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B.C.’s new supportive housing rules cite safety but reduce tenant freedom

Tenants will no longer be able to dispute wellness checks or guest bans under Residential Tenancy Act
This handout photo shows an affordable and supportive housing facility in Victoria, B.C. run by the Victoria Cool Aid Society. B.C. is restricting some of the rights of supportive housing tenants beginning on Feb. 28, 2024. (Victoria Cool Aid Society handout)

The rights of supportive housing tenants in B.C. are about to change, creating both clarity and confusion for housing providers and raising concerns around resident autonomy.

Beginning on Feb. 28, staff at supportive housing sites will have full control over performing wellness checks on tenants and restricting what guests can enter those buildings. Housing providers say both practices are crucial for keeping tenants and staff safe, while tenants and tenant advocates argue the steps treat residents as second-rate citizens.

But neither practice is in fact new. Housing providers have been using wellness checks and guest policies for years. What is changing is the legality of those measures.

Up until now, supportive housing tenants have technically been covered under B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Act, the same as someone who rents from regular market housing. This meant if they took issue with staff checking in on them without 24 hours notice or limiting who they could bring into the building, they could file a complaint with the Residential Tenancy Branch and argue for a rent reduction or order prohibiting the landlord from taking such measures again.

With the new changes, supportive housing tenants will remain under the act, but will lose power over these two areas. They will also lose the right to quiet enjoyment – something the housing ministry says is necessary to allow unimpeded wellness checks.

For housing providers, this legal clarity is a relief.

Jill Atkey, the CEO of BC Non-Profit Housing Association, said they have been operating in a grey area for years, balancing contractual obligations they have with BC Housing to perform wellness checks and responsibilities to provide a safe working environment, with tenant rights laid out in the Residential Tenancy Act.

The upcoming changes mean staff can confidently implement certain measures without the fear of possible legal challenges. The changes also mean tenants will no longer have a path for recourse under the act if they dispute those measures. Going forward, they will only be able to file complaints with their own housing provider.

“I think underlying (this) is just a sort of a disregard for the dignity and autonomy of people who are low income or living in poverty,” said Danielle Sabelli, a lawyer with the Community Legal Assistance Society.

According to BC Housing, the provincial Crown corporation that helps fund many supportive housing sites, this form of accommodation is characterized by its subsidized rent and on-site supports. It is intended for low-income people, as well as those experiencing or at risk of homelessness, those with disabilities and people who need help with mental illness or substance use issues.

Sabelli said providing fewer rights to these people than market rental tenants is “inherently discriminatory.”

Housing providers, however, argue that the needs of supportive housing tenants are complex and restricting rights is sometimes necessary to ensure safety.

Don McTavish, director of housing and shelters for Victoria Cool Aid Society, said the ability to control guests is particularly important. He said there have been instances at their sites where a tenant is being threatened by someone who doesn’t live there and feels the need to let them inside. In other cases, McTavish said people involved in crime have preyed upon tenants.

Giving staff the power to say “no” to potentially dangerous guests takes the onus off tenants to have to do so, McTavish said. It also allows staff to determine who they are comfortable letting inside for their own safety.

Additionally, McTavish said he is hopeful that the new restriction makes it more clear to police whether they can take action to remove a guest from a site, although involving police is considered a last resort.

He said guest policies vary from site to site, with some buildings having a blanket ban and others allowing a pre-approved list of friends and family to enter.

When it comes to wellness checks, McTavish said they do their best to take a more individualized approach. Some people may be comfortable having a staff member stop into their unit regularly, while others may agree to check in at the front desk once a day. McTavish said one tenant he knows leaves a daily note on the outside of his unit door to let staff know that he is okay.

Sabelli agrees that safety should be a priority but questions why these blanket restrictions are necessary. She said similar steps were already possible under the Residential Tenancy Act, which allows landlords to perform checks if they are seriously concerned about tenant safety and restrict guests who are disruptive or violent.

Her hunch is that these changes simply make things more efficient for housing providers. She said there needs to be a better balance between safety and tenant rights.

“This is someone’s home, they should be able to make choices.”

READ ALSO: Review of troubled supportive housing in Maple Ridge finds more mental health issues

A tenant’s perspective

One supportive housing tenant who wishes she had more freedom is Nicole McNeil. She was pushed into precarious housing after her rental apartment burned down and has been living in an Elizabeth Fry Society building in New Westminster for the last 3.5 years.

McNeil said she agrees with the need for wellness checks, particularly as the toxic drug crisis worsens, but finds the restrictions on guests degrading.

In her building, residents are only allowed two guests in at a time and cannot bring them into any communal areas or leave them unattended. This means if there is a karaoke night or birthday party, residents can’t invite any friends or family. It also means they can’t have anyone stay in their unit if they go away. McNeil said she had to cancel a trip to visit her daughter because she wasn’t allowed to have a friend dog-sit at her place.

She admitted the restrictions may make her building more safe than others, but said the result is a home that feels like a jail.

“We have no dignity or respect here, everything is overseen.”

McNeil challenged her building’s restrictions in 2022, but the Residential Tenancy Branch ruled that her accommodation is considered transitional housing, and not covered by the act. Transitional housing is a type of supportive housing that is intended to assist tenants with moving on to more permanent housing. However, what is considered transitional housing and what is considered longer term supportive housing is not clear.

Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal reviewed McNeil’s case and urged the Residential Tenancy Branch to provide better guidance on how to distinguish between the housing types. The clarification is important because, while supportive housing tenants hold most rights under the Residential Tenancy Act, transitional housing residents are exempt from it entirely.

This is confusing for housing providers and tenants alike.

Coast Mental Health’s CEO, Keir MacDonald, said the line between the two housing types has become especially blurred in recent years as the housing crisis has worsened. Tenants who were meant to stay in a building for only a couple of years are suddenly finding themselves stuck there for far longer, with no affordable housing options to transition to. This has been the case for McNeil.

READ ALSO: Canada’s social housing stock lagging behind peer countries

The umbrella of supportive housing has also broadened, with more health, mental health and substance use supports being introduced into buildings.

The Ministry of Housing did issue a new definition of supportive housing along with its incoming changes, but it doesn’t appear to provide much more clarity. Housing is not considered supportive, according to the ministry, if it is “provided on a temporary basis.” Asked what counts as temporary, ministry spokesperson Liam Butler told Black Press Media it will be determined “on a case-by-case basis, depending on the length of the tenure, the intent of the housing, and other factors.”

McNeil said she finds it frustrating that a market renter can sign a one-year agreement and be covered under the Residential Tenancy Act, but she can live somewhere for 3.5 years and not be afforded the same rights.

About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media after starting as a community reporter in Greater Victoria.
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