Renters, landlords eye crucial arbitration case

courier_bannerRenters, landlords eye crucial arbitration case
Sandra Thomas
Vancouver Courier

Christine AckermannThe spokesperson for a volunteer group representing renters facing eviction in the West End says both tenants and landlords are paying attention to an arbitration hearing next week.

Renters at the Seafield apartment building on Pendrell Street face off March 11 against their landlord Gordon Nelson Investments, which recently applied for rent increases of up to 73 per cent. The case, being heard by the provincial Residential Tenancy Office, must be decided within 30 days of the hearing.

“They’ll all be watching because this is absolutely the first case that I’m aware of where a strong tenancy group is fighting geographic market rent increases,” said Christine Ackermann, spokesperson for Renters at Risk. “What’s interesting though, is that I’m not sure if these individual cases decided by the RTO are bound to each other.”

In the past several years, mass evictions have taken place across the West End as developers purchased apartment buildings and applied to raise rents in a grim renters market. The Residential Tenancy Act allows only for annual increases of up to 3.7 per cent, but exceptions can be made if a landlord can prove their tenant’s rents are significantly lower than other rental units in the same area.

Ackermann said the Seafield is an interesting example because instead of moving out, the renters fought back, including going to the media. The high profile of the case has made it of interest to landlords and tenants.

Ackermann said even if these decisions aren’t legally binding, the upcoming case will be precedent setting if only for the message it sends. “Renters at Risk will be very anxious to see what happens in this case,” she said.

Tom Durning, with the Vancouver-based Tenant Resource and Advisory Council, said cases decided by the RTO are not legally binding. While tenants may use past cases to support their individual argument, they don’t set legal precedents.

Despite that lack of legal standing, Durning will also be watching for the results of the March 11 decision.

“It will be an important decision to look at for guidelines,” he said. “And I watch all of the decisions made by the RTO.”

Durning suggests the RTO’s officer in the Seafield case should take into consideration the geographic market rent guidelines set out by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. In one example at the Seafield, the landlord has applied to raise the rent for a two bedroom from just over $1,300 to $2,255. According to the CMHC’s website, the average rent on a two-bedroom in the same area is between $1,507 and $1,611.

“What they need to do is look at a similar building across the street and another one around the corner,” said Durning. “I’ll be really curious to see what criteria is used in this decision.”

Marg Gordon, chief executive officer with the B.C. Apartment Owners and Managers Association, doesn’t believe the results of this arbitration will set a precedent. “It’s not that unusual for a landlord to apply for an above guideline rent increase,” said Gordon. “It’s just that these tenants are particularly vocal.”

She added while many people refer to that particular section of the Residential Tenancy Act as a “loophole,” that’s not the case. “It’s a provision included in the act,” she said.

Gordon said in many cases the increases are justified because landlords must be allowed to maintain their buildings to promote a long-term sustainable rental market. And sometimes raising the rent to meet the market is the only way to do that, she said. “But the deciding officer will complete a fair evaluation of both sides before making that decision,” she said.

© Vancouver Courier 2009