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Disaster Preparedness for Tenants

By Leila Geggie Hurst, TAPS Staff Lawyer

If you’re a tenant, you may have read news stories about tenants displaced by fire or floods, and wondered “what would happen to me if there was a disaster in my building?”. Every situation is different, but here are some common pitfalls to look out for and systemic responses that need improvement.

A disaster could damage part of a building, but leave the rest safe and habitable. If your unit is undamaged and the building is safe your tenancy can continue as before. However, if the disaster makes your unit, or your entire building, unsafe to live in, your tenancy agreement might be “frustrated”. “Frustrated” is a legal term for when an unanticipated event makes it impossible for the tenant and landlord to fulfill their key obligations under the tenancy agreement. In short, the tenancy is over.

Your tenancy isn’t necessarily over just because your landlord says it is, though. Sometimes, landlords have financial incentives to move old tenants out of a building. If you are renting an apartment for less than the market rate, your landlord may be financially motivated to begin a new tenancy for higher rent.

How can you tell if your tenancy is actually frustrated? Unfortunately, there is currently no neutral, independent body that can enter a building and determine whether it’s safe to live in. That means the habitability of a building may end up being determined by engineers and contractors hired by the landlord.

Even so, landlords still must follow certain legal processes. They must apply to the Residential Tenancy Branch for an Order of Possession, and prove that the tenancy is indeed frustrated.

What does this mean for you as a tenant? First, if a landlord asks you to sign a “mutual agreement to end tenancy” after a disaster, you are not obligated to do so. Signing will end your tenancy rights and could impact your ability to seek compensation.

If you believe your apartment is uninhabitable, or if you want to leave your apartment anyway, you can try to negotiate with your landlord for payment in exchange for your agreement to end the tenancy. You are not necessarily entitled to payment – but your landlord may be willing to agree.

Second, you can make sure that your landlord is following the necessary legal processes. If your landlord has locked you out of your building without getting an Order of Possession, and you have reason to believe the building may actually be safe to live in, there may be remedies available. You can seek legal advice or contact the Residential Tenancy Branch for assistance.

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