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Mobilizing Wins a Victory for Renters in Vancouver!

Lisa Descary

December 10, 2018

On Tuesday, December 4th, something unprecedented happened: renters won a significant victory against big business landlords in Vancouver with the passing of COPE city councillor Jean Swanson’s motion to protect tenants from renovictions. Despite the efforts of several councillors (including NDPer Kennedy Stewart) to water down some of the protections by referring them for “further study,” the most important section of the motion protecting renters from renoviction passed with a unanimous vote. It is a testament to the power of the tenants’ rights movement that it was able to bring out more than a hundred renters on multiple days to rally in the rain and speak to the motion in council chambers. Apparently, even City Hall staff commented that they’d never seen such a large crowd there before. In the end, mobilizing won the day: even the right-wing NPA city councillors ended up voting for Swanson’s motion. Since all the councillors ran on a platform of doing better than the outgoing Vision Vancouver councillors at “fixing the housing crisis,” and since the movement’s amazing mobilizing efforts shone a powerful spotlight on the vote, some activists have speculated that perhaps it would have been hard for even the NPA to vote no.

Renoviction; a Made-in-Vancouver Nightmare for Tenants

As renters know all too well, Vancouver’s dysfunctional housing market, with its sky-high rents and less than one percent vacancy rate, has encouraged unscrupulous landlords to use any means they can to turf out long-term tenants, since current weak rent control laws allow landlords to vastly increase rent once a tenant leaves. While eviction was supposedly carried out to allow landlords to complete renovations, the real goal was usually just to raise their income by jacking up the rent.
This loophole led to landlords’ agents pressuring tenants to leave, sometimes offering them lump sum “cash for keys” payments to vacate their units on the spot. Perhaps this instant cash sounds appealing, but renovicted tenants soon found that with skyrocketing rents and a tiny vacancy rate city-wide, there was nowhere for them to go.

Swanson’s motion will protect many (but unfortunately not all) renters from renoviction. It states that landlords will now be required to allow renters to temporarily vacate their unit during renovations, and that the renters will have the right to come back to their unit with no increase in rent after renovations are completed. While much of the credit goes to Swanson for putting forward this motion and refusing to back down or water down her proposal, she has been adamant throughout this fight that without the movement of tenants’ rights activists, most of them members of the Vancouver Tenants Union (VTU),  she couldn’t have achieved this win.

How Did COPE and the VTU Do It?

This movement for tenants’ rights didn’t appear overnight; it is the result of over a year of mobilizing people, both as part of Swanson’s city council run and the VTU’s door-knocking in apartment buildings that has built up its profile and its roster of activists. Many of the dozens of renters who shared their stories in speaking to the motion at city council explained that they joined the VTU after it helped them deal with issues with their landlords, and the stories they shared were incredibly powerful. One tenant explained "I have developed an anxiety disorder as a result of the harassment and continuous eviction notices served by my landlord," while another explained that they had been hospitalized twice for exhaustion because of dealing with their landlord’s mistreatment. Many shared stories of being afraid to ask for repairs to be done or to protest illegal rent hikes, lest they be evicted and have nowhere else to go. Thankfully, Swanson was able to push for firm start times and for time to be allocated in council for these renters to speak, something that not all councillors supported.

Greens and NDP Exposed

While Pete Fry of the Greens was a surprise ally in the fight to pass this motion, the other Greens on council, Adrienne Carr and Michael Wiebe, were not as supportive. Carr was happy to side with Mayor Kennedy Stewart in watering down the motion by referring the section that would give more teeth to rent control to council staff “for further study.” This seemed like a move to appease landlords who want the right to jack up rents between tenants and don’t want rent control tied to the unit. Councillor Wiebe went even further, making a pathetic speech that argued the measures would have “unintended consequences” for the “good landlords”. He went further to criticize the exuberant VTU members in the audience who were cheering Jean and booing her opponents, suggesting we were acting “against democracy!”

What’s Next?

While the activists in COPE and the VTU deserve a chance to rest and celebrate their win, they aren’t likely to rest for long. They know that the fight for renters’ and working class folks’ rights isn’t over. The landlord lobby was taken by surprise by the swift and effective mobilizing of Swanson’s supporters, but it is no doubt preparing its counterattack. Activists meanwhile have pledged to be ready to converge on City Hall again when the referred sections of Swanson’s renoviction motion return to council for another vote. In the meantime, Swanson is also planning to bring forward a motion this week to decrease the Vancouver police budget, allowing more money to be spent on housing instead. You can bet that COPE and VTU activists will be back at City Hall to speak to that motion as well, and now they have a win under their belt, they’re going to be even harder to defeat!
If you are in Vancouver, why not join the VTU? Find the group on Facebook at @tenantsunion.yvr.


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