Vancouver renters picket a building. Image: contributed photo

After 16 years of B.C. Liberal rule, a full-blown housing crisis had enveloped B.C., leading to an explosion in land values and speculation which directly translated to sky-high rents. These exponential increases led to fire sales and demolitions of renters’ homes across the province, or frivolous attempts by landlords to evict long-term tenants under the guise of renovations — known as “renovictions” — in order to jack up the rent with no limits.

At the peak of summer of 2017, the new minister of municipal affairs and housing, Selina Robinson, received a mandate letter filled with vague, progressive language that included the phrase “amend the Residential Tenancy Act to provide stronger protections for renters,” which made clear whose side she was supposed to be on. In fact, the word “landlord” doesn’t appear in the document even once.

It was under this context that the Rental Housing Task Force (RHTF) was struck. Renters’ advocates at the Vancouver Tenants Union engaged in good faith with this new process, submitting 50 recommendations to protect renters and begin to properly regulate the rental market. At the top of the list was to remove the financial incentive of evictions by introducing real rent control and tying rent increases to the unit, not the tenant.

After swift backlash at the announcement of a 4.5 per cent rent hike for 2019, the highest in 15 years, RHTF made an early announcement of one of its recommendations: to lower rent increases to the rate of consumer price index, bringing the rate down to 2.5 per cent. 

But when RHTF released the final report, it was made clear that the vast majority of the 50 recommendations were ignored in favour of smaller tweaks, much to the chagrin of tenant advocates

They rebuked RHTF: “[they] appear to have lost sight of the fact that the housing crisis is a crisis for renters, not for landlords; the recommendations place more priority on a landlord’s “right” to the maximum possible profit than improving security of tenure for tenants.”

Pandemic failures

It’s at the height of a humanitarian crisis that people look particularly to a social-democratic government to take care of working people and the most vulnerable in society. 

That’s why tenant advocates were flabbergasted to observe this government fall behind many jurisdictions in North America, including Doug Ford’s right-wing Ontario government, in ensuring that no evictions would result from the disaster of the pandemic.

On March 25, six days before rent day, John Horgan announced a near universal moratorium on evictions, even though just two days prior he had said that some evictions will continue. This despair- and panic-filled month of March for renters only came to an end after hundreds of calls to Robinson’s office and dozens of B.C. mayors pressuring her.

Of course, most renters understood that this was a stop-gap, and in Vancouver, a city with an average one-bedroom market rental rate of $2,100, a $2,000 CERB income supplement (with gaps for the most vulnerable to fall through) was not going to cut it. That’s why nearly one million voices across the country joined together to call for a cancellation of rents and mortgages during the pandemic as immediate action.

Instead of that, NDP MLAs went on TV to “warn” about “rent cheaters” who supposedly “might try to take advantage,” and Robinson unveiled a direct-to-landlord subsidy as “rent relief”: single people received a meagre $300 and those with dependents, no matter how many or how much their rent, only received $500. 

This boondoggle of a program encountered immediate criticisms for being burdensome for tenants to apply to, and for some it took months to receive benefits. And ultimately, the government spent just over half as much on this program to support renters through the worst crisis of their lives than they would have on their broken election promise of a renters’ rebate.

As 15 per cent of rental households (approximately 90,000) — who fell through the cracks or didn’t receive enough support for their sky high rents — continued to build up rent debt and suffer mentally and financially, the minister and her office stopped answering phone calls and emails from renters.

And they ghosted tenant advocates who were raising the alarm on this dire situation. Instead, Robinson was sitting around the table with Landlord BC, who successfully lobbied her to remove the eviction ban and recoup every single cent by putting the entire economic burden on the backs of renters.

It would send quite a terse message to NDP’s renter base if Selina Robinson were to retain the housing portfolio in cabinet after such treatment of the most vulnerable.

Under the B.C. NDP, our pre-pandemic housing crisis became a rent crisis, which has now become an eviction crisis. So you’ll excuse renters for rejecting whatever ideas John Horgan wishes to convey in his mandate letter to the next minister of housing, and write their own instead.

The mandate letter

There have been utter failures from all levels of government to adhere to the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights article 11: “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living … including housing.” This was ratified by Canada in 1976.

During the last three and a half years, and particularly during the pandemic, the B.C. NDP had the opportunity to re-centre the housing crisis and to show leadership on the bold, systemic changes that renters need.

Instead, the opposite has happened. So let this serve as a call to action to renters and their advocates, unions, anti-poverty activists and the unhoused, civil societies, artists and others. These allies should come together in a show of force and propose the protections and reliefs that tenants need to get through these multiple crises, rather than leaving the B.C. NDP in the driver’s seat. 

One way to do that would be to deliver a people’s mandate letter for the next minister of housing. The letter should advocate for short, medium, and long term protections and investments needed to realize the human right to housing for renters. 

One place to start could be to demand common sense policies during the pandemic such as canceling rent debt and reinstating a ban on evictions, which were embraced by president-elect Joe Biden and President Trump

It could demand collective bargaining rights for renters, recognizing that workers deserve a union at home as well as at work, so that they can build power with their neighbours and stand up for their own rights.

And it should demand that we finally end the financial incentive for evictions by reimplementing real rent controls that were in place in the 1970s, and tying the rent increases to the unit, not the tenant.

Maybe alarm bells should have been raised when at the end of 2017 Premier Horgan stated that the B.C. NDP must “set aside our activism and start being better administrators.” Still, it should be no surprise that renters would rather Horgan’s government administer like the Dave Barrett NDP of the 1970s. It’s time we fight like our movement did during that time too.

Mazdak Gharibnavaz is a former elected steering committee member of Vancouver Tenants Union. He is an immigrant and a community organizer who has worked on grassroots campaigns for digital privacy and free expression, climate change, democratic reforms, labour rights and housing justice.

Image: contributed photo