View Towers and the Public Interest

By: 

Stephen Portman

In early July, TAPS received a letter from the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) laying out their reasons for refusing to investigate the landlord of View Towers, Westsea Construction Ltd.

TAPS first requested that the RTB investigate Westsea on September 25, 2014, for alleged contraventions of the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA) following the May 2014 fire at View Towers. This request was denied, and this denial prompted TAPS to file an application in the BC Supreme Court. The BC Supreme Court issued a court consent order directing the RTB to conduct a new evaluation of TAPS’ request for an investigation.

Despite the substantial evidence alleging that Westsea gave tenants incorrect or no information about the state of their suites, coerced tenants into signing mutual agreements to end their tenancies, and failed to provide tenants with access to personal property, the RTB again declined to investigate the landlord.

The RTB’s letter states that it has decided not to investigate the complaint because “it is very unlikely that there would be public benefit in an investigation as the alleged harm had little effect on other members of the public,” among other reasons.

As an organization with a long history of advocating on behalf of low-income tenants, we respectfully disagree; we believe an investigation would have been of benefit to the public. At the very least, an investigation into the actions of Westsea would have served to give the public faith that tenants have protections under the law. Should the RTB have investigated and found that Westsea did not break the law, the same public benefit would result.

The reasoning offered by the RTB undermines the purpose of much legislation that intersects with the interests of people on low incomes. Too often this legislation is compliance-based, requiring individual complaints for any injustices to be addressed. At TAPS, we frequently hear that people who have been wrongfully evicted, exploited at work, or denied income assistance should simply file a complaint, and then justice will be done and the public interest served.

It will come as no surprise to our community that it almost never works out this way. Finding justice one case at a time is a poor way to serve the public interest, and this is especially true when considering the interests of the poorer members of the public. Legislation like the Residential Tenancy Act must be enforced to ensure that the protections it offers have effect. When landlords break the law there should be a consequence in order for the law to be respected. Where the compliance of landlords with tenancy laws remains unchecked, the public interest becomes predicated on private virtue, and this never works out well for the public interest.

While many landlords are well intentioned and law abiding, we see far too many abusing the rights of individual tenants on a recurring basis, with little regard for individual complaints that are filed against them. Some of the more nefarious landlords see RTB orders won by individual tenants through arbitration as simply the cost of doing business.

Without proactive enforcement of tenancy laws, including investigations, tenants’ rights will continue to be without meaning for many people living in poverty, and the public’s faith in the law will continue to erode. Where the RTB has knowledge of widespread contraventions of the law on the part of a landlord, they should proactively investigate. However, to the best of our knowledge, the RTB has only ever investigated one landlord in BC resulting in administrative penalties.

If residential tenancy law is to serve the public, it must be meaningful. If it is to be meaningful, then the RTB must expend effort and resources to ensure that the law has effect, and this is what we have sought through our advocacy around the View Towers incident. We will continue this work.

To all of the tenants who have endured and given so much to the job of trying to find some justice out of what occurred at View Towers, thank you. It takes courage to try and do the right thing, and it is your courage that continues to fuel our efforts.