Rental shortages lead to landlord abuse

Tim Collins /News staff

In a rental environment in which the vacancy rate has consistently hovered at or below 0.5 per cent, allegations of some landlords trampling on the rights of prospective tenants shouldn’t be altogether surprising, according to Robin Durling of the B.C. Human Rights Fund.

“About five per cent of the calls we get are about this issue, but that’s still a lot. People often know that there is discrimination taking place, but they need to have the energy and resources to pursue the matter and, often, they don’t see an upside to doing so,” said Durling.

And while he won’t say that the calls they receive are the tip of the iceberg, he acknowledged that it wouldn’t surprise him if that were the case.

His comments come in the wake of the announcement by Drew McArthur, the province’s acting Information and Privacy Commissioner, that his office is launching a broad investigation into potential breaches of the law by landlords who regularly request information that puts them in violation of the Protection of Information and Privacy Act. These requests, according to McArthur, include social insurance numbers, copies of un-redacted T4 slips, photo copies of drivers licenses, or bank statements.

“Tenants who feel they have been asked to provide inappropriate levels of information can file a specific complaint with the office of the privacy commissioner or they can provide information anonymously so that we can add the information to our broader investigation.”

Andrew Sakamoto of the Tenants Resource and Advisory Centre says that landlords who act on questions such as like religious affiliation, family status or sexual orientation are in violation of Section 10 of the Human Rights Code, but it can be very hard to prove that those questions have been used to discriminate.

“With the vacancy rate being so low, tenants have very little leverage and are often scared to file a complaint for fear of being labelled as trouble makers,” said Sakamoto.

Durling agrees.

“Technically, it’s not against the law for landlords to just ask those questions, but it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of that information. But if the prospective tenant doesn’t answer the questions, the landlord can simply move on to the next prospective tenant,” he said.

Victoria renter, Jessi Chamberlin’s experiences serves to illustrate the point.

The Chamberlains (Jessi, her husband and four children) were among the tenants forced from their homes when, last November, the entire Blanchard Court rental complex where they lived sustained heavy fire damage. According to Jessi Chamberlin, her family lost all their possessions in the flames and faced the challenge of finding new accommodations elsewhere.

“We’ve really been looking since that time. We’ve had landlords refuse to rent to us because we have pets, and I can almost understand that, but I’m not going to get rid of our cat since I think my children have already lost enough,” said Chamberlin.

“But we have also been turned down because my husband isn’t a Canadian citizen yet (he came to Canada from the United States). In another case we were asked to write an essay about what we liked to do, our hobbies and habits. That landlord also wanted to see copies of my kid’s school grades. It was ridiculous.”

Chamberlin did manage to find accommodations but needs to move by December as her landlord advised her, two months after she signed a one-year lease, that he was selling the property.

“It’s a sad commentary on human nature that some landlords are using their leverage and the current rental situation to act in that way, but it is happening and people have a choice to make about how far they want to go to fight for their rights,” said Durling.