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B.C. rent control ban benefits landlords

Globe and Mail - January 10, 1990
By Deborah Wilson

In 1983, the British Columbia government listened to the long-time refrain of landlords and abolished rent controls.

Since the mid-1970s, it had been conventional wisdom among landlords that rent controls are unnecessary and counterproductive, and that "the market," if left to function unimpeded, would provide rental accommodation to meet a city's needs.

But the "little social experiment" has failed dismally, David Hulchanski, director of the Centre for Human Settlements at the University of British Columbia, says.

He said the result of abolishing rent controls has been "the failure of the rental sector" as rents have increased by 80 per cent or more for many apartments, and the supply of rental housing has declined with the demolition of apartment buildings for condominiums.

"The supply side has failed and there is only tremendous demand," he said. Landlords, meanwhile, "are taking advantage of the market failure by charging whatever they can get. Nobody knows what the market would be if there was a rental market."

With two vacant apartmens out of every 1,000, Victoria had the lowest apartment vacancy rate in Canada for October, the most recent month for which statistics are available from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Greater Vancouver had a vacancy rate of 0.4 per cent, compared with 0.3 per cent in the Toronto area, 4.9 per cent in Montreal, 1.2 per cent in Calgary and 3.3 per cent in Halifax.

The average one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver rented for $548 in the same month. Hardest hit are single parents and families, as the B.C. Human Rights Code permits landlords to screen out children.

"For tenants the operative word is fear," said Suzi Kilgour, a spokesman for the BC Tenants Rights Coalition. "Fear is losing your home, because there is nowhere to go."

Yesterday, Vancover Mayor Gordon Campbell and a leading credit union joined to announce a lending program aimed at encouraging homeowners to upgrade illegal suites or create new secondary suites in their homes.

Robert Williams, chairman of Vancover City Savings Credit Union, said the institution will provide loans at one-half point below the prime interest rate for people who want to upgrade or build secondary suites. Alternately, homeowners may finance the renovations by arranging a second mortage at the first-mortgage interest rates.

Mr. Campbell said he has approached provincial officials about the possibility of providing grants for the renovations, but has received a lukewarm response.

The Vancouver city council has also called for a return of the rentalsman's office, and substantial changes to the Residential Tenancy Act.

However, a spokesman for the governments's British Columbia Housing Management Commission said the government is working to invcrease the supply of rental housing through a $40-million subsidy program that will provide write-downs in the interest on loans to rental housing developers in low-vacancy areas.

Janet Austin, the commission spokesman, said the program is expected to generate 4,000 new rental units this year, with rents geared to be affordable to the average family.

Norman Jacobsen, the B.C. Labor and Consumer Servcies minister, said the government does not favor a return to rent controls, but he would not rule out the possibility entirely.

"The only thing I can really tell you is I'm aware of the situation, we are looking into it and we're concerned for the people who are facing these difficulties," Mr. Jacobsen said in an interview yesterday.

The programs by the city and the province are a drop in the bucket to tenant advocates, who noted that more than 400 suites were lost to demolition in one Vancouver neighborhood last year, and downtown east side rooming hotel rooms, the housing of last resort for many, are rapidly disappearing.

Noreen Shanahan, another spokesman for the Tenants Rights Coalition, said the people worst affected by the housing squeeze are "a lot of older women and a lot of families."

Ms. Shanahan said one recent call to the tenant hotline was from a pregnant woman who had moved to Vancover from Alberta in October, and is living with her children in a rundown room at a skid road hotel for $500 a month. "She shares her bed with a 2-year-old and her 10-month-old sleeps on the floor in a play pen."

The 1,000 or more tenants who call the coalition hotline each month are reporting increaseing incidents of harassment and illegal evictions, in addition to the frequent reports of 30 ot 80 per cent rent increases and evictions because of demolitions, Ms. Shanahan said.

One tenant who called the hotline is Kenneth Clayton, who is legally blind and lives with his elderly mother in a West End apartment block. The rent on his two-bedroom apartment was increased 50 per cent effective Jan. 1, from $515 to $725 a month, meaning he and his mother must pay two-thirds of their combined pension cheques to cover the rent.

Mr. Clayton said that after living in the apartment for 18 years, they are now looking for a new home outside the city, in Nanaimo or Chilliwack.

"If I stay here, this greedy millionaire landlord is going to get richer on my money," Mr. Clayton said, adding that in addition to the rent increase, cleaning and maintenance of the building had been cut back to the point where the grounds and hallways are filthy.

"I don't like that I'm being forced out but at the same time, Vancover is not the place I used to love," he said.

A spokesman for landlords said the current rental crisis does not prove that the rental market has failed, but only that municipalities must move to allow greater building densities so that it will be economically viable again to build rental housing.

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