Published in the Westender
Mark Moore, Christine Brandt and Andrew Simmons stood outside the West End’s Seafield Apartments on a bitingly cold Wednesday morning trading war stories.
The trio had turned out to support 15 of the building’s tenants who last week learned they’d successfully fought mass evictions by their landlords, Gordon Nelson Investments Inc. But as the press conference dissipated, the three neighbours lingered to recount their own David-and-Goliath battles against landlords who’ve been attempting to evict entire buildings in the West End.
The Seafielders may have won this time, but the way these neighbours see it, the victory highlights serious inconsistencies in rulings by dispute resolution officers with the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) and an overall lack of transparency in the bureaucratic framework intended to protect renters’ rights.
“Really, it’s not a very transparent system at all,” says Simmons, a resident at nearby Emerald Terrace, who has successfully fought eviction by landlord Hollyburn Properties.
“No it’s not, there’s no sunshine, which is really antithetical to a democracy,” replies Brandt, joined by her partner Moore. After leading the fight against evictions in the building, the couple and their young son were evicted from the Seafield in mid-October after a dispute resolution officer (DRO) rejected their argument the order to vacate their two-bedroom suite to make way for a live-in property manager had been made in bad faith.
Moore says the experience was the last straw in dealing with a system that, in his opinion, seems shrouded in secrecy and stacked against renters. “We don’t know who these people are, we don’t know how they get their jobs, we don’t even know what their first names are because they’ll only give you an initial,” says Moore of the DROs in charge of hearings at the RTB.
A look at decisions posted by the provincial agency illustrates his point. Want to find out if a certain landlord or tenant has a habit of showing up in dispute resolution hearings? Tough. Decisions published on the RTB site have been scrubbed of all identifying details of the parties involved. Wondering whether a certain DRO has a tendency to side with landlords over tenants, or vice versa? No dice. There won’t be any details on the individuals deciding the case, either.
According to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, qualifications for DROs include “experience in binding and legal decision-making in an administrative law setting,” but publicly released decisions by the RTB are stripped of identifying details in order to protect the privacy of participants.
“All decisions are published and universally accessible, however identifying information is removed from them,” the spokesperson wrote in an e-mail to WE. The e-mail also explained “the RTB has the same jurisdiction as the Provincial Court, and the decisions belong to the participants.”
But while decisions released by provincial courts and virtually every other quasi-judicial body in B.C., such as the BC Human Rights Tribunal or the Employment Standards Tribunal, clearly state identities of arbitrators and disputing parties in most cases, the RTB is exempt.
For renters like Simmons of Emerald Terrace, that practice seems engineered to keep renters in the dark about landlords’ track records. “So you can look at 10, 20, 30 decisions online and not know that it’s 30 decisions in a row against the same landlords,” he says.
Lawyer Scott Bernstein with PIVOT Legal Society, agrees the practice is dubious and unique among legislative tribunals in the province.
“I think it really speaks ill for accountability of dispute resolution officers and the Residential Tenancy Branch as a whole,” he told WE in a phone interview. “When you choose to litigate something in the courts, you have to make a special application for having your name taken off the header… I think maybe it should be the same way.”
Having information of the parties and arbitrators publicly available would help renters identify pattern behaviours, Bernstein continued.
“It would reveal systemic issues of how landlords treat their tenants and take care of the buildings and so on.” PIVOT currently has a mandate to conduct legal outreach on renters’ issues, he added.
Whether landlords’ records should be taken into account in dispute resolution hearings is another issue facing renters. Bernstein stopped short of saying DROs should be compelled to take previous decisions against landlords or tenants into account in dispute hearings, but there should be more consistency in rulings by the RTB.
“If your neighbour got one kind of a ruling from one dispute resolution officer and you bring in the same facts and the same situation against the same landlord, you should have the same ruling,” he said.
For many West End residents that has not been the case. Sharon Isaak of the non-profit group Renters at Risk cites her experience in 2006 when landlord Hollyburn Properties were evicting residents, floor-by-floor, from Bay Towers to conduct renovations.
“We had mixed decisions coming out of the RTO. I won, and then every other floor lost and the arguments and the evidence were identical,” she said. “It was this storm of mixed decisions coming out… it was this whole mentality of divide and conquer.”
Former Seafielders Moore and Brandt are still dismayed by their unsuccessful dispute hearing last October. A copy of the decision in their case supplied by the tenants shows the DRO, identified only as D. Bryant, refused to allow them to present previous tenants as supporting witnesses. Nor did he take the landlords’ prior behaviour in evicting previous tenants, or their unsuccessful bid for a 73-per-cent rent increase, into account. However the past behaviour of Gordon Nelson Investments figured prominently in the most recent decision by one D. Vaughn, another DRO, who ruled in favour of the remaining Seafield tenants who’d claimed their eviction notices had been issued in bad faith.
“They’re given a lot of latitude what evidence to accept,” said Moore of the adjudicators. “They don’t have to follow the kind of rules of evidence that a court would. They can decide what evidence they want to hear, what evidence they don’t want to hear.”
A spokesperson for the ministry explained the discrepancy between the two cases was due to differing evidence. “The applications for this particular matter were not for the same things, the evidence differed, therefore, the outcome was different,” she wrote.
WE’s request for an interview with Rich Coleman, the minister in charge of the RTB, was denied.