Surrey Healthy Homes Campaign Report

Local Surrey professors Steve Dooley and John Rose were contracted by ACORN Canada as private consultants to do research about the living conditions tenants face in Surrey, through an unbiased lens.  The following report lays out the research that they compiled at focus groups with Surrey tenants in late 2012, as a part of ACORN Canada's Healthy Homes Project that was funded by Vancouver Community Foundation.

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ACORN BC
Surrey Healthy Homes Campaign

Focus Groups of Vulnerably Housed Individuals in Surrey

Report Prepared By

John Rose and Stephen Dooley
Private Consultants
February 2013

Table of Contents


Introduction 
Method 
   Engaged Campaign Participants 
   Residents 
Results 
   Engaged Campaign Participants 
   Focus Groups with Residents 
Appendix 1: Verbatim Comments from Focus Group 2 

Introduction

In fall 2012, John Rose and Stephen Dooley (henceforth referred to as Rose and Dooley), instructors at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, were contracted by ACORN Canada to conduct a series of focus groups. The purpose of the focus groups was to give those involved in the Surrey Healthy Homes Campaign and other residents, an opportunity to describe their experience of being tenants in Surrey based rental facilities.

Rose and Dooley were contracted specifically to provide an ‘honest broker’ lens to the collection and reporting of data from the two target groups. That is, Rose and Dooley have no vested interest in the mandate of ACORN Canada and were contracted to objectively collect data and report findings.

It is important to note that no recommendations are provided at the end of this report. Rose and Dooley were asked to systematically collect feedback about the campaign and the experiences of residents. The data, as presented, can be used by ACORN Canada to develop and implement recommendations to improve their overall service to clients.

Method

Rose and Dooley conducted two meetings with representatives of ACORN Canada to develop the process for conducting the focus groups. During these sessions specific focus groups questions were developed and the process for recruiting participants was established.

ACORN Canada took the lead on the recruitment of participants. It was decided that 3 focus groups would be held: one for the engaged participants and 2 for the residents. The engaged participant’s focus group was held on October 18th 2012 and the resident’s focus groups occurred concurrently on the evening of October 29th 2012.

A total of 24 participants (7 engaged community participants; 17 residents) were involved in the focus groups. Prior to the beginning of the sessions subjects were advised as to their rights as participants: that their participation was voluntary, that their identity would remain anonymous, that the data would be maintained with confidentiality and that they could stop participating at any point in the process. In appreciation of their participation, each participant was given a $5.00 Tim Horton’s card.

At the beginning of each session the facilitators made it clear that they did not work for ACORN Canada. The facilitators were identified as private consultants whose job it was to systematically collect and report on the aggregate experiences of focus group participants.
Some more details about each of the sessions are provided below:

Engaged Campaign Participants

This focus group was conducted at the main Surrey Public Library on the evening of Thursday, October 18, 2012. The focus group was facilitated and recorded by John Rose, and was approximately one and a half hours in length. There were seven participants in attendance, recruited by ACORN BC and comprised of individuals identified as being engaged in the Surrey Healthy Homes Campaign. Focus group questions surveyed participants’ involvement in the campaign, and their perception of the impacts and efficacy of this engagement. Focus group participants provided written answers to a short questionnaire, questions which were repeated and explored further in the oral focus group proceedings.

Residents

This focus group was conducted at the main Surrey Public Library on the evening of Monday, October 29, 2012. There were seventeen participants in attendance, recruited by ACORN BC and comprised of individuals identified as residents of buildings with significant repair and livability issues. Focus group questions explored residents’ problems with their buildings, their experiences with their landlords and the Residential Tenancy Office, and their perception of the responsiveness of these actors to tenancy-related complaints.

Facilitators Steve Dooley and John Rose organized the session into two smaller focus groups. Steve Dooley facilitated one focus group of nine participants, and John Rose facilitated a second group of eight participants. Each group provided written answers to a short questionnaire, questions which were repeated and explored further in the oral focus group proceedings. The following is John Rose’s report of his resident focus group.

Results
Engaged Campaign Participants

They identified the campaign as having produced greater awareness of
housing issues among the public.

Overall, the responses to the 7 questions reflect a mixed picture of the experiences of those who had engaged in the Healthy Homes Campaign. There was general agreement that the campaign produced greater awareness of housing issues and a number of future directions were identified by participants. A summary by each question is provided below.

Q1: Please describe, briefly, how you have been involved in the healthy homes campaign.

All focus group members reported having taken part in campaign meetings. All but two participants described engagement in the form of demonstrating (waving placards and presenting a letter of tenant demands) outside problem buildings in events described as ‘actions’.

Two of the focus group participants described further actions in support of the campaign, including writing letters to various BC municipal governments and attending council meetings at Surrey City Hall.

Q2: Prior to being engaged in the healthy homes campaign what involvement did you have in the civic process?

Four of the seven focus group participants described themselves as being involved in the civic process prior to their engagement in the healthy homes campaign. Two of these individuals described participation in the civic process exclusively in other cities prior to moving to metropolitan Vancouver. One participant’s involvement took place in Toronto, and was comprised of actions in support of a tenancy issue they had at their residence. Another participant’s involvement in the civic process took place in Regina, in the form of participation in an Occupy demonstration in that city.

The other two members involved in the civic process before the healthy homes campaign described a wide range of activities in metropolitan Vancouver, including participating in university student politics, writing to municipal, provincial, and federal politicians about various political issues, attending city council meetings, and volunteering for sports and youth organizations.

Q3: How has your involvement with ACORN impacted your level of comfort to engage in the civic process?

On the whole, respondents reported a modest impact on their level of comfort to engage in the civic process. Three individuals indicated that their comfort level had remained the same as before, while four individuals stated that involvement with ACORN had been somewhat helpful in increasing their confidence in engaging in the civic process.

Q4: What direct benefits, if any, have you seen from being involved with the healthy homes campaign?

None of the focus group participants described improvements to their own living conditions as a result of involvement in the healthy homes campaign. Only one participant described a direct benefit to themself, stating that the campaign had provided a means to network with people with similar tenancy-related interests and concerns.

Three of the focus group participants framed the concept of ‘direct benefits’ in terms of broader results that would provide benefits to residents experiencing housing problems. They identified the campaign as having produced greater awareness of housing issues among the public, and tenants with problems in particular; they also stated that the campaign had resulted in improvements to the legislative and administrative context of housing regulation, namely, the passing of maintenance bylaws by various metropolitan Vancouver municipalities, and a greater willingness of the Residential Tenancy Office to enforce housing regulations.

Q5: In what ways has your association with ACORN helped or hindered your relationship with your landlord?

Five out of seven focus group participants stated that their association with ACORN had neither hindered nor helped them, in part because their landlord was unaware of their association with ACORN on account of the practice of engaging in ‘actions’ at residences other than their own.

One participant stated that their association with ACORN had resulted in their landlord acting more quickly when making repairs to the suites in their building complex. Another participant stated that their association with ACORN had resulted in their ‘renoviction’ from their suite, with this outcome being described by the participant as ‘mutually beneficial’ for them and their landlord.

Q6: Do you feel that your participation has made a difference in getting safer and healthier apartment buildings in your area? Please explain why/why not you believe your participation has made a difference.

All focus group participants expressed a belief in the broader efficacy of participation in the healthy homes campaign. They highlighted the benefits of the campaign in providing residents with information about their rights and the regulatory environment governing housing and tenant/landlord relations, and emboldening residents to protest when they feel their rights are being violated. Three participants pointed to the passing of healthy homes bylaws in municipalities such as Surrey as an important result of the campaign.

Beyond these broader impacts, one participant stated that the campaign had resulted in repairs to their building being completed more quickly than before; another stated that the campaign had helped them move to different, higher quality, residence.

Q7: Any additional comments you would like to make about your participation in the healthy homes campaign?

Three participants offered additional commentary on the healthy homes campaign. Two comments advocated an expanded mandate for the campaign, to focus on broader social justice issues and the problem of homelessness in particular. One written comment on the questionnaire appeared to highlight an operational issue, with the respondent stating that they “needed more weekday time to deal with issues,” though the full meaning of this statement is unclear and was not explored during the focus group proceedings.

Focus Groups with Residents

“I have been bitten from my feet to my neck in the first 3 months of living here. I have endured a fungus infection. Flea bites and mites under my skin. I have no animals!”

The above is a direct quote from one of the focus groups participants. In both focus groups the facilitators heard a number of very in-depth stories of the challenges and experiences of renters in terms of their living condition and relationship to their landlord. A summary of the responses to each question is provided below.

But Appendix one provides a verbatim account of what the participants wrote in response to each of the questions. In many ways these responses drill deeper into the issues faced by vulnerable renters in Surrey.

Q1: What are common types of maintenance issues in your apartment building? In your estimation, how complex would any needed repairs be?

All participants identified maintenance problems with their residences. The most common complaints were the following:

• inoperative plumbing: problems with hot water provision and the plugging of sinks and toilet drains
• inoperative lighting fixtures, electrical outlets, telephone lines, and appliances such as stoves
• infestation of residences by bedbugs, cockroaches, and mice
• aged and deteriorating paint, carpets, and linoleum flooring

These were generally perceived as fairly simple, general maintenance problems, the effective repair of which would require qualified tradespeople but comparatively few resources. However, three individuals described what they termed more complex problems, such as the replacement of a rotted balcony, the removal of asbestos building materials, and the repair of a broken elevator serving a building of several storeys.

Q2: How does your landlord respond to your needs as a tenant? Does your landlord, for example, make repairs to your residence when requested?

With one exception, a participant who reported repairs being done satisfactorily within a couple of days, focus group participants reported middling to poor performance of landlords in responding to their needs as a tenant. Among this group, nobody reported their landlord as completely inattentive or unresponsive, but a primary concern was the time it took (often several weeks) to have repairs completed, often only after the tenant had made multiple visits to the landlord or building manager to follow up on a maintenance/repair issue. Furthermore, this group described their landlords as hiring cut-rate, unqualified individuals—using poor-quality/used materials and fixtures—to effect repairs; the result of this being unsatisfactory repairs which quickly failed.

Q3: How, if at all, can you get things fixed in your residence if your landlord will not make needed repairs? Who do you turn to for help in this situation?

In the absence of a satisfactory response by landlords to their maintenance issues, all participants reported that they relied on themselves and/or family and friends to perform simple repairs to their residence. These included patching holes in drywall, repairing/replacing floor tiles, painting walls, and replacing electrical outlet and lighting switch cover plates.
Beyond this, one participant noted the assistance of volunteers from their church in effecting repairs at their residence. Another stated that they were obliged, at the landlord’s direction, to have a qualified plumber come in to fix a problem at their own expense, as the landlord attributed the problem to the tenant.

One limitation noted by a number of focus group participants during the discussion was the prohibitive cost of having repairs done in the event that the landlord did not adequately respond to their complaints. Focus group participants also expressed the concern that repairing problems at their suites would serve to relieve landlords of their obligations to their tenants, though there was a resignation that this ‘self-help’ was nevertheless required to maintain minimally-adequate living standards.

Q4: Do you know about the Residential Tenancy Branch? What has been your experience, if any, with it? How accessible/affordable, for example, is the process of filing a dispute with your landlord through the Residential Tenancy Branch?

All participants were aware of the Residential Tenancy Branch. Five members of the focus group had contacted their branch, either online, by phone, or in person, to obtain information about housing regulations and tenants’ rights. Three of these individuals also indicated that they had contacted their branch to pursue a specific grievance about their living conditions and their landlord’s actions.

One member of the focus group described a favourable experience with the branch, describing the staff (whom they met in an in-person meeting) as “informative and helpful.” Criticisms of the branch’s services, however, were expressed by the others who had contacted the office. These included problems with accessing information, with the material available online seen as vague and somewhat unhelpful, and telephone wait-times described as excessively long. In-person visits to the branch were also problematic for participants, with those making visits with grievances describing the office environment as busy and stressful, and office staff (whom they perceived to be burdened with a high caseload) as weary and uncaring. Participants pursuing claims also criticized the expense of the process and its length, with one participant stating that after fighting with their landlord, via the Residential Tenancy Branch, for six years that they were better off simply moving away from the residence.

Q5: Do you fear retaliation for making requests for repairs, for making appeals to a Residential Tenancy Branch, or for joining a tenants association? Please elaborate.

Three of the eight focus group participants expressed fear of retaliation for taking various actions to improve their living conditions. Two of these individuals spoke strongly, one person noting that their suite was constantly being inspected by the landlord for possible infractions of their rental agreement, and both stating that they were intimidated by their landlord through threats of eviction. The other individual was more equivocal, stating that they only “sometimes” felt the fear of retaliation, “depending on who you are dealing with.”

The remaining five focus group participants did not state a fear of retaliation. Among this group, two individuals emphasized their knowledge of tenants’ rights, their independence, and assertiveness as key assets in making them feel confident in expressing their concerns without fear.

Q6: Any additional comments you would like to make about your housing situation?

A widespread concern, and topic of considerable discussion during the focus group session, was the vetting of apartment managers and their perceived lack of professional credentials. These individuals were seen as crucial in mediating the landlord/tenant relationship, with the fortunes of buildings rising and falling depending on whether one had a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ manager at a given point in time. Problems associated with bad management included:

• improper bookkeeping practices (poor recording of rents paid by tenants; perceived instances of theft; pressure to pay rent through electronic [Interact] means exclusively)
• managers and tradespeople accessing suites without proper notice and permission
• insufficient attention to disputes among tenants (e.g. noise from adjacent residents)
• insufficient attention to security-related issues, such as drug users on site and theft of property
• poor communication and resolution of disputes, on account of managers’ perceived poor interpersonal skills and, periodically, lack of English language proficiency

Appendix 1: Verbatim Comments from Focus Group 2

1) What are the common types of maintenance issues in your apartment building? In your estimation, how complex would any needed repairs be?

• Electrical – outlets broken
• Elevators stopped working – people trapped
• Structural damage – broken doors, cupboards, balcony railings
• No hot water
• Broken appliances – need replacing
• Common areas are filthy/laundry room
• No screens provided – bug bites
• Bugs inside apartment – 8 different species collected
• Black mold on windows\mold on balcony wood slats
• Tiles not finished to walls in kitchen/bathroom
• Lack of cleaning
• Bugs
• Electrical service not in working order for all residents
• Water not properly hooked up
• Next to no driveway lighting for safety
• Nothing is up to code
• Furnace problems
• Mold – lost hair due to mold
• A nest in the wall
• Electrical
• Water
• Hard to get qualified people in to fix it

2) How does your landlord respond to your needs as a tenant? Does your landlord, for example, make repairs to your resident when requested?

• Landlord says it will get prepared in a specific time frame, but that time comes and goes. No one shows up. I complain. Start over again. Have heard identical story from other tenants.
• I have lived here a year and have never had any repairs done. When I moved in, I noticed major structural damage. The landlord promised that it would be repaired within 2 weeks. Still waiting ( a year has passed).
• Does only what is necessary. Place needs new flooring, new windows and balcony needs new wood slats. Spot fumigating is not resolving the bug infestation
• Yes, they respond but with not experienced maintenance people
• He avoids the residents. Why make repairs when he can make excuses?
• My brother tries to deal with him for me.
• The landlord says he’ll get someone in to do the work but doesn’t make sure the workers show up or do the work.

3) How, if at all, can you get things fixed in your residence, if your landlord will not make the need repairs? Who do you turn to for help in this situation?

• I moved out because the building was infested with fleas, bed-bugs and various other bugs and rodents
• They will not fumigate the entire building to get rid of the problem
• I have turned to ACORN for help. Have not gone through the RTB process for several reasons: the first being the effect it might have on my mental disability, second being the many examples I have heard of rulings not being enforced, third, I do not know how to navigate the RTB process
• I do the repairs myself
• Fix it myself
• Hire someone myself and take it out of my rent
• There is no avenue to have the repairs done or maintenance with still having to pay rent as per RTA statements with an income of $900.00 per month and a rent that is more than a third of that.
• I get my dad to do the repairs.

4) Do you know about the Residential Tenancy Branch? What has been your experience, if any, with it? How accessible/affordable, for example, is the process of filing a dispute with your landlord through the Residential tenancy Branch?

• Not sure, in the process of filing a dispute. Will soon be meeting with my legal advocate. Stay tuned.
• Yes, fearful of process due to risk of further abuse (verbal harassment) from my landlord is another ereason I have not used it.
• Too expensive
• They don’t seem to care – put you on hold for an hour
• RTB avoids issues at our address by quoting Hotel/Motel Act rather than tenants guide.
• If you prove you are on PWD you don’t have to pay except with your dignity
• No experience
• Yes, the dispute is costly in terms of time and money as there is only one office for the ENTIRE GVRD

5) Do you fear retaliation for making requests for repairs, for making appeals to the Residential Tenancy Branch, or for joining a tenants association? Please elaborate.

• No. I have well documented my experience as well as taking pictures
• Yes. Landlord extremely verbally abusive, her daughter known to make threats of violence. I understand I cannot be evicted without cause, but landlord can “find” another reason. For example, late rent form the past can be used to evict
• No
• Requests for repairs are routinely ignored so no retaliation required. Appeals to the RTB are sidestepped. I live in a community of ‘don’t make waves’
• I let my brother deal with the landlord

6) Other comments

• I have been bitten from my feet to my neck in the first 3 months of living here. I have endured a fungus infection. Flea bites and mites under my skin. I have no animals!
• I feel as if I have no rights as a tenant and that housing for low income people is held hostage by my landlord and owners who are only looking to make a buck, not actually manage rental buildings.
• Cheap owners! The landlords are responsible for the cockroaches
• Would love to be on my own but can’t afford to do so. I can’t afford more than $450.00 a month, all included
• Hard to find that unless you want to deal with black mold
• Just expensive – hard to move