This op-ed was originally published in The Vancouver Sun on January 24, 2023. You can find the op-ed on The Vancouver Sun’s website.
Opinion: Without this resource, more vulnerable individuals and families will be at immediate and increased risk of displacement and homelessness.
By Katie Koncan, Director of Development and Communications, and Amanda Burrows, Interim Executive Director
Last week, at the Jan. 18 council meeting, Vancouver City Council voted to close the city’s Renter Office. Established in 2018, the Renter Office provided direct education, resources, and referrals to renters at risk of displacement, and advocacy for the needs of renters in a city with a highly volatile rental market.
We at First United are deeply troubled by this decision. Every day, we see the outcome of poor protections for renters: an increasing number of people becoming displaced, homeless, and facing barriers in upholding their rights.
Due to the elimination of a key city-operated resource for renters, we fear that more individuals and families — especially those who are low-income, who are new to Canada or whose first language isn’t English, older tenants, and those who experience barriers to accessing services — will be at immediate and increased risk of displacement and homelessness.
This risk is unacceptable, particularly in the context of an ongoing affordable housing crisis, particularly in a market where the average rental price of a two-bedroom apartment is $2,600, and particularly in a city where 55 per cent of residents are renters.
For 50 years, our Legal Advocacy office has provided support for tenancy issues including unlawful evictions. Last year, our advocates assisted over a thousand clients, including hundreds of renters seeking urgent support to avoid homelessness and other critical tenancy issues. The service providers who support renters in Vancouver face enormous caseloads — indicating a clear and high demand amongst renters for advocacy and support. Now is not the time to reduce those services and create new barriers for those already experiencing a crisis.
Last year, we began a new project to complement our direct-service work: We’re running a first-of-its-kind project for B.C. to map evictions throughout the province. The eviction mapping project has significant potential to improve conditions for renters. By gathering data that links who is being evicted, where, why, and what the ongoing impacts are after eviction, we will have a better understanding of the ways in which housing laws, policies, and practices in B.C. relate to patterns of displacement. Ultimately, the data from the eviction mapping project will be used as a basis for long-term improvements to housing law.
“Eviction can lead to homelessness, displacement, financial stress, family separation, and negative health outcomes, as well as specific risks to Indigenous people and other groups” says Dr. Sarah Marsden, director of systems change and legal, who is leading the project.
“Our advocates work regularly with the city staff at the Renter Office. They provide support where we can’t, and vice-versa. This type of collaboration between the non-profit sector and public sector is crucial to solving one of the most pressing ongoing issues we face.”
It is demoralizing to be misaligned with our municipal leaders on such an important issue that affects all of us. We hope we’re wrong in the city’s intention.
In fact, part of the ABC election platform included “an ABC majority will strengthen protections and supports for Vancouver’s existing market and non-market housing rental stock.” This decision by the ABC-majority council is in direct contradiction to that promise.
Both our direct-service legal advocacy work and research on evictions are funded, in part, by the City of Vancouver Renter Services Grants. These grants are essential to allowing us to support renters immediately and long-term. And we need partnership, a holistic approach, and a multitude of offices, services, and resources in order to appropriately tackle housing. The city also seems to think this, considering the recent Vancouver police report that specifically called for “better cross-sector collaboration and coordination.”
Why then close a successful access point for that collaboration and coordination?
We need our elected officials to protect all residents. We need them to be actively engaged in solutions and supports to prevent displacement of tenants to begin with, but also to help individuals when they are displaced. The closing of a vital resource for Vancouver tenants when they are at their most vulnerable is counterproductive to all of these aims.