Most of the few remaining rights and affordable housing that tenants have in British Columbia were earned by working class activists and renters in the 1970s. This piece, written in 1981 by former housing activist and COPE City Councilor Bruce Yorke, provides some insight into the local past. It documents struggles that won tangible victories in the late ’60s and ’70s, while hinting at how new ground can be won today. In the context of unending evictions, a neoliberal municipal government, and a right-shifting provincial NDP under Adrian Dix, tenants must now more than ever take to the streets, organize buildings, and look land-owning interests straight in the eyes.
The pioneer and leader of the tenants’ movement in B.C. was the Vancouver Tenant Council established in 1968. This was an individual membership organization with membership dues at $2.00 a year. The fees were used to set up an office with a phone.
In August, 1968, we held our first meeting of tenants. It was at the Driftwood apartment in Kitsilano. I took the initiative in calling that meeting. The main issue disturbing tenants was a 5% increase in rents imposed on very short notice, plus a rather insulting letter from Block Brothers.
The meeting was held at Kitsilano Beach. About 75 tenants attended. Alderman Harry Rankin was also there and gave us his support.
The media coverage of this meeting created a lot of interest and led to many telephone enquiries.
We didn’t win that battle but we did establish the fact that tenants were determined to get organized and make their voices heard.
Our second struggle, in the Rosemount and Broadway area, was more successful. The issues here were rent increases and security deposits. We decided to withhold our rent pending settlement of our grievances and this withholding was carried out in the face of mass evictions.
With the support of Alderman Harry Rankin, City Council also became involved. Council set up a two-member committee — Harry Rankin and Tom Alsbury (the latter also acted as mediator in our dispute with the landlords) to look into the possibility of the city implementing rental regulations. One of the hold-over pieces of federal war-time regulation gave municipal councils this authority.
The settlement we reached with the landlords in this struggle included an agreement that rent increases require three month notice, that there could not be more than one increase per year, and that the landlords would pay interest on the security deposits.
That successful struggle led to the biggest meeting of tenants ever held in Vancouver. We leafleted the West End with a questionnaire and over 750 tenants turned out. That was in November.
The same month we officially established the Vancouver Tenants Council. Until then we had an interim council giving leadership. Our plan was to establish “locals” in each apartment block but practice these “locals” or committees were usually short-lived. They arose when the tenants had a grievance and became inactive after the issue was dealt with.
The most active people in these skirmishes, however, often ended up on the executive of the Vancouver Tenants Council.
The next year, 1969, the Vancouver Tenants Council campaigned actively for the right of tenants to vote in civic elections, for enforcement of the building code, for changes in the Landlord and Tenant Act, for abolition of the Distress Act, and that landlords be compelled to give reasons for evictions.
In September, 1969, Vancouver City Council which was still dominated by the NPA at the time, passed a by-law establishing the Vancouver Rental Accommodation Grievance Board. It provided for certain tenant rights which we did not previously have. These included a maximum of one rent increase per year, three months notice of rent increases (a by-product of our victory in Rosemount), a $25 limit on security deposits, landlord responsibility for repairs and mitigation of damages.
This by-law was introduced by Harry Rankin; the draft was drawn up in consultation with me.
The main negative feature of the by-law was that it did not provide for tenant representation. The NPA saw to it that the board was made up mainly of NPA re-treads.
The by-law did, however, set the stage for the continued activity of the tenant movement, and was a big factor in the changes made by the provincial Social Credit government in the provincial Landlord and Tenant Act the following spring. This piece of legislation hadn’t been changed since the Confederation!
This new act provided the following:
• no more than one rent increase per year
• abolition of the Distress Act
• Landlord responsibility for repairs
• mitigation of damages
• limitation of security deposits to $50.00
• no eviction if tenant could prove that their legal rights were being violated
• Small Claims Court jurisdiction, with night sessions in Vancouver, rather than the expensive County Court recourse.
We looked on this new Act as quite an important breakthrough, as a victory for the tenant movement, especially that section dealing with evictions. The Vancouver Tenant Council had fought several eviction cases in the courts, notably the Williams case, where for the first time evictions were overruled by the courts. In the Williams case the landlord had attempted to impose a second rent increase within one year.
The next year, 1971, the Vancouver Tenants Council engaged in mass economic actions.
We led a five-month strike-boycott of 15 Wall and Redekop premises which had been hit with a 10% rent increase. Initially 265 tenants withheld their rent. The final settlement, which took place in court, saw 25 tenants evicted, but no rent increase was permitted in the interim five month period. The boycott was quite effective too. The vacancy rate for Wall & Redekop rose to 20% compared to a 2% vacancy rate in the rest of the city.
Undoubtedly, the boycott hurt the landlords more than did the withholding of rents for a period.
In 1972 the NDP was elected to office in B.C. Its election platform included bargaining rights for tenants and the establishment of municipal rent review boards.
In late 1972 or early 1973 Surrey municipal council enacted a by-law under the Rent Control Act establishing the principle of just cause for evictions. The right to evict was limited to seven reasons. This was also an important victory for the tenant movement.
In the spring of 1973 the NDP government made an important change in the 1970 tenant legislation. It made the one rent increase per only per year clause applicable to the premises, not the tenancy agreement. This was a good move since it recognized the economic class basis of rent, not the individual tenant contract approach.
This reform had been pressed for by tenant organizations for a long time.
In the summer of 1973 the NDP government reneged on its election promises to tenants and proceeded to set up a Law Reform Commission charged with setting rental policy. Davie Fulton, former minister of justice to the federal government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, was appointed head of the commission.
The tenant movement had brought tremendous pressure to bear on both the Law Reform Commission and the NDP government during the fall of 1973. Our stand was that the NDP should carry out its election promises to tenants. The Vancouver Tenants Council and the BC. Tenant organization sent no less than six delegations to Victoria during this period.
The Law Reform Commission’s report recognized the principle of just cause for eviction, and that was good, but also proposed that a Rentalsman with all the accompanying bureaucratic process be appointed. As far as we are concerned that was a retrogressive step.
We were reliably informed that quite a battle took place within the NDP caucus over this issue and that the NDP attorney general threatened to resign, not less than three times, if the rentalsman concept proposed by the Law Reform Commission was not accepted by government. We heard he was bitterly opposed to any legislation that would recognize the class status of tenants and tenant organizations.
In November and December of 1973 Block Brothers instituted a huge 25% rent increase. Under the leadership of the Vancouver Tenants Council, tenants organized resistance, including the withholding of rent. Presentations were made by tenants to both Vancouver City Council and the provincial government in Victoria.
Vancouver city council called a special meeting of tenants and landlords to discuss the issue, held at Kits High School. Over 700 attended. The landlords put on a demonstration, acting as if they were a Chile Junta and Mayor Art Phillips let them get away with it. However, in spite of this, the pressure of the tenants at the meeting prevailed, and city council passed a resolution, which while confusing in some respects, did provide for the idea that rent increases should be limited to the current inflation rate of 9.2%. This concept had been pushed for a long time by the Vancouver Tenants Council and Alderman Rankin.
A month or so later, in February, 1974, the NDP government passed a new Landlord and Tenant Act. Two of its regressive features were the establishment of a Rentalsman and abolition of the Rent Control Act. The Rentalsman was given authority to set future rent increases.
The single best feature of the legislation was that it required landlords to show just cause for eviction.
The Vancouver Tenants Council and the B.C Tenant Organization (which united various tenant groups in the province) continued to pressure the NDP government for repeal of the rentalsman legislation and for further action in line with the limitations on rent increases contained in the Interim Rent Stabilization Act.
The landlords, too, brought pressure on the rentalsman for permission to icnrease rents by as much as 28%.
Finally, after we presented a petition with 25,000 names to the provincial government, it acted and took the rent-setting authority out of the hands of the rentalsman and placed it in the hands of a Rent Review Commission. Rent increases for 1975 were also limited to 10.6%. The petition and the associated activities led by our tenant movement at this time were probably the high point of our entire activity. The establishment of the Rent Review Commission was a potentially progressive step even though the form of rent control was still very weak. New construction was exempt from rent controls and no statistical basis was provided for setting the limitation of rent increases. The Commission had no enforcement or even investigative apparatus and tenant groups were not recognized. it was a far cry from the NDP election promise that tenants would be given bargaining rights.
Although the Rent Review Commission later attempted to carry out some research and authored a report (landlord and tenants were given financial grants of equal size to prepare their submissions for the Commission), the report was still-born. The 1975 provincial elections took place and the NDP lost out to Social Credit. A version of the report was produced by staff but it was not particularly helpful to tenants.
Since the rentalsman concept was intoduced, the tenant movement had become steadily weaker, and no doubt that was one of the reasons why this concept was introduced and bargaining rights for tenants never granted.
The limitation of rent increases to 10.6% carried on for two more years and is now currently 7%. But the loopholes are enormouse and its effectiveness is being steadily eroded by granting more and more exemptions. The only tenants that really have any preotection are those who have remained on the same premises year after year, since they know the legal rent level and the frequency of increases permitted. Enforcement of this legislation remains very poor. The Rent Review Commission has been absorbed by the rentalsman’s office. His office has, in fact, become a sort of auxiliary to the landlords, personnel and administrative.
The Social Credit government kept its promises to landlords who helped elect it.
Looking back over our 10 year period of activity, tenants can record some limited victories. Just cause for eviction is now required, some even though very limited forms of rent control still apply, the Distress Act has been abolished and tenants have gained more voting rights, even though they are still not equal voting rights.