By Douglas King, TAPS Executive Director
When the Residential Tenancy Branch changed the rules for evicting tenants by renovation (“renovictions”), they likely didn’t envision the problems it would cause just a year later. In many ways, the decision to make it harder for a landlord to issue an eviction notice for renovations, changing the process to an application through the branch instead of serving an eviction notice, was too successful. Forcing a landlord to prove to the branch that they had all the necessary permits to conduct work, and that it was necessary for a tenancy to end due to that work, resulted in a drastic drop in evictions. Landlords shied away from the process, and the branch could easily sniff out dishonesty. It effectively showed what we at TAPS always knew: that eviction notices for renovations were being used as a disingenuous way to evict a tenant who had done nothing wrong and couldn’t be evicted for cause, effectively circumventing the protections the Residential Tenancy Act put in place to preserve tenancies.
What we didn’t know at the time was how quickly landlords would move on to the next best thing, handing tenants their marching orders on the guise that they themselves would be moving in, a process known as an eviction for “landlord’s use of property”. The decision to make the change in the rules around renovictions was rightfully lauded at the time, but half measures are sometimes worse than no measure at all and without also changing the rules for evictions based on landlord’s use, landlords have found the hot new way to violate a tenant’s rights.
Who is moving in? Well, that’s private…
When a landlord issues an eviction notice for their own use, all they have to do is say that they or a close family member will be moving in, and the standard of proof is quite low. On the eviction notice, a landlord is not even required to say who the owner of the property is, or who will ultimately be moving in, it’s just... “trust us.” While a tenant can contest the eviction and argue the landlord is being dishonest or has an ulterior motive, it often comes down to a landlord’s word, which has always been held in high regard by the Residential Tenancy Branch. Perhaps out of fear that this provision could be exploited, the penalties for when a landlord is dishonest about claiming to move into a unit were increased in the legislation, but that is cold comfort to a tenant who has already lost their home. And, expecting a tenant to be able to creep around their old place looking for evidence of dishonesty is unrealistic to say the least. For those who are able to prove they were wrongfully evicted there is still the wait time to get a hearing, often the better part of a year, and collecting the penalty is no sure thing.
To complicate matters, the sections of the Residential Tenancy Act that deal with landlord’s use of property are by far the most complicated in the entire Act, much harder to understand than the provisions surrounding renovations, and frankly over the head of most of the arbitrators tasked with deciding if a landlord is qualified to evict. In an effort to bring it in line with other pieces of legislation like the Land Title Act, government lawyers were allowed to run amok, crafting rules around qualification which make little sense to seasoned property litigators. Not surprisingly, when a landlord is challenged about their ownership at the Residential Tenancy Branch they are often given the benefit of the doubt, and tenants are so daunted by the complexity of proving if their landlord has a “reversionary interest” or is a “family corporation” that they give up, taking the certainty of a set move out day over the possibility that if they lose in a hearing they may be asked to leave within 48 hours.
At TAPS, we have seen the number of evictions for landlord’s use of property skyrocket in the last two years, and many of the cases defy belief. We have seen a well-known local property developer evict a senior on disability from a low-rise apartment building on the grounds that his son would move in, only to say six months later that another tenant in a different unit needed to be evicted because his son had changed his mind and wanted to move into that unit after realizing “the balcony is nicer”. We have seen the Vice-President of a real estate company argue they wanted a tiny unit on Esquimalt Road for themselves as “respite” from the large mansion they lived in with their mother in James Bay, and the owner of multiple apartment buildings in Victoria claim someone needed to be evicted because her daughter needed to move into one specific unit in a 43-unit building. When it was shown that there was another open unit in the same building available just a few doors down the landlord said that that one was too big and they didn’t want their daughter to take it because they were afraid it “would spoil her”. What do all of these tenants have in common? They are all longstanding tenants who pay low rent, the lowest in their buildings, due to rent control during tenancies. But without rent control between tenancies, known as vacancy control, they become a target, an object to move so a new tenancy can start at market rates. Landlord’s use of property is an effective way to evict those pesky tenants paying low rent, the ones who also happen to be the least likely to land on their feet once they are kicked out.
We will continue to ask the government and the Residential Tenancy Branch to change the rules and make landlord’s use of property only possible by an application to the branch, just like they did with renovictions. But until we address the bigger issue – the financial incentive that motivates a landlord to turn over their longest and most loyal tenants – we’ll continue to chase the bad actors from one section of the Tenancy Act to another. The only way to truly fix this problem and finally restore some balance in our housing market is by bringing back vacancy control. Tenants need meaningful protection that prevents evictions based on financial gain, and vacancy control would show us which landlords really need to use their properties, and which ones are looking to abuse the system.