Navigating the ins and outs of Whistler's housing crisis 

click to flip through (2) STORY BY BRADEN DUPUIS - Navigating the ins and outs of Whistler's housing crisis
  • Story by Braden Dupuis
  • Navigating the ins and outs of Whistler's housing crisis
 

Anyone who has spent time searching for lodging in Whistler — or at least follows the Whistler Winter Facebook page — is well aware of the stories, the struggles, the scams and the scumbags.

"So someone contacted me through Craigslist saying they had a room in Whis village and would I like to FaceTime to talk about it?" one woman posted to the group in mid-December.

Of course she did — a good portion of the town's workforce was in need of a bed for the winter.

But when the video call connected, the woman was met by a man vigorously masturbating on camera.

"Sick (f#*&)," she said. "I've been searching for housing for three months now to no avail."

Longtime locals are quick to say there has always been a housing problem here, but has Whistler's rental market always been this toxic?

"The last eight people I have been in contact with in regards to renting a room have asked I pay a deposit before even meeting them... and then they will meet me and show the place, sign lease and give me the keys," another woman posted on Dec. 26.

"Has anyone actually paid a deposit before meeting the property owner and it has worked out and been legit or is literally everything a scam?"

Comments on the post reaffirmed her suspicions: almost everything is a scam right now.

With Whistler's housing market the tightest it's been since pre-2010 Olympics, these types of situations are distressingly common.

People are desperate, and some Whistler landlords are happy to take full advantage.

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden has been hearing the stories first-hand for months.

She recently received an email from a woman who was completely taken advantage of by her landlord.

"The details were heartbreaking. I actually referred it over to bylaw to see if there was anything that we could do from a bylaw enforcement, or even from a criminal perspective," she said.

"Effectively the landlord was stealing from this woman, stealing her rent paid in advance for things that subsequently weren't delivered, and she ended up leaving town and going back to her home country penniless, and with a very, very bad taste in her mouth as you can probably appreciate. It was awful."

But what is a desperate tenant to do?

It starts with knowing your rights and standing up for them, the mayor said.

"I think this is where it falls down or falls apart so to speak, is tenants, they know that they're being treated unlawfully, but for whatever reason they don't want to stand up for themselves, or they're afraid to stand up for themselves," Wilhelm-Morden said.

"And that just perpetuates the unscrupulous behaviour by some landlords."

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) recently held seminars for both tenants and landlords in an effort to get the word out about what is and is not acceptable as part of its effort to ease the housing crunch.

But in some cases, even knowing your rights isn't enough to keep you happily housed.

TENANT VS. LANDLORD

It was in the early afternoon on Halloween when Jake got the text from his landlord, Bob.

(The names of the tenant and landlord have been changed here in order to protect their identities.)

"Please have your rooms vacated today, so that I can return your room rental deposit asap. I will be there tonight to check," it read.

Jake's answer came three minutes later.

"Did you read our response or contact your lawyer about this situation Bob?" he wrote.

"We will not need our deposit back just yet as we will not be vacating the apartment."

Bob texted back 20 minutes later, thanking Jake for his response.

The dispute all started about a month earlier, when the landlords asked Jake and his roommate to leave as they have "plans for the suite" this winter. Two other suites in the house were allegedly being rented in violation of Whistler bylaws on a short-term rental website.

Jake argued the original request to vacate, and Bob agreed to let them stay month-to-month with increased rent.

"I said (to Bob), 'well, I understand where you're coming from, but here's the forms you need to file through the Residential Tenancy Branch, you can only raise it a certain amount,'" Jake said.

"They ignored us until Halloween night."

That evening, once Jake and company had gone out for the night, Jake got a call from the police, saying they were inside his apartment.

"So we get home, the landlords and the police are inside my apartment, they've taken our possessions, our TV, our Internet with absolutely no explanation," he said. "Basically, the landlords just told the police that we aren't even supposed to be in the suite and we're not tenants, the police believed them, let them into the apartment, took absolutely no evidence, and when we came back in and told them that this was all illegal, they said, 'Oh well this is civil, we have nothing to do with this.'

"So I was like, 'well what are you guys doing here in the first place?'"

Over the next few days, the locks were changed, windows boarded up, and Jake's possessions moved out of the house without his consent.

"When I got home to deal with it they just refused to let me into the suite, and the police were there, and they said if I attempt to enter the suite I'll be charged with assault," Jake said.

"And I was like, this makes absolutely no sense."

To Bob, the situation is much more cut and dried.

"He claims that he has a lease. He has no documents at all. But he was renting a room in a house," he explained.

"He was given over six weeks' notice to move out, and he didn't move out, so I moved him out."

There was no signed tenancy agreement between the two parties, which in many cases wouldn't matter — proof of payment is often enough to award a tenant renter's rights.

But if the tenant shares a bathroom or kitchen with the owner, the Residential Tenancy Act doesn't apply.

The house in question has five bedrooms — three upstairs and two downstairs — and two kitchens.

"There's no locked doors between the five, the suites... up and down. There's a laundry between, and the doors are never locked," Bob said.

"So he believes that he had exclusive use to the downstairs part, but he didn't. Everyone had the codes."

Jake feels that argument is flimsy.

"Oh he's so full of (s@#*). That's insane. Oh my god," he said.

"I'm so stunned that they would claim something like that. It's a two-bedroom suite, so where did they stay? When they come to visit, am I sharing my room with the landlords?

"He knows what he's doing is illegal, and he's about to get caught."

Whether or not the argument holds up is, unfortunately, almost irrelevant.

If a tenant like Jake wants to dispute Bob's "shared space" claim, he needs to submit an application for dispute resolution to the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB), after which an arbitrator will consider the circumstances before coming to a decision.

As it currently stands, the wait for an expedited hearing with the RTB is four to six weeks — and in Whistler's current rental market, that's more than enough time to force a disputing tenant out of town.

The wait for a non-expedited hearing is five to six months.

For Bob — a homeowner and landlord in Whistler for more than two decades — the dispute with Jake is a case of "enough is enough."

There are good tenants in Whistler, just as there are good landlords, but for those renting out their homes, often they end up dealing with things that maybe aren't worth the trouble.

"I've owned a house in Whistler for 25 years and every year I wonder why I'm renting my house," Bob said.

"So this is exactly why we don't have any accommodation in Whistler as far as landlords. It's cheaper in the end for me to actually let my house sit, and I have a 5,000 square foot home and I'm not rich."

Just last winter, Bob's tenants broke a $1,000 window, "and they all just fly and say 'not me!' right?" he said.

"I believe over the years that I've owned that house, I think I have over $16,000 in judgments against tenants, which I can't collect ever... the only people that can ever collect in this whole process are tenants.

"You can never find these guys. I gotta tell you right now, I won't rent to anyone from overseas, Australia or New Zealand, because when they do whatever they do, all they lose is $500 in damage deposit or something, right? And I even have to pay to file to keep it."

It can be a slog on both sides of the rental agreement, but years of bad experiences have made short-term renting on sites like Airbnb a very attractive option for landlords — more money and less conflict.

WAITING FOR A HEARING

But the extended wait times for hearings at the RTB are a relatively new development.

When Lorna Armstrong left the RTB in 2006, every non-monetary hearing would be heard within a week to 10 days.

Somewhere along the line the branch switched from a professional arbitration force made up of lawyers well-versed in tenancy legislation to a "layperson dispute resolution officer" to save money, Armstrong said.

Today, those resolution officers hold three hearings per day.

"For close to 20 years in my day, I held minimum of five hearings a day per arbitrator, and often six to eight," said Armstrong, who now works with the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre (TRAC).

In Jake's case, a hearing could have been scheduled within days under the old RTB system.

"We could have established if there was jurisdiction and he would have been given an order of possession perhaps in a timely enough fashion that he could have gotten back into the property," Armstrong said.

Having worked for the RTB and TRAC, as well as for Landlord BC, Armstrong has dealt with all aspects of B.C.'s housing situation.

"I see it from all sides, and trust me, we are in a crisis with housing," she said.

"I talk to everybody. I talk to the young, I talk to the old, I talk to people that have got 27-year tenancies, they're 87 years old, they're veterans and they're getting put out onto the street. Single moms, the mentally ill, I mean God help us if we're disabled or not enjoying our mental health in this province, because we might as well just go sit on an ice floe, I mean, its getting to that point."

When Pique requested an interview with someone at the RTB to talk about how things have changed, a government spokesperson sent back an emailed response.

"B.C.'s Residential Tenancy Branch regularly reviews our policies and procedures to ensure we are providing the best possible service to tenants and landlords," it reads, adding that a number of changes have been introduced to make services more supportive and accessible, including amending the RTA to allow a tenant fleeing family violence to end a fixed-term agreement early; improving online access to services (like removing the requirement for credit cards or Visa Debit to apply for dispute resolution, and allowing applications to waive fees to be completed online).

RTB web content is updated regularly, including forms and policy guidelines, to ensure the branch helps support successful tenancies, and the RTB also offers a series of online videos to provide accessible info to landlords and tenants.

The videos can be found at www.gov.bc.ca/landlordtenant/videos.

A second request for an interview wasn't returned before Pique's deadline.

Armstrong said she'd really like to see some passion brought back into the equation.

"Housing is so fundamentally important," she said.

"I think they've just turned it into a call centre and they've automated it, and they really don't want to deal with people, they just want them to go hither and yonder to get their information.

"I think that, if nothing else, they need to be more effective in providing information, and they really need to cut down on these hearing times, because it's just absolutely ridiculous."

'THE WORST WE'VE SEEN'

Housing in Whistler has always been a concern for the staff at Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS), but the crisis reached hew heights in 2016.

"I am very concerned as to what this winter holds for Whistler, and the housing challenges, and I would say it's the worst we've seen in my span since 2008," WCSS's outreach manager Jackie Dickinson told Pique's Mountain Mythic podcast back in November.

"But housing has always been a concern, because housing is a human right, and when we do not provide people with safe, affordable housing, it affects everything we do in this community."

Ultimately, Whistler's housing strain affects the mental and physical wellbeing of residents both new and old.

"In my time I've seen situations where people are living in mouldy places in apartments, I've seen residents that have been evicted on terms that are not fair or follow the tenancy guidelines, and one of our biggest challenges, which I think impacts the human aspect of Whistler, is that we do not have emergency housing," Dickinson said.

"So not only do we not have the inventory, but then when something goes wrong, which happens in life, we don't have a secondary plan for people, and then that's where we really see the challenges with human impact."

Over the last six months of 2016, the crisis started to affect all aspects of the community.

"So it's your child's pre-school or ski-school teacher having four or five members of their family living in a one bedroom apartment. It's a great person like Matt, who worked for Vancouver Coastal Health substance use and mental health and addiction services, and he had to leave the community because he couldn't house his family," Dickinson said.

"So not only is it affecting the wellbeing of people, but then it's affecting the services that we're trying to offer, so it's coming in at every angle and it's just overall affecting people's health."

And just because housing has always been a problem for Whistler, that doesn't make it OK to brush off the effects, Dickinson said.

"Even if it was only affecting that new seasonal worker, it still does not make it OK. As soon as someone sets foot in Whistler, this is their home, and we need to ensure that they feel good and safe and are able to do what they want to do," Dickinson said.

"So it's never been OK, and now we're seeing all impacts of our economy being affected, but if they've been here two days or 22 years, we have to offer them that same sense of belonging, and I think, to be honest, we're starting to forget that, and that's a problem."

With Vail's purchase of Whistler Blackcomb, and WB's ambitious Renaissance project, more growth is almost certainly in the cards for Whistler — and then what?

"We're projecting all this continued growth, which is exciting — as a person who lives here and has a son and he gets all these amazing opportunities, I'm excited and I'm scared, all at the same time," Dickinson said.

"Because I think we've reached that tipping point but we're still anticipating more growth."

Listen to the full episode of Mountain Mythic on iTunes or Soundcloud: www.piquenewsmagazine.com/whistler/episode-3-housing-crisis/Content?oid=2808208.

EASING THE PAIN

Every year, hundreds of young people come to Whistler to live out their dream ski season.

Stories of people sleeping on floors, crammed 12 or more to a home, paying thousands of dollars in rent, are not uncommon in Whistler.

But in the 2016/17 season the problem has morphed into a full-blown crisis, according to many.

The mayor formed a task force on resident housing in response to the crisis, which is looking at solutions to improve the situation in the months and years to come.

A new program for matching businesses with homeowners — dubbed Home Run — was launched in December, and as of Jan. 10, had 14 interested property owners and 28 applications from business owners.

With the transfer of another lot to the RMOW by the Whistler 2020 Development Corporation there are now three new resident-restricted housing projects in various stages of development in Cheakamus Crossing, for a total of 250 new beds.

The RMOW has also increased its investigation and enforcement of illegal nightly rentals.

More initiatives from the task force will be announced in 2017.

But in the short term, Whistler will continue to be populated with more van dwellers, couch surfers, tent campers — and ultimately, Whistler-leavers — than ever before.

 

Resources for Renters

It is absolutely crucial for tenants to know their rights — the Residential Tenancy Act can be found in full at www.bclaws.ca.

"Even basic information or education on the law can really help avoid or resolve a lot of issues with your landlord," said Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre (TRAC) executive director Andrew Sakamoto at an information session in Whistler last November.

There are certain situations that are not covered by the Act — such as if the tenant shares a bathroom or kitchen with the owner — so it's important to have a written agreement that clearly outlines what will be permitted.

Rents can only be increased a certain amount each year (set at 3.7 per cent for 2017).

For information, links and resources, check out TRAC online at www.tenants.bc.ca or call 604-255-3099.

More resources can be found through www.tenantsbc.ca.

The provincial Residential Tenancy Branch can be contacted for info, education and dispute resolution services — by phone at 1-800-665-8779 or by email at HSRTO@gov.bc.ca.

 

Resources for Landlords

The most important thing you can do as a landlord, according to Landlord BC's Kimberly Lachuk, is to know your roles and responsibilities under the Residential Tenancy Act, as well as those of your tenants.

"You need to know what you're allowed to do as a landlord, you need to know what your tenants are and aren't allowed to do, and that's how you can manage that relationship," Lachuk said at a seminar for landlords in October.

It's also crucial to have written agreements that clearly outline the terms of the rental agreement (no smoking on the property, for instance).

Some other key messages: Use application forms (never hand a prospective tenant a tenancy agreement before you're certain you want to rent to them), never take or keep copies of a tenant's personal ID (if it gets stolen, you're liable) and don't discriminate, lest you want to be written up for a human rights complaint (rather than listing "families only," list things that might attract your preferred tenant: close to schools, parks, etc.).

More resources for landlords can be found online at www.landlordbc.ca or by phone at 1-888-330-6707.

The provincial Residential Tenancy Branch can be contacted for info, education and dispute resolution services — by phone at 1-800-665-8779 or by email at HSRTO@gov.bc.ca.

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