Toronto Star: This metro Vancouver city cracked the renoviction code. Can it work elsewhere?

Posted May 13, 2021

VANCOUVER — It was a regular occurrence for city staff and councillors to receive phone calls from worried, even weeping, residents fearing for their future after being evicted from their homes in New Westminster, B.C.
 
So-called “renovictions” — evicting a rental tenant under the guise of having to make renovations only to rerent the apartment at a higher rate — had seen hundreds in the city sent packing.
 
The tactic is used nationwide, especially in Toronto and metro Vancouver. It’s common for the renovations to be merely cosmetic, say housing activists, suggesting the property owners abuse tenancy laws to easily evict their tenants.
 
But New Westminster, a historic city in metro Vancouver on the banks of the Fraser River, had seen enough.
 
In 2019 council adopted a bylaw so adept at shutting down renovictions one developer launched a lawsuit challenging it. The numbered company’s attempts went all the way to the B.C. Court of Appeal and it lost its bid in late April.
 
“We’d rather not have to intercede but in the absence of any other controls being in place then we did step in,” Emilie Adin, the city’s director of development services, said. “Our council was quite brave in terms of trying something completely new.”
 
The city’s win may not just be a local victory. Adin said at least a dozen municipalities from across Ontario and B.C. have been in contact about the bylaw, including inquiries from Hamilton and Kingston, Ont.
 
Among the regulations, New Westminster’s bylaw compels rental property owners to provide alternate accommodation for tenants if they need to leave their unit so it can be renovated. Owners must also give renters a written offer to return to the rental unit or another rental unit at the same rate.
 
Owners who do not comply are subject to fines, but also risk not having their business licences renewed. They can appeal to council if they feel they have a legitimate reason not to accommodate renters.
 
Adin said New Westminster looked at using business licences to enforce the laws in a way similar to how they are used to ban shark fin soup or selling puppies due to puppy mill concerns in some cities.
 
According to city statistics, renovictions went from a combined 333 households between 2016 and 2018 to zero since 2019, when the bylaw came into force.
 
Not long after the bylaw came into affect, the lawsuit from a numbered company, 1193652 B.C. Ltd., was launched with a final decision from the B.C. Court of Appeal released April 30.
 
Justice Gail Dickson dismissed the appeal reasoning the city was within its rights to enact the bylaw based on the province’s community charter.
 
Adin said now she hopes other municipalities can use New Westminster’s approach as a blueprint to protect their own renters, adding city Coun. Jaimie McEvoy was recently invited to speak about it at a conference in Hamilton.
 
That city has been experiencing its own crisis with renovictions as the asking price for a one-bedroom apartment has skyrocketed to $1,400 a month.
 
Meanwhile, according to a 2019 report by the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario renovictions in Toronto increased from just under 350 in 2015-16 to more than 650 in 2018-19 as of that October.
 
Dave Bell of the community group Parkdale Organize said he’d love to see something like New Westminster’s bylaw in Toronto, but is also unsure if it would hold up in Ontario.
 
Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood has been living with pressures of renovictions and other gentrification issues without solid action from authorities, he said.
 
“It’s something I’ve been worried about personally,” Bell said, explaining his own building was purchased by new owners who started buying out or trying to evict residents to increase rents.
 
“We fought back pretty hard and they’ve backed off but the units that they did manage to get cleared out have tripled in price.”
 
Bell said heavier fines on owners brought in by Ontario to combat renovictions are simply considered a cost of doing business by landlords.
 
He said though a bylaw like New Westminster’s would be good he worries, if one ever came into effect, powerful people would simply pay lawyers to find a way around it.
 
But, Adin said, in the experience of New Westminster the system worked.
 
“That was exactly the sort of thing that may well have occurred in this situation but we won, so I think the courts are reasonable at looking at the facts of the case,” she said. “And they are not going to allow these bylaws to be run around or overturned.”
 
Robert Patterson, a lawyer with the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre in Vancouver, said it would be good to see New Westminster’s tough regulations repeated across the country.
 
Patterson said enacting them would depend on the laws governing municipalities in each province because provincial laws are what gave New Westminster the authority to enact the bylaws.
 
Renovictions are likely to become a growing problem across the country and cities will need to find solutions, he said.
 
“With the increasing financialization of real estate only driven to extremes by the pandemic in the last year and the real estate craze, if it wasn’t an issue in many places around the country it may soon become an issue,” he said.

 

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Article by Jeremy Nuttall for the Toronto Star

 

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