It’s cold, it’s hard to get work and it’s tough to find an affordable place to rent these days, particularly in Metro Vancouver. Which is why the government must do all it can to ensure tenants aren’t being gouged.
When landlord-tenant disputes arise, B.C.’s housing ministry is supposed to resolve them through prompt and fair hearings, not leave either party on hold.
The trouble is, the vast majority of these hearings now are done by telephone conference call. And that, according to Vancouver-West End NDP MLA Spencer Herbert, is causing numerous problems — for seniors, the hard of hearing, those with limited English or those who simply get lost in the phone system.
“In some cases, they have called in at the appointed time, but have never been dialled through to the case, leading to their case being dismissed,” Herbert told me. “In many cases, the people I have spoken with have just given up or accepted rulings that might have been thrown out, had they had a fairer and more even process.”
Some landlords also find the conference calls frustrating. But it’s usually the tenants who come off worse, especially if they’re battling big property owners with seasoned staff.
Vancouver housing advocate Leslie Stern, who’s just been evicted from the False Creek townhome she has lived in for 25 years, says telephone hearings are impersonal and mechanical: “Everything seems biased towards a developer or a landlord who has staff and means.”
And Sharon Isaak, co-founder of the tenants’ rights group Renters at Risk, stresses they can be very confusing. “They say they’re making it streamlined, but it’s not,” she said, adding it’s nearly impossible for tenants who want a face-to-face hearing to get one.
Vernon mom June Ross, though, took on the system and won. Her 2007 application to recover money owed her by her landlord was initially dismissed by a dispute-resolution adjudicator on the grounds she’d failed to show up for the arranged telephone hearing.
That decision was upheld by a second adjudicator, but later dismissed by the B.C. Supreme Court.
The court found Ross had, in fact, followed instructions and had stayed on the line until it simply went dead. Indeed, Justice Joel Groves ordered the dispute to be reheard because the two adjudicators had “breached the rules of natural justice.”
Justice Groves said it was certainly not the first time in his experience that this type of problem had arisen, and he urged the Residential Tenancy Branch to provide a separate line for those experiencing call problems.
The B.C. housing ministry told me it appreciated both the court’s decision and its recommendation regarding hearing procedures. A spokesman said: “We do treat the process seriously.”
Well, if that’s the case, the ministry should make it seriously easier for folks to attend hearings in person — and not just at one Lower Mainland location.
Basic fairness is being compromised here. And tenants, as well as some landlords, are being left out in the cold.
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