Renoviction Ruline Highlights Inconsistencies in RTB decisions

Renoviction Ruling Highlights Inconsistencies in RTB decisions

Published in the Westender

03/02/2011 12:00 AM

Mark Moore says the Residential Tenancy office is shrouded in secrecy and stacked against renters. Credit: Jessica Barrett

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.


19 Emerald Terrace Tenants Win 4th Dispute Against Landlord at Residential Tenancy Branch

JANUARY 23, 2010

VANCOUVER – Tenants asserting persecution and intimidation by their landlord, Hollyburn Properties Limited, have been vindicated with their most recent win at the Residential Tenancy Branch.

Emerald Terrace Residents Speak Out At Press Conference Today

Emerald Terrace is the rental building where Hollyburn has employed numerous tactics in order to circumvent a BC Supreme Court ruling preventing them from evicting tenants for cosmetic renovations. Tactics include providing misinformation to tenants through “Resident Opinion Polls” in an effort to scare them out of the building and bogus letters stating their tenancies would end. Hollyburn also tried to evict 83-year old Lynn Stevens, a 40 year tenant battling cancer, because they claimed they needed her suite for a resident manager. Hollyburn’s attempt to evict 10 pet owners in 2009 was also thwarted when those tenants filed for dispute resolution at the RTB and had the evictions set aside.

Excerpts from Dispute Resolution Officer K. Millar’s decision:

“I find that the landlord deliberately misinformed the tenants regarding the impact of the plumbing re-pipe.”

I find that the misinformation above had that effect on the tenants and that as a result they were deprived of the right to live in an environment free from intimidation.”

“While to a non-resident the Opinion Poll can be taken to show the landlord’s commitment to upgrade the building which presumably would benefit the tenants, I accept that for the residents of the building it assumed a more sinister air.”

“Emerald Terrace is the tip of the iceberg” explains resident Cynthia Holmes. “These tactics have been exposed only because the tenants in this building had the wherewithal to fight. There is something wrong with the system and the legislation when landlord accountability is entirely dependent on tenant action.”

“Although the amount awarded really does not adequately compensate us for our troubles, I am happy that the decision is in our favour” says 82-year old tenant Les McBride. “My wife Olwen passed away and I believe the stress and anxiety caused by Hollyburn had a significant impact on her health during her final days.”


Conference calls no way to settle tenant-landlord disputes

Easy to get that disconnected feeling:
Conference calls no way to settle tenant-landlord disputes

By Jon Ferry, The Province
December 16, 2009

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.

© Copyright (c) The Province

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When does an RTO office become an “office”?

The new RTO. The Marble Arch hotel?

The new RTO. The March Arch hotel?

Back in October 2008,  during the  run up to the  West End  Provincial By-election,  BC’s Housing Minister Rich Coleman met with Renters At Risk, along with BC Liberal candidate Arthur Griffiths and several tenants about to be evicted for renovations.

In that meeting, a promise was made to improve access to the appeal system  by immediately opening  another RTO office in Downtown Vancouver.  This would mean that tenants in Vancouver would not have to head out to  Burnaby to one of only three  RTO office in the province.   (the Liberals closed all the other Residential Tenancy Offices in the province a few years ago, including one on Thurlow Street that was accessible for thousands of tenants in the  downtown core.  Approximately 85% of West End’s 40,000 citizens were renters at the time the Thurlow office got closed.)

Fast forward to May 2009.  Six months later, is the new Residential Tenancy Office open yet?   Well, yes and no.   Depends on your definition of open.  The news release  from the Government over a month ago says yes.   But  the listed address at 518 Richards Street  is actually the old Marble Arch Hotel, which is now under construction– with no RTO office in sight under the scaffolding.    However, now there is small BC Housing office on the side.  It is very hard to know this  because there is no signage indicating this location as  a BC Housing office.

The front door is unmarked and locked.   You must ring a buzzer and wait for someone to come to the door to let you in.

The RTO behind locked doors.

The RTO behind locked doors.

Up until about a month ago, there was no RTO office at this location.    However,  after a recent story by Jackie Wong in the Westender  (03/26/2009) highlighted the delays in the new RTO launch, there now is a representative from the RTO in the BC Housing office at 520 Richards  to answer rental questions.  It is not  a fully functioning office, as a tenant who went yesterday to file documents  found out the hard way.   This  RTO  “office”  cannot process financial transactions.   Yes, you heard that right, a so-called pro business government office that cannot take money.  The tenant was instructed to head out to Burnaby to file his notice to dispute an eviction. This  exercise  took  a full day off from work  for two people file paperwork about fighting an eviction.  The whole point of opening a downtown office is to provide better access,  not create an extra layer of bureaucracy to wade through.

So, the real question is, will this office become a fully functioning RTO where tenants can file paperwork and go for dispute resolutions,  or is it going to remain a shell office that the BC Liberals can hide behind, using it as a shining example of  “improved”  services for Vancouver renters?

You decide.

On May 12th.

Renters, politicians cry foul over outreach offices

Renters, politicians cry foul over outreach offices

Posted By: Jackie Wong
Christine Ackermann & Sharon Isaak of Renters at Risk, photo: Doug Shanks

Christine Ackermann & Sharon Isaak of Renters at Risk, photo: Doug Shanks

For the second time in five months, the provincial government announced the opening of two new Residential Tenancy Branch outreach offices in Vancouver’s downtown, one at 518 Richards Street and another at 390 Main Street. Openings of the same offices were first announced days before the October 29 provincial by-election last year. According to a March 18 media release issued by the B.C. Ministry of Housing and Social Development, the Richards Street office – located in a single-room-occupancy hotel, where it shares office space with BC Housing – will be open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12 p.m.; the Main Street office, which occupies free space provided by the City of Vancouver, will be open weekday afternoons. The only other Residential Tenancy Branch in the Lower Mainland is located in Burnaby, at 5021 Kingsway Street.

In addition to their unusually limited business hours, the actual functionality of the new Residential Tenancy Offices (RTOs) remains a mystery to those who have tried to access its services, including Sharon Isaak, co-founder of West End-based tenant advocacy group Renters at Risk. “The one on Richards really has no signage, and doesn’t appear to be a functioning government office,” she says, having attempted to visit the office in the past week to inquire about an eviction. “It looks like there should be somebody there, but nobody ever answers [the door].”

Christine Ackermann, who fought an eviction from her West End apartment building last May and has since been an active volunteer with Renters at Risk, encountered similar problems with the new offices. “There’s no activity, there’s no office, there’s no signs, nobody there can tell us anything about it,” she says. “This announcement does nothing to protect B.C. renters, and it’s not even a promise that’s been fulfilled. I invite [B.C. Housing Minister] Rich Coleman to meet us down at that office and show us what [we clearly] must be in error about, if he [has made] an announcement that it’s open.”

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Renters with pets win at RTO, evictions set aside

Andrew, Pat & Rodrigo

Andrew, Pat & Rodrigo, Photo: WE Newspaper

Sometimes the underdog wins. In undoubtedly the most publicly anticipated Decision to ever come from the Residential Tenancy Office, two and four-legged residents at the Emerald Terrace Apartments  beat Hollyburn Properties’ eviction notices and won the right to stay in their homes.

In the Decision, the Dispute Resolution Officer (DRO) extensively reviews the evidence provided by the tenants outlining the lengthy history of the existence of pets in their units, and reviews the landlords’ claims that they were not aware of the pets until well over a year after purchasing the building. The DRO also notes that the landlords’ agents must have been willfully blind to the presence of pets in the tenant’s apartments during suite inspections. The DRO concludes that based on the actions of the previous and current landlord, the pet clause in the tenants’ tenancy agreements are not considered a material term. Therefore, as the tenants did not breach a material term, the notices to end tenancy are set aside.

In other words, the landlord knew about the existence of pets, and did not find them a problem, until the tenants refused to get rid of them.

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West End renters get to keep pets, stay in building

West End renters get to keep pets, stay in building