They say you can’t fight city hall - but in the wake of the 2018 municipal elections, our newly formed tenants union took an aggressive tack to do just that - to bring tenant voices and tenant-centred policies into Vancouver’s city hall and to test a new politically fractured council.
As a city-wide union, it seemed to make good sense to fight landlords through city-wide legislation. This is something we saw tenant unions doing in cities across North America, and we thought that it would be possible to make policy gains by mobilizing in numbers and making united demands for the changes we desperately need as renters. Over the last four years VTU members have called dozens of mobilizations to support motions to protect tenants - some of which we helped write - as well as to show up to fight against gentrification through demovictions.
While some high points and positive headlines might suggest that organized tenants have been able to make some headway in this political arena, a sobering reality emerges when the smoke clears.
Here is an accounting on some key motions we rallied around - what we wanted versus what we got:
2018 - “Protecting Tenants from Renovictions and Aggressive Buyouts”
This motion, brought by Cllr Swanson, was an ambitious one and generated a lot of buzz. VTU members - many of whom were fighting their own renovictions - mobilized in large numbers as council heard 93 speakers over two dramatic sessions.
Council unanimously passed the motion, but before this happened several of the most important provisions were referred to city staff to scrutinize and report back on later. VTU members shared elation and called the passing of the motion “historic”. How wrong we were. Today, nothing that was in the motion has translated into any sort of concrete policy or meaningful new protections for tenants.
Here is a breakdown of each policy in the motion:
|What the motion called for||What actually happened|
|Amend the city’s Tenant Relocation and Protection Policy (TRPP) to apply universally to all tenants facing displacement as a result of renovations or demolitions.||
Council referred this part of the motion to staff to make a recommendation on how to amend the TRPP.Staff reported back in June 2019 with minor tweaks to the existing policy that emphasized a standardized rubric of buyouts instead of preventing displacement (see next section). A minor win is that the policy now applies to land assemblies, meaning tenants living in single family homes getting demovicted for a larger development are now covered.
|Immediately and forcefully call on the province to implement effective vacancy controls for British Columbia, or alternatively, to give Vancouver the power to regulate maximum rent increases during and between tenancies.||
Council referred this part of the motion to staff to make a recommendation on implementing vacancy controlled rent control.
It’s worth noting that the province was also considering vacancy control in late 2018 and the landlord lobby was running a full spread fear mongering campaign. Even the BC Non Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA) advocated against it.Staff reported back in June 2019 against city-wide vacancy control in general and council did not pursue the issue further.
|Track of all apartment buildings sold in Vancouver and immediately provide affected tenants with information as to their tenancy rights by mail.||
In a memo posted prior to the motion passing, staff commented “the City is not in a position to advise tenants of their rights as this would constitute legal advice.”
|Explore measures, including changes to the Vancouver Charter if necessary, to regulate and publicly register all tenant buyouts (cash to vacate).||In a memo posted prior to the motion passing, staff commented “At present the City has no authority to regulate and publicly register private agreements such as tenant buyouts.” Although this part of the motion passed, we cannot find any evidence that such a registry was pursued or implemented.|
2019 - Expanding the Tenant Relocation and Protection Policy (TRPP)
The TRPP is a highly technical and loosely enforced policy which is meant to offer support and compensation to tenants who are being displaced due to development. Six months after the renovictions motion passed (see above), city staff reported back to council with its recommendations on how to amend the TRPP. The report back was held on Tuesday morning, which conveniently mitigated the possibility of VTU members mobilizing like we did last time. The six months had also given city planners ample time to confer with real estate and landlord lobby groups about the policy.
Our goal had been to make the policy apply universally to all renters, and to strengthen our right of first refusal - which is the right to return after repairs - so that tenants could return at the same rent they were paying previously. Our approach emphasized tenants’ rights to stay in their homes and communities.
After consulting with “stakeholders”, including landlord lobbyists, staff recommended increasing standardized buyouts as compensation for tenants being forced to leave. The right to first refusal was set at 20% below market rates, instead of the same rents they were paying previously. Overall, these changes were a bitter disappointment and emphasized standardizing displacement instead of preventing it.
2019 - Protecting Rental Housing Stock along Arterial Streets
This motion, brought by Cllr Swanson, aimed to ensure that over 3000 rental units along major arterials, which are commercially zoned, would fall under a protection that requires developers to replace every rental unit with an equal number of rental units if a building is redeveloped. While it does not protect the affordability of the units themselves, it stops developers from replacing existing rental units by condos, deterring gentrification.
After two years of back and forth - including organized pushback from developers and hand wringing by senior city staff - the city finally implemented this change in 2021.
2019 - Changing Vancouver’s Housing By-laws, Policies and Budgets to Achieve Real Housing Affordability
This motion, brought by Green Cllr Carr, sought to address the city’s problematic definition of “affordable”, and instead tie the definition to 30% of gross income (a figure used by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation). City policies aimed at encouraging developers to build rental, for example, sets maximum rents that are completely out of sync with local incomes - the text of the motion noted that maximum rents for a new studio apartment was only truly affordable to households with an income of $60,000 per year. This, in a city where approximately half of renter households made less than $50,000 per year.
The motion called for staff to review all programs in line with the 30% definition of affordable. The VTU publicly supported the motion, which passed unanimously. Months later, buried in a lengthy report reviewing the city’s rental programs, staff concluded that lowering rents below their current maximums would make projects not feasible for developers. Staff determined that hitting the city’s targets for total number of units was more important than whether or not local renters could actually afford them.
2020 - Rent Debt Forgiveness and ending “No Pets” policies
Two motions brought forth by the city’s Renters Advisory Committee (via Cllr Fry and Cllr Swanson) called on council to ask the province to cancel rent debts accrued through COVID-19 (as the VTU had actively campaigned for) and to prohibit “no pets” clauses in rental contracts (as tenancy law in Ontario does).
Both motions passed unanimously, resulting in the Mayor sending a letter to the provincial government. The province refused both requests - with a polite email reply (here and here) from Minister David Eby to the sitting Mayor that looked no different than what might have been sent to any other constituent.
2020 - Protecting Tenants - Taking Action Against Renovictions
This time it was Mayor Kennedy who introduced a motion to stop renovictions, with language meant to emulate policies implemented in New Westminster, and Port Coquitlam whereby the city would impose bylaw fines on landlords who carried out renovictions without allowing tenants to move back at the same rent. Cllr Swanson proposed amendments to Kennedy’s motion so that this would apply to demovictions as well.
The motion passed. However, a few months later, in 2021, the provincial government made tweaks to the Residential Tenancy Act to discourage “unnecessary” renovictions. This change to provincial legislation prompted city staff to hit pause on any plans to implement municipal bylaws around renovictions. A memo stated that staff would be taking time to “monitor the rollout” of new provincial rules, rather than taking any further action. Nothing has happened since.
2021 - Vacancy Control in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) Hotels
Council unanimously passed several motions to bring vacancy control to privately owned SRO hotels, representing approximately 4000 units in the Downtown East Side, and later approved the staff proposal and budget to enforce it. The Downtown East Side SRO Collaborative was a main driver of this motion and initiative.
It was by all accounts a victory for some of the lowest income tenants in the city, and was the result of many years of full time research, outreach, multiple mobilizations and lobbying with councillors and staff. Notably, this policy measure was tied to a broader plan by governments to buy up and redevelop SROs - phasing them out to build new social housing - meaning that vacancy control on private rentals was only considered feasible by council and staff as an interim stop-gap measure.
But private landlords took the city to court, insisting that cities do not have jurisdiction to impose rent control. In the summer of 2022, a BC Supreme Court judge agreed with the landlords, throwing the city’s new vacancy control policy into limbo. As of fall 2022, the city is filing an appeal. Former provincial Minister Responsible for Housing David Eby supported SRO vacancy control, however the province has so far made no effort to intervene.
2022 - Broadway Plan Tenant Protections
The Mayor, city councillors and staff were tripping over themselves to gush about the Broadway Plan having some of the strongest renter protections in Canada. Tenants facing demoviction would have a right of first refusal to return at the same rent once a building was redeveloped, and be supported with interim top-ups during construction. Mayor Stewart especially made much political hay about this (during an election year), though neither he nor the city staff who drafted the Plan acknowledged that these protections are a carbon copy of similar protections already in place in neighbouring Burnaby since 2019.
Prior to the city approving the Broadway Plan, VTU members produced the Renters Plan, a report outlining key anti-displacement policies that could protect renters along the Broadway corridor.
Ultimately, the Broadway Plan passed without many significant amendments in favour of renters, and falling far short of what Renters Plan called for. The Broadway Plan was also supposed to “come into effect” on Sept 1st 2022, but by October the city has not listed up-to-date information on what passed in the Plan, nor any resources for renters looking to know their rights. Meanwhile, VTU members are reporting their buildings are going up for sale. As an election approaches, it really seems like the proposed protections were indeed just smoke and mirrors to give false hope for tenants, and generate political capital for the mayor’s re-election campaign.
Years ago our union identified city hall as a key battle ground for tenants to demand stronger protections, keep our homes affordable and stay in our communities. Since then, we’ve learned some valuable lessons:
Passing a motion at city hall usually doesn’t mean much.
We’ve celebrated council passing tenant friendly motions time and time again, but if the motion is one that calls on staff to do something, or the province to do something, we can safely assume that the issue will go into a black hole where it either hits a dead end or gets watered down to the point of meaninglessness.
Councillors will opt to avoid political heat by deferring to staff.
We’ve observed a pattern whereby councillors craft motions and amendments that kick the heavy lifting of setting actual policy over to staff. This fundamentally deflects questions that require a political backbone to answer, and instead reframes policy as a technical problem to be solved by “experts”.
City hall functions to de-mobilize organizations like ours.
City council meetings are often scheduled or rescheduled during work days, which makes signing up to attend or speak to council inaccessible for working class renters. When parts of a motion get referred to staff, their report backs often come months later in the form of hundreds of pages of technical jargon, and presented as a series of expert “recommendations” for council to either approve or not approve. This process fails to give renters a plain language accounting of how a motion translated (or didn’t) into policy, robbing us of information we need to hold our city accountable.
The City consults with real estate and landlord lobbyists every step of the way when crafting new policy.
Staff reports will call this “stakeholder engagement”. Effectively this means that even if council’s will is to implement a decidedly pro-tenant policy, the city will still consider input from real estate industry and lobby groups. A more egregious example of this relationship was when Landlord BC pushed council - mid meeting - to reverse a provision calling for vacancy control to be implemented in buildings that would benefit from a publicly funded energy retrofit program. This dynamic is not unique to Vancouver. As detailed in Samuel Stein’s book Capital City, the economies of all North American cities are largely driven by real estate capital. Thus, city planners function to ensure that the private profits derived through real estate is protected - when it comes to existing housing, new housing and even public infrastructure projects like the Broadway Subway.
Looking abroad we can see similar patterns playing out for renters’ movements in other cities. In Minnesota’s Twin Cities, lawmakers recently worked behind closed doors with real estate lobbyists to water down what had been the strongest rent control laws on the continent when it passed last year. And in Berlin last year, a massive city-wide movement to freeze rent increases for five years was ultimately tossed out by Germany’s national court.
What we have seen here and in other cities across North America is that when tenants take collective action to make demands, we can win. We can change our circumstances by organizing with our neighbors to pressure our landlords. When we tell our stories and exert pressure on landlords and developers, we gain public support for our struggles, because our communities recognize that we are all in the same boat. It’s these campaigns that see the politicians in power start to feel the heat to make changes to policy. If we keep up sustained pressure this way we can win in our own buildings and extend positive changes for all tenants in Vancouver.
This is our work, no matter who is sitting on council, or in the offices at city hall.