Vancouver renter’s office a step closer to reality after staff report released to council

Vancouver city staff have finished their report on council’s calls for a renter’s office, and they appear to be on board with the idea.

The report, which goes to council on Tuesday, includes four major recommendations for further protecting renters, who make up more than half the city’s population and are facing increased fears of displacement and discrimination at the hands of landlords and developers.

Staff are proposing the recommendations be put in place over the next two years.

“While many landlords in Vancouver operate quality rental housing stock and abide by the Residential Tenancy Act, a competitive and expensive rental market creates a situation in which investment and profit-making opportunities can increase the prevalence of renovictions, demovictions, sale evictions, and aggressive buyouts,” the report says.

“Coordinated policy changes can strengthen renters’ rights; however, unless renters are aware and able to pursue these rights, they remain at risk of displacement.”

The recommendations include establishing a community-based Renter Centre in an easy-to-access location that will provide access to “supports, education and legal advocacy.”

The centre would partner with existing services provided by the city, province and Residential Tenancy Branch along with non-profit advocacy groups, creating a “one-stop shop” for renters.

“For renters who face barriers accessing services over the phone or internet, a Renter Centre where renters could receive in-person support would improve equity in access to services and outcomes for all renters seeking assistance and advice,” the report says.

A city-owned facility in the 900 block of Howe Street in downtown Vancouver, which currently houses the Public Legal Education Society, has been proposed as a possible location for the centre.

Council approved a two-year lease to the society in January, which would give it time to review partnering with the centre while staff explore further partnerships.

The report also recommends establishing a “renter advocacy and services team” that would help support city staff within the renter centre and work to create further renter protections.

The mandate would include developing an internal “issues tracking and response system” to better provide transparent and timely information to renter inquiries.

A renter services funding program is also being recommended, which would direct city funds towards renter education; helping renters pursue their rights under the Residential Tenancy Act; and assisting seniors, renters with disabilities and low-income renters with securing housing.

A 2018 city program that connected seniors with spare bedrooms with renters in need of housing will get additional funding through the program.

Finally, staff are recommending a tenant relocation specialists training program to ensure more people are trained to help landlords assist tenants who are displaced by redevelopment.

Consultation and engagement with renters and advocacy groups is being recommended on all the above initiatives.

Staff estimate the total cost of all four initiatives to be just over $5.6 million through 2021. Over $160,000 has already been approved for funding programs covered by part of the recommendations.

The renter centre itself is estimated to cost $1.46 million over the next two and a half years.

Funding is expected to come from revenue generated by the empty homes tax, which staff predicted in February brought in $38 million last year.

City staff will report back in 2020 on the progress of the renter’s office initiatives along with recommendations on further investment needed past 2021.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart made establishing a renter’s office one of the centrepieces of his campaign last October.

Coun. Pete Fry beat Stewart to the punch in introducing a motion calling for the office, which was approved by council in November and sparked city staff to create the report.

Tuesday’s council meeting will also see another staff report that calls for increased compensation for displaced renters.

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