On July 2nd, 2015, the Victoria Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) office at 3350 Douglas Street stopped providing front-counter services to tenants. Since July 2nd, tenants have been directed to use front-counter services at the new Service BC centre at 403 – 771 Vernon Avenue in the Gateway Village.
The Douglas Street RTB office was staffed by specifically trained government employees who were knowledgeable and experienced in tenancy issues. Tenants could go to the office and get information about tenancy law, as well as help filling out complex RTB forms related to the tenancy dispute process.
The officers at the new Service BC office are not specifically trained to inform tenants about RTB procedures or to help fill out dispute resolution hearing forms. Instead, tenants have to access RTB services over the telephone, by email, or by accessing the RTB website.
Since the closure of the RTB office, the tenant advocates at TAPS have heard from tenants who were not able to effectively access the telephone- or computer-based RTB services and who needed assistance with the forms. As a result of not being able to get the help they needed, these tenants ended up submitting forms that were incomplete and did not reflect their concerns.
The closure of front-counter services at the RTB office will disproportionately affect marginalized individuals, including those living in poverty, who often lack the resources or skills to successfully access services online or over the phone. In addition, the closure of services will disproportionately affect people with disabilities, who already experience a range of barriers and restrictions in their daily lives. These barriers to accessibility are exacerbated by the significant distance of the Service BC office from the downtown core, where many tenants in Victoria are located.
The closure of the RTB office is part of a broader policy shift by the provincial government to reframe service users as consumers of public resources, rather than as citizens with rights. This policy shift has effectively removed access to a range of government services, as people with disabilities, people living in poverty, and people who face a multitude of other forms of marginalization can no longer access the competent in-person services that they critically require.
As David Eby, BC NDP Spokesperson for Housing, has stated in a public letter issued in response to the closure of the Victoria RTB office, “the government has been systematically undermining key access to justice avenues for all British Columbians through underfunding and under-prioritizing essential services. The impact of these closures is felt most acutely…by those on the margins of society.”
The outcome of the closure of the Victoria RTB office and other front-line government services by the BC government has worsened the ability of tenants, especially marginalized tenants, to access justice.
The closure of the RTB office also appears to have changed some of the procedures followed by RTB staff in the CRD. One change we have seen is that when a tenant makes an application for dispute resolution, the tenant will not receive a RTB hearing date at the time they file their dispute documents. Instead, tenants will typically receive a phone call informing them of their hearing date two to five business days after filing, and will typically be directed to pick up their documents from the Service BC office at this time. This creates a barrier for tenants who have mobility challenges or difficulty obtaining transportation to the Service BC office, as well as those who do not have phones.
Alternative Services for Tenants
TAPS’ Tenancy Advocacy Project provides information and advice to tenants regarding all aspects of tenancy disputes and RTB procedures. TAPS also provides limited phone access to tenants.
The Service BC office at 771 Vernon Avenue offers tenants computers where they can access information on government websites, including the Residential Tenancy Branch website. In addition, tenants can use the phone to contact RTB offices.
Alternatively, tenants can access information about residential tenancies from home at http://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/housing-tenancy/residential-tenancies and contact RTB officers from home by dialing 250-387-1602.
In addition, the following offices provide telephone and computer services in the downtown area:
- REES Program, 465 Swift Street, Victoria – Open telephone and computer use, Monday – Friday, 9:00 – 3:30.
- Justice Access Centre, 850 Burdett Avenue – Computer use related to court processes and tenancy issues, Monday – Friday, 9:00 – 4:00.
- Victoria Public Library, various branches – Open computer use, Monday – Friday, hours vary based on branch.