Rental compliance unit handling nearly three times as many complaints about landlords as tenants

By Shannon Waters January 21, 2020

In B.C.’s overstretched rental housing market, the interests of renters and landlords seldom align.
There is, however, at least one thing advocates for both sides can agree on: the Residential Tenancy Board’s (RTB) new compliance and enforcement unit is doing good work.
The creation of the compliance and enforcement unit was one of the recommendations made by the NDP government’s Rental Housing Task Force in December 2018. 
While it was officially announced in May 2019, unit director Scott McGregor told BC Today the unit began operations in January of that year and has investigated complaints dating back to 2017.
“We are really supportive of what the unit is trying to do,” said Dave Hutniak, CEO of LandlordBC, a professional association that represents more than 3,300 B.C. landlords. He says B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Act needs to be “enforced more robustly in terms of both landlords and tenants because … [there are] repeat offenders abusing the system.” 
Rob Patterson, a legal advocate with the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre (TRAC), says both landlords and tenants benefit “when both parties know what the law is.”
“It’s knowing that somebody’s watching,” he said of the unit’s benefit. “That sort of presence hasn’t been there before. We’re very happy that the [Residential Tenancy] Branch is taking a more active role in that.”
Cracking down on repeat offenders
So far, the unit has wound up 101 complaint investigations and another 44 are in process. Those found in violation of the law can face administrative penalties as well as fines of up to $1,000 per day for non-compliance.
The unit — McGregor oversees two compliance officers and two senior investigators — focuses on “repeat or serious offenders.” This includes both landlords and tenants who break the rules in “serious and deliberate” ways or who fail to follow orders issued by the RTB’s dispute resolution process. For example, one renter “repeatedly and deliberately” failed to pay rent during nine separate tenancies and owed $27,000 in unpaid rent, and one landlord served multiple illegal notices to end a tenancy while failing to make ordered repairs.     
The complaints have been pouring in — in 2019, the unit received three times as many complaints as it investigated in 2017 and 2018 combined. The increase is “not unexpected,” McGregor said, considering public awareness about the unit is still spreading across the province.
“Our goal is not to levy administrative penalties — our goal is really to just get people to come into compliance,” he said. “My hope is that if we get to a place where people realize … you can really face some significant consequences now that you didn’t really have to worry about before, I think that might really dissuade people from doing some of the crazy things we’ve seen people do.”
McGregor has seen bad behaviour from both sides of rental agreements — landlords who believe they have a right to change the locks on tenants who are late with rent and renters who deliberately damage property to try and get rent reductions. 
But he’s also been asked to conduct outreach by parties who, once warned that their actions contravene the law, want to make sure others are also made aware. McGregor says that is the ideal situation.
Why the complaint gap?
McGregor doesn’t think B.C.’s residential tenancy laws are “tilted one way or another” when it comes to benefitting landlords or tenants, but one statistic from his unit does stand out: of the 144 complaints received so far, 114 involve landlords and 31 involve tenants. 
By contrast, the RTB sees “roughly a 60/40 split” between landlords and tenants applying for dispute resolution each year, with more landlords accounting for the majority of the applications.
Hutniak says the disparity is partly a numbers game — there are many more tenants in the province than there are landlords — and partly due to a lingering lack of awareness about the unit.
“I’m going to say with some reasonable confidence — it’s a whole lot of landlords don’t even know of the existence of this compliance and enforcement unit,” he said. “Landlords, by and large, prefer to try and accommodate and find a solution to tenant challenges. It’s just a lot easier and more efficient from an operational perspective to find a solution for the tenant and work through it than to … file some sort of a complaint. Before that step would be taken, it would be a pretty extreme situation … or a particularly challenging tenant.”
Patterson believes landlords have more tools available to them to deal with problem tenants.
“The [Residential TenancyAct has more clear steps the landlord can take to address a tenant,” he said. “There also can be situations where tenants don’t want to open themselves up to retaliation.”
Tenants aren’t always aware of their rights under the law, he added.
“A landlord can give you an eviction notice, and … you may just sort of be freaked out by it, you may not understand that you have a right to contest it [and] might just leave,” he told BC Today. “Or if a tenant is fighting them, sometimes just a barrage of [notices] over time can lead to a tenant sort of giving up.”
Patterson said landlords are “more likely to potentially bend the rules just because of an unequal power relationship between a landlord and a tenant,” especially in a tight rental market where starting a new lease can mean a significant increase in rental income with little or no additional investment.