This op-ed was originally published in the Vancouver Sun on August 11 2023. By Dr. Sarah Marsden, Director of Systems Change and Legal, and Katie Koncan, Director of Development and Communications

Summers are getting hotter in Vancouver and across B.C. every year. Two years ago, a deadly heat dome killed 619 people in the province. And yet, tenants are being prevented from installing air conditioners in their homes to protect themselves against extreme heat — fearing eviction or rent increases if they don’t comply.

First United is a direct-service provider in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside; we support people who are homeless or facing extreme poverty among other intersecting challenges. Earlier this year, we began work on law reform to prevent evictions and homelessness, and to improve protections for tenants in B.C., taking a systems-level approach to help the folks we see every day, building on the work we’ve been doing for nearly 140 years. We are pursuing law and policy reform because we believe systems-level change will have the greatest positive impact on people and communities.

On the issue of cooling requirements for residential buildings, we see an obvious gap in provincial law: The Residential Tenancy Act has no specific language on heating and cooling, and instead those issues are addressed through municipal bylaws.

However, the RTA does require rental homes to comply with health and safety standards and says that units must be “suitable for occupation.” If people are at risk of death because they are prevented from using or installing a cooling device in their home, this is blatantly inconsistent with a home that this “suitable for occupation,” and with the idea of basic health and safety.

The provincial government seems to agree in spirit: It launched an initiative earlier this summer to provide free air conditioners to “people who are medically vulnerable and have low incomes.” This is a positive step. But there are two fundamental limitations to this approach: first, that some landlords are reportedly preventing qualified tenants from using the program; and second, that tenants have to qualify at all. All tenants have the right to basic standards of health and safety in their homes — both those who are medically vulnerable and low income, and those who are not.

Perhaps most frustrating is that there are very clear regulations requiring a minimum level of heat in the winter, at least in the city of Vancouver. Under Vancouver’s Standards of Maintenance Bylaw, all residential buildings must have heating systems that can maintain every room at 22 degrees. There is a reason we don’t hear stories of tenants freezing to death in their homes or being denied adequate heating: because they have legal protections in place already.

But there are solutions. The provincial government and city of Vancouver (and all other municipalities) can take concrete steps to protect residents. The RTA could be amended to include that tenants are allowed to install and use air conditioning or cooling devices (Ontario has already taken this step). The Strata Property Act could also be changed to prohibit bylaws that stop residents from installing or using air conditioners or cooling devices. The city of Vancouver could amend the Standards of Maintenance bylaw to add that residential dwellings be coolable to 26 degrees, whether through inbuilt or additional appliances (the city of New Westminster is already considering a similar change).

These are three simple solutions that can be implemented quickly to improve conditions for thousands of people across B.C.

It’s understandable that laws like this aren’t already in place. Climate change is impacting us like never before. Twenty years ago, who would have thought air conditioning would be such an urgent issue? As a society, we’re always learning, growing and progressing. But now that we know, and now that we’ve seen hundreds die from extreme heat, we must act, and our laws must adapt. Any barrier posed to those who seek relief from skyrocketing temperatures inside their own home is cruel and unconscionable.

Nobody should have to choose between rent increases, eviction, or risk to their health and safety. If that is how bad the housing crisis has become, then B.C. is in the hot seat more than we realized.