those owners will do everything they legally can to raise rents below market price.

“It’s going to be people who can’t afford the market rent – and who can these days? – either become completely out of the market or homeless.”

While British Columbia has tried to crack down on revival, forcing property owners to apply to the Residential Tenancy Branch before rent increases, even after significant repairs or improvements to a property, Armstrong’s believes there is still plenty of room for maneuver in legislation for REITs to thrive.

It’s unclear how many rental buildings are owned by REITs, due to a lack of publicly available data, but Armstrong estimates they make up less than 10 percent of the county’s rental inventory. He fears that the share is growing rapidly.

“It’s a problem now. It’s well on its way to becoming a crisis,” he said.

The only reliable solution to uncontrolled rent increases, according to the Co-op Housing Federation, is vacancy monitoring — a system that links rent to the unit, rather than to the tenant.

LANDLORS SAY THE SOLUTION IS DELIVERY

LandlordBC, whose members include everyone from building managers to investment property owners, declined to comment directly on Wednesday’s Rent Strike Bargain campaign, or the impact of REITs on the market.

CEO David Hutniak told CTV News his organization has been working closely with the county’s NDP government since 2017 to support a “legislative environment that is both fair and transparent” that serves both tenants and landlords.

Other tenant protections introduced in recent years include increased penalties for landlords who evict tenants under false pretenses, and the launch of a Compliance and Enforcement Unit to investigate serious complaints against building owners.

Hutniak believes that increasing the supply of rental housing remains the best solution to the persistently low vacancy rate, which contributes to rising rents.

“Ultimately, our members are focused on providing safe, secure, sustainable rental housing for British Columbians in an increasingly challenging environment due to exponentially rising costs, many of which are beyond our control,” Hutniak said in an email.

“That’s our focus. We are now at a very pivotal point with rising interest rates and the impact this will have on the operation and construction of rental properties.”

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