Vancouver tenants organize amid rental crunch

by Neil Sharma31 Jan 2018
Renting in Vancouver has become a nebulous affair for many, and they’ve had enough.

The Vancouver Tenants Union, formed nearly a year ago, has grown to about 1,000 members to protect against unscrupulous landlords and, of course, the unaffordability crisis that’s making the city unlivable. Initially an advocacy group for downtrodden renters on the Downtown Eastside, the union’s ranks have swelled with city-wide membership.

Despite—or, perhaps, because of—rent control, some landlords look for ways to force tenants out of their units so that they can start charging market rates.

The Vancouver Tenants Union has received support from other advocacy groups, like LandlordBC, which has called for different levels of government to come together and build more housing types. According to LandlordBC’s CEO, the acrimony facing Vancouver renters is directly tied to the supply shortage.

“If we had a 3-4% vacancy rate, we wouldn’t be discussing this,” said David Hutniak, referring to the imbalanced market. “What they need to do is go advocate to all levels of government to help us build rentals. The fact of the matter is it’s easier and more profitable to build condos here and sell them at $300,000 than it is to build affordable housing. There are negligible incentives to help us build purpose-built rentals.”

While Hutniak lauds the Vancouver Tenants Union, he says the organization needs to be realistic about some of its objectives, because, if realized, they’d backfire. In particular, the union’s calls to freeze rental rates and not allow landlords to charge market prices

“If somebody lived in a unit for 10 to 20 years, their view is that rent should be close to what that person was paying, and that’s just not possible,” said Hutniak. “To suggest that, on turnover, after updating the investment, we can’t charge rent more closely aligned with the market—that doesn’t make the business more viable. We need to keep the business vibrant and keep it growing by building more rental housing. That’s where the solution rests.”

But “there’s a horrible single-room occupancy situation here, and that’s the genesis of their movement, I guess,” added Hutniak. “They’re educated renters and advocating, and I respect what they’re trying to do.”

Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of the Metro Tenants Association, believes the Vancouver Tenants Union is exactly what the West Coast metropolis needs. Moreover, Dent says the fact that the union exists should send a message to government.

“I think It’s great,” he said. “There’s great history of tenants organizing in Vancouver and my big hope is that the people in power start listening. We’re supportive of any group of tenants.”

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