As the housing crisis deepens in Canada, tenant unionism has re-emerged in many cities across Canada. In British Columbia, where the housing crisis is enormous, collective bargaining for tenants has become a central demand of Rent Strike Bargain (RSB). RSB is an organization coming from the new tenant unionism in British Columbia.
Rankandfile.ca reached out to RSB to learn more about the housing situation in British Columbia. We also wanted to know more about collective bargaining and union rights for tenants.
We put a series of questions to the organization. The members of RSB’s “Research and Coordinating Working Group” provided these illuminating and insightful responses.
It is a long interview but we published it in full so Rankandfile.ca readers can study it in detail.
1. How many people rent their homes in British Columbia? How many people rent in Metro Vancouver? Are there figures on how many union members are renting? How many non-union workers are renting?
As of 2018, there were 600,000 renters in BC representing about one-third of all households, a number that rises substantially every year. The figure does not include illegal suites. In 2011, 136,135 (51%) of the 264,575 private households in the City of Vancouver were renter households.
Since we are a labour-tenant campaign, focusing on union members who rent is important to us as a group. We were unable to find published statistics on how many renters in British Columbia are unionized workers, so we developed our Workers Who Rent survey and distributed it to several unions in the province. Of the 833 responses we received, 93.5% (779) of respondents identified themselves as renters and around 60% of respondents provided a labour union affiliation.
2. What rent controls exist in BC and how are landlords working around these controls?
British Columbia currently has rent control tied to the tenant, and not to the unit. This means that if the same person stays in a unit, the rent is only allowed to be increased once a year up to a maximum percentage set by the province. However, once the tenant leaves the dwelling, the landlord can rent the same unit to someone else at any rate they choose. The lack of vacancy control – rent control tied to the unit, rather than the tenant – has created a perverse incentive for landlords across British Columbia to force out long-term tenants who have affordable or lower than market rents so that they can raise rents beyond what the current rent control regulations allow.
Tenant groups, unsurprisingly, have a history of organizing for vacancy control at the provincial level. More recently, the province ignored the recommendations of tenant groups across the province in 2018, when the BC Rental Housing Taskforce decided against recommending vacancy control and eliminating this loophole. Instead, the Task Force declared their intention to maintain rents tied to the tenant and not to the unit, signalling their alliance with landlords. Following this decision, the government made things worse by allowing a landlord to apply to the RTB to increase rent beyond the annual maximum allowed when they have completed necessary repairs to a rental unit. This has raised a huge concern for tenants in that the longer a tenant stays in a unit, the more an incentive exists for a landlord to find a way to evict them. Empowering landlords with the legal ability to exceed the maximum annual increase by removing a tenant or applying to the RTB for an exception has weakened housing security for renters across the province.
In BC we have few unfilled units in the market (aka a “low vacancy rate”) so more renters are competing for housing. This incentivizes landlords to evict and increase rent to the maximum number those tenants are willing to pay to secure decent shelter. A February 2022 study by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) determined the vacancy rate in Vancouver was the lowest in Canada at 1.2 percent. A previous survey published in September of 2021 out of the University of British Columbia, Understanding Evictions in Canada through the Canadian Housing Survey, found that Vancouver had the highest rate of evictions in the country.
We urgently need Real Rent Control (vacancy control) for working-class people to survive in this environment. A recent report by the CMHC, which measured average rent levels in Canadian cities and compared them to average hourly wage earnings from Statistics Canada, found that an individual earning an average wage would have to work 198 hours a month to afford the average rent of a 2 bedroom apartment in Vancouver. In Victoria, a worker needed to work 163 hours. In both cities, an individual must work more than full-time hours (defined in the CMHC report as 150 hour per month) in order to afford housing. Wages are simply not keeping up with skyrocketing rents. Collective bargaining, which has helped elevate wages for workers, also must be accessed to empower workers to reduce their rents.
Our campaign for tenant collective bargaining rights comes after years of tenants organizing for vacancy control in British Columbia. Through past experiences, tenant groups have learned that the political class in Victoria has made it clear that it will not protect tenants by closing the vacancy loophole and otherwise protecting against ever-increasing rental rates. If the government refuses to act, another way to achieve vacancy control and lower rents is by tenants bargaining for vacancy control in a collective lease.
3. What is the role of the RTB? Is it working for tenants? What is RSB’s perspective on this body?
The Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) is a quasi-judicial tribunal that administers and enforces BC’s rental legislation, the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA). It adjudicates disputes between landlords and tenants, such as wrongful evictions. Like other tribunals, it is intended to be easy for lay litigants to access without a lawyer, and to allow for quick decision making. Tenants who wish to make a legal challenge against their landlord regarding their tenancy are, for the most part, limited to the RTB.
In BC, the RTB is highly criticized by tenants, tenants’ groups, and tenants’ advocates, and is perceived as providing an unfair process that leads to unpredictability in how a dispute will ultimately be resolved. Unpredictability in the outcome of complaints tends to dissuade tenants from seeking to enforce their rights. RTB arbitrators are employees hired by the Director of the RTB to make decisions on the Director’s behalf, which makes their “appointments” less transparent and more bureaucratic. Unlike judges, arbitrators are not bound by precedent, which makes decision-making inconsistent and outcomes difficult to predict. Tenant hearings are also not transcribed or recorded, which makes it very difficult to seek judicial review where an arbitrator has acted unfairly.
The RTB also has a poor track record when it comes to protecting tenants’ rights. For some time, the province has been collecting data that tracked how many RTB disputes were settled, won by the tenant, or won by the landlord. Through FOI requests by tenant groups, the data revealed that the majority of disputes between tenants and landlords are settled–but out of the disputes that proceeded to a hearing, the vast majority were determined in favour of the landlord. Of great concern to RSB is that the government appears to have stopped collecting information about how many disputes are settled and how many are rendered in favour of the landlord versus the tenant (see here). You can read more about our opinions on the RTB in our August article for The Georgia Straight, “The BC NDP and [RTB] are failing renters.”
4. What are the major factors driving up rents? What percentage of rents are being pocketed by landlords, as opposed to covering maintenance costs, taxes, staffing, etc?
If housing is continued to be viewed as a for-profit commodity rather than a human right, rents will continue to rise, and tenants will continue to face displacement. Housing has been marketed as an attractive investment, which means that the people developing and renting it out are incentivized to spend as little money as possible and to make as much profit as possible. Elites in Ottawa and Victoria have let this problem get so out of hand, that much of the economy is reliant on land tax revenue and the speculative value of property owned by the government–see, for example, how the province has balanced its most recent budget here.
In a further tip of the hat to landlords and developers, the provincial government has embraced an approach to housing construction that focuses on deregulation in the belief that this will promote development and increased supply of housing. Increased housing supply will not fix our affordability problem and has so far only further enriched an elite class of property owners who have a clear interest in increasing the cost of housing as much as possible. Patrick Condon is a scholar at UBC who has written extensively criticising the idea that simply increasing supply leads to increased affordability. You can read his article here.
In addition, as mentioned, there is an economic incentive for landlords to evict tenants in order to raise rents. A common tactic that is used by landlords to accelerate this process is through deferring regular maintenance. This simultaneously makes the units less liveable and more unsafe for current tenants. Manufacturing emergencies to force a “renoviction” is an easy pretence for landlords to displace long-term tenants, and once the repairs are complete the rents are raised substantially. As we also mentioned earlier, the BC government provides another tool for landlords to use to raise rents without eviction too; by making necessary repairs and applying to the RTB for an order to increase the rent. Renters should not be responsible to pay for these repairs or for maintaining the value of the building for the landlord–that is their job to do with the money they already collect from us on a monthly basis. Further, we see government approval of increased rents for necessary repairs as a means for landlords to effectively evict those tenants who cannot afford an increase and will have to move.
We also simply do not know what percentage of a tenant’s rent is being pocketed by landlords as opposed to covering maintenance costs, taxes, and staffing because this information is not publicly available nor is it available to individual tenants. However, a framework allowing for tenant collective bargaining should allow for access to such information to encourage good-faith bargaining, which exists in labour collective bargaining.
5. RSB’s prime objective is to win collective bargaining rights for tenants in British Columbia. What brought RSB members to these conclusions about the need for tenant collective bargaining?
When Rent Strike Bargain was first established, the goal was to run a campaign to change the law and to build long-term capacity for the renters’ movement. We had recently gone through a massive change in provincial power, moving from the BC Liberals to the BC NDP, and many renters experienced the shocking realization and disappointment that we had no friends in government after all. So, we wanted to come up with a campaign focussed on empowering renters to take control of their homes.
Some of our early members came across the article Tenant Organizing and the Campaign for Collective Bargaining Rights in British Columbia, 1968–75 by Paul S. Jon, which described the BC tenants’ movement and a campaign for collective bargaining in the late sixties to mid-seventies. What was so powerful about that campaign was that its ends (winning collective bargaining rights for renters) were also its means (organizing for power through tenant unions). However, the BC renters’ movement was different then, and more rural tenant unions already existed. Connecting with this history, we were inspired to create our own three-pillar platform for empowering tenants to act collectively to protect their homes:
- Fostering Tenant-Labour Solidarity
- Seeding new Tenant Unions across the province
- Achieving Collective Bargaining Rights for Tenants
Many of our members have backgrounds in both tenant and labour organizing. In organizing the campaign, we found that there was quite a bit of interest in exploring how these two working-class movements could mutually strengthen each other to pursue their own goals. What we realized in planning the campaign was that a provincial drive to start up new tenant unions would need provincial partners that were democratic and led by local members. While some tenant unions have vanished over the years, labour unions still exist in even the smallest of towns and have helped us to get in touch with working-class people who already had some idea, through participation in labour unions, of what collective bargaining and organizing could do for renters.
6. Can you sketch out what this collective bargaining process might look like? Are there examples from Canada or around the world that we can look at and learn from?
Our definition of collective bargaining for tenants includes three key pillars: organizing, negotiation, and collective action, including strikes. First, we believe tenants must have the right to organize, including the right of access to union organisers into their buildings, and explicit protections against retaliation for organizing. We envision a process where tenants can join together, either building by building or across buildings owned by the same landlord, to act collectively to make demands of their landlords, including demanding and bargaining collective leases. Once a majority of tenants wish to bargain collectively, the landlord would have no choice but to recognize the union and engage in good faith collective bargaining. For tenants in basement suites or those renting in single family homes, we envision a kind of block or sector unionization structure, where tenants can bargain together or at the same time with their landlords. Lastly, but very importantly, we want the right to strike, without fear of losing our homes (see our letter to David Eby, Q.C., posted on our website here).
While there are examples where tenants have already engaged in collective bargaining by making demands and taking collective action without the law clearly providing support for their actions, there are very few examples of formal, legally supported processes for tenant collective bargaining in the world. One example of legally recognized tenant collective bargaining exists in Sweden. The Swedish legal framework is a highly bureaucratized process, with the tenants’ union existing as a nationwide body, and local rents negotiated through what they refer to as a “utility-value formula” (which considers things like the state of the apartment and the desirability of the neighbourhood). Though not what we want here, the Swedish system does include a legal process for tenants to dispute the negotiated rental rate if they wish.
In other jurisdictions, the closest we have is legislation that confirms tenants’ rights to organize tenant unions or associations. In Ontario, for example, provincial legislation expressly recognizes that evictions for organizing are without cause and that harassment of tenants for organizing or interference with tenant organizing is illegal. Legal provisions recognizing the right to form tenant unions led the Landlord and Tenant Board to grant an extended length of time to a COVID-19 rent repayment plan, where a landlord refused to negotiate a repayment plan with a tenant’s union. Another provincial example is in Manitoba, where legislation protects against landlord intervention in the formation of a tenants’ union and makes it illegal for a landlord to prohibit the use of common areas for tenant union meetings.
There are also a number of jurisdictions in the United States that expressly acknowledge tenants’ unions and protect certain rights, particularly in the states of Alabama, Alaska, and Iowa, where landlord retaliation against tenant unions and their members is prohibited. In contrast to these protections and rights, BC does not have any provision in any legislation recognizing the right of tenants to form tenant unions or associations.
While there are not many existing formal processes for tenant unions to look to, there is a long history of labour union collective bargaining that can be looked to for guidance–and for caution. This includes the many court challenges fought by labour unions to establish Charter rights for workers to organize and collectively bargain. There are differences between the landlord-tenant and employer-employee relationship, and what collective bargaining looks like for tenants will not be exactly the same as it does for workers. But it is a place to start. However, we strive for more limited intervention in tenant collective bargaining than the existing legal process for trade unions and labour collective bargaining, which we see as placing too many limits on trade union organizing, collective bargaining, and striking-and, in solidarity with the labour movement, we hope for more limited intervention in trade union bargaining, too.
7. What are some of the common concerns and objections raised to collective bargaining rights for tenants and their unions?
The landlord and development lobby only really have one argument every time they hear of a housing campaign that puts renters before profit: they will refuse to build or operate homes. In short, their view will likely be that collective bargaining rights will reduce the supply of housing. This is, of course, a very powerful threat. Developers and big business have so effectively sunk their teeth into all levels of government as to convince the entire ruling elite that housing is a mystical commodity that only they can build, and that they must increasingly build more and more. They wield our shelter, homes, and our basic human rights as a weapon against anyone who threatens their bottom line.
These anti-positions on collective bargaining rights for renters have a long history in Canada’s halls of power. In 1973, arguments against tenant unions were published in the Law Reform Commission of British Columbia’s Report on Landlord and Tenant Relationships. The report was written in a unique time in Canadian housing history when tenant movements were demanding collective bargaining rights not only in BC, but across Canada. Worried about this trend, BC landlords told the Commission that the existence of tenant unions in buildings would lead to just about every problem you can imagine. Of course, as is a common argument against any renters’ rights today, this included the “drying up of the supply of rental accommodation,” which even in 1979 was described as an “already shrinking supply.” Landlords were so brazen in their testimony that some even suggested that tenants would cut off water, oil supplies, and repairs for other tenants as a way of encouraging them to join the union—a ridiculous and dehumanising idea. Landlords also suggested that tenants should not have a right to unionise because corporations and landlords, as a class, do not have the same right when dealing with corporate providers who supply them with goods and services.
Renters and their unions seek to level the massive power imbalance that exists in the landlord-tenant relationship. Like in the workplace relationship between workers and bosses, landlords wield an extreme amount of control over renter’s lives and wellbeing. Arguments against tenant collective bargaining are arguments against balancing this power relationship, levelling the playing field, and giving tenants more control over the homes that they live and spend time in.
8. Can the RTB play a role in the collective bargaining process? Or would it require significant reform? Might it be rendered obsolete by tenant collective bargaining?
The RTB, or another new tribunal, will likely need to have some role in ensuring that tenants’ rights to collective bargaining is acknowledged and respected by landlords. While our campaign ultimately aims to build the necessary power required to force a landlord to the table, we also have ambitions to bring the province back onto the side of renters by playing a role in this process. Especially since we cannot expect landlords to cooperate in good faith unless forced in most circumstances. Ideally, our campaign will lead to the government passing legislation requiring landlords to recognize and collectively bargain with tenants’ unions, and a means to enforce this requirement.
Another aim of ours is to amend the Residential Tenancy Act to recognize the rights of tenants to organize and to be free of any landlord retaliation for doing so. This would include the right for tenant organizers to enter a building and talk with renters at their door, something we are often denied. On these protections, we have already sought to pressure B.C.’s Attorney General and Minister of Housing, David Eby Q.C., to reform the Residential Tenancy Act, but no such action has been taken by the Horgan government.
Further, in any legal system where tenant organizing, collective bargaining, and striking are expressly protected, it is unlikely that the RTB would be rendered obsolete as it will likely still play a role in enforcing minimum tenancy standards. But we stand firmly in the view that it should not play any restrictive role on tenants organising efforts. An analogy to help explain what we mean by this can be found by looking at provincial employment legislation. In BC, ‘work’ is regulated through the Employment Standards Act. This act establishes minimum legislated employment standards, enforced by the Employment Standards Branch. At the same time, there is the Labour Relations Code, which sets out the legislated scheme in which labour unions operate and is enforced by the Labour Relations Board.
Government legislation though can be aimed at disempowering movements through excessive regulation, which has happened in the context of labour union regulation. While legislation expressly acknowledging the rights of tenants to organize, collectively bargain, and strike would provide tools for renters to access these rights, any legislation must be carefully developed by the renters’ movement itself before forcing the government to implement it. Ultimately, the power lies in the people getting organised and building strong tenant unions, and any government action must be supportive of this effort.
9. RSB has the formal support of the Vancouver District Labour Council, Unite here Local 40 which represents many hotel workers, CUPE Local 15 municipal and education workers, and the Teaching Support Staff Union at Simon Fraser University. How was this support achieved and what does it look like?
Not only them, but also the Vancouver Tenants Union, New West Tenants Union, CUPE 3338, BCGEU Local 304, BCGEU Local 306, the BCGEU’s Provincial Executive, and the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers Association (VESTA)!
Our union endorsements are some of our most proud achievements. Building tenant-labour solidarity is key to our campaign’s theory of change and we have put a lot of effort into building inroads with worker organizations. We started by reaching out to institutions that had either long signalled their support for the renter’s movement or who we believed had a significant renter contingency in their membership. From there we ask to either present to their general membership, or to their elected executive for an endorsement, dependent on the union’s endorsement procedures. Since many of us are unionized workers, we used the democratic processes within our unions to seek support. The VDLC was the first labour institution to endorse the campaign and from there word spread quickly.
Notably, the VDLC’s President, Stephen von Sychowski, has been an incredible supporter and ally of the campaign in helping us reach other labour organizations like the NWDLC. So far, our biggest endorsement has been the BCGEU Provincial Executive, whose solidarity and support have been key to the campaign’s organizing efforts, but we are incredibly thankful to all of the labour leaders and unions who have supported us so far.
The real organizing and solidarity work, however, starts after the official endorsement. When we ask for an endorsement from unions, we also ask unions to distribute our Workers Who Rent survey, which seeks to identify renters within existing unions. From there we divide the survey respondent data by region and rank the leadership potential of those renters who selected that they would be interested in getting involved using a system we’ve developed internal to the campaign. After this step has been completed, an organizer from within the survey respondent’s Regional Pod reaches out to renters who have consented to get involved in the campaign. Once a Regional Pod has reached a large enough size, we move into helping them launch an official Tenants Union for their city or region.
Lastly, from a governance perspective, our campaign is largely modelled off of the Solidarity Coalition, one of the largest protest movements in BC history. The movement was made up of tenants, labour, and community activists who all came together in the 1980s to oppose widespread government cuts and austerity. Like Solidarity, we ask that all unions and community groups who endorse the campaign send a representative to sit on one of our working groups.
10. How can union members work with RSB to build support for tenant collective bargaining inside their unions?
First and foremost, you can ask your union to reach out to us for an endorsement! Our organizing process relies on being able to get in touch with working-class renters from across the province, and unions are the institutions we go to helping us connect with them.
We believe that unions are stronger when they recognize that housing is an important part of members’ lives, so we’ve also developed materials to help workers push their unions to get more involved in housing justice. If you need pamphlets, support in setting up a housing justice committee at your union or want to learn how to organize for change within your union, we have you covered.
Lastly, you can get involved in the campaign! Come sit in on a working group meeting and together we can chat about how we can come up with a strategy that fits with your skills, interests, or labour union vision. You can reach out through our website at: https://www.rentstrikebargain.com/get-involved
11. RSB works with local tenant groups around the province. What does this relationship to local tenant unions look like?
Similar to labour unions, after receiving an endorsement from a local tenant group or a tenant union (meaning a democratic, member-driven renters’ organization) we ask them to send a representative to help govern RSB. In being their RSB representative, this member oversees reporting back to their local tenant union, communicating ways in which the campaign can support their local, and asking their local for support when the campaign needs it.
In places where we have a sizable number of renters identified through our Workers Who Rent survey and where a tenant union already exists, we work with the local tenant union to get our volunteers in the regions activated and involved in their organisation. We do this through phone banks and advertising the local union’s events.
While we have made promising gains, there is still a long way to go until we have the same number of tenant unions and tenant union members across the province as we did in the 1960s and 70’s. Regardless, we are so grateful for the support of those that exist now, including the Victoria Tenants Action Group (VTAG), Vancouver Tenants Union (VTU), and the New West Tenants Union (NWTU).
12. In a series of articles published in the Georgia Straight, RSB members have pointed to a really interesting moment for tenants in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Tenant unionism was gaining power. There were even rent strikes, and the demand for collective bargaining was gaining large support. Where did this campaign go and why did it not succeed? What can be learned?
In British Columbia, you can’t talk about the 1960s and 1970s without mentioning Bruce Yorke. While RSB is a non-hierarchical campaign that doesn’t believe much in the ‘Great Man’ theory of change, Yorke’s influence and leadership in the provincial movement are undeniable. Among his many accomplishments, Yorke organized a number of the original building fights that lead to the creation of the Vancouver Tenants Council–the philosophical descendent of today’s Vancouver Tenants’ Union–acted as the spokesperson for the BC Tenants Organization, and even sat as a Vancouver City Councillor for the Coalition of Progressive Electors in the 1980s and 1990s. The Mainlander, an independent media publication in Vancouver, has digitized and re-published a piece written by Yorke about the Tenant Movement in B.C. from 1968 to 1978. It is worth reading.
Aside from Yorke, there were also a number of other tenant groups supporting the rise of tenant unionism after the 1960s, including the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) and the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE). Together, these organizations connected with the strength and effectiveness of labour unions at the time in motivating tenants to start unions at home through teach-ins, workshops, and other organizing efforts.
All of these energies in the renters’ movement in British Columbia, however, began to decline with the election of the BC NDP in 1972. The BC NDP was significantly to the left of where it is today, and after being pushed by tenant movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the party agreed to run on a platform in 1972 that included granting collective bargaining rights to renters. However, after the BC NDP secured power, the Barrett government betrayed renters and their unions. Instead of implementing collective bargaining rights as promised, Barrett and the BC NDP implemented vacancy control in the mid-1970s (which the Social Credit governments of the 1970s and 1980s, the precursor to today’s BC Liberal Party, governments eliminated rather quickly). Far from unique to BC, governments across Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s, were keen on restricting tenants’ movements from challenging market-based property rights.
The loss of this promise of collective bargaining, after many years of dedicated organizing, likely took the wind out of the tenants’ movement in British Columbia. Moving forward tenants’ movement must recognize that we must continue to fight for our rights even when legal mechanisms fail to acknowledge them. The tenant movement cannot put all its chips into legislative or electoral change, as shown by the 1970s experience. We must be cautious of pandering by political opportunists that may recognize the working-class appeal of our campaign and support our rhetoric without ever following through or delivering on our demands. To counter these actions, we must instead build our power in our buildings and housing complexes and be in this fight for the long haul.
The good news is that the tenant movement is back. The Vancouver Tenants Union has been busy knocking on doors, ACORN BC is pushing a campaign for Vacancy Control, the New West Tenants Union has started back up, and the Victoria Tenants Action Group has just wrapped up their 2022 strategic planning sessions. Rent Strike Bargain, along with these tenant groups, make up the modern tenant movement in BC. Together, we are united in telling landlords and the government that we have the right to autonomy, respect, and safe and healthy homes.
You can visit the RSB website at RentStrikeBargain.com.