VANCOUVER - Rising rental costs, evictions and a scarcity of units in Vancouver's densely populated West End were among the reasons for Gail Harmer's decision to join a group that is taking a new approach to advocating for the rights and protection of tenants.
The Vancouver Tenants Union formed last spring in response to a growing number of renters who say they fear eviction or being priced out of their homes and neighbourhoods. The group's membership has grown to nearly 1,000 people across the city.
Harmer said while she's been "exceptionally lucky" in having no problems with her tenancy, she joined the union to help those around her who fear eviction as landlords change and their units and buildings fall into disrepair.
"The principle of union is that there is strength in numbers of the people who are affected," she said.
Wendy Pedersen, a steering committee member, said the union was formed to help educate renters about their rights and provide practical and emotional support to people in disputes with their landlords.
"Even if people know their rights they can't make complaints or push back too hard against their landlord without risking eviction and backlash of various forms," she said. "When they come together as a group, they are way more secure."
In 2011, more than 50 per cent of Vancouver households were rentals, says Statistics Canada in the latest numbers it has available.
The group initially formed to support low-income renters in rundown single-room accommodations in the city's Downtown Eastside, but Pedersen said the need for a citywide union became apparent as more people contacted them outside the area looking for help.
"The housing crisis is out of control and so many people are getting pushed out of their homes," she said.
Regulations in B.C. cap annual rent increases for an existing tenant in a unit, but landlords are free to raise rents by any amount when a renter moves out. Pedersen said that gave landlords an incentive to take advantage of loopholes in the regulations by flipping leases or giving notice of their intention to renovate or redevelop a site to push out tenants.
"When someone moves out the rents are jacked up two or three times higher, or beyond what people can afford," she said.
The union has rallied around some tenants facing eviction over renovations and successfully helped them keep their homes, Pedersen said.
David Hutniak, chief executive officer of LandlordBC, said it's frustrating to see some landlords abuse regulations to increase profits.
"That is not how the industry operates. It's certainly not best practice," he said.
The bulk of rental housing in B.C. is secondary units, such as basement suites or condominiums bought and rented as investment properties, Hutniak said. Unlike landlords whose sole business is renting apartments, these landlords don't always educate themselves on the regulations.
"It just never ceases to amaze me that someone decides to do a rental and they don't know what the heck the Residential Tenancy Act is. I mean, why would you expose yourself to that kind of risk?" he said. "You're not going to know your customers' rights and responsibilities either."
LandlordBC launched an online registry last year for landlords to promote themselves and learn about the regulations in the process of signing up for the service, Hutniak said.
B.C.'s New Democrat government closed a number of regulatory loopholes in recent months.
Hutniak said the changes were needed as loopholes were increasingly abused by some landlords in recent years, tarnishing the industry.
"That was a very important and significant change," he said.
The changes were also welcomed by the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, but spokeswoman Zuzana Mudrovic said with skyrocketing land values and demand outpacing supply, prices will only go up.
"It's just the natural consequence of capitalism," she said. "What would prevent that? In the absence of a rent freeze, I'm not sure."
The Vancouver Tenants' Union wants to see a freeze and stricter long-term controls that would prevent significant increases between tenant turnovers.
Pedersen said there are better systems in Quebec or Prince Edward Island, where rent control applies to housing units, not people, so the cap remains in place when tenants change.
But Hutniak said freezing rental prices would only dissuade the development of more properties, which is desperately needed to improve affordaiblity.
"If we had a three or four per cent vacancy rate, (we) wouldn't be having this conversation," he said.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. reports vacancy rates in 2017 fell below two per cent for many cities including Metro Vancouver, the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa, Charlottetown, Victoria and Kelowna, B.C.
The agency said while availability shrank in those cities, prices climbed.
The average cost of a rental unit in Kelowna last year was $1,045 a month, an 8.6 per cent increase from 2016.
The only exception was Charlottetown, where the province imposed a cap and average rents remained steady between 2016 and 2017 at $825 a month.
Countrywide, the federal agency said average vacancy rates in cities last year fell to three per cent in October, down from 3.7 per cent a year earlier.
The federal government announced its national housing strategy in November, promising to build 100,000 new units and upgrade 300,000 existing ones over the next decade.
"We do know that it won't settle all the problems for the housing needs across the country," said Mathieu Filion, communications director for the federal minister of social development.
"But this is significant money, significant units, significant results that we hope to get with that strategy."
Filion said the strategy also includes incentives for private partnerships to build beyond the government's target.
Housing researcher David Hulchanski of the University of Toronto said the government's commitment will fall short of meeting the country's housing needs.
Before the 1990s, the federal government was building 20,000 to 25,000 social housing units annually in addition to subsidies for private rental developments, Hulchanski said.
That building rate barely kept up with the need then and outpaces the total units proposed by the current strategy, he said.
Rental developments are not money-makers compared with the potential earnings for condominiums, Hulchanski said, meaning it's unlikely private developers will fill the gap even with the proposed incentives.
"The market can't do housing for low income people and we're leaving it to the market," he said.