Rental agreements trap domestic violence victims

City committee recommends changes to Residential Tenancy Act

When a victim of domestic violence suddenly flees her apartment because she fears her partner will track her down and continue the cycle of abuse, the balance of the rent still has to be paid.

In many cases, the victim also has to forfeit a security deposit and pay to advertise the vacancy until the landlord finds a new tenant.

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Add it all up and it can create a financial barrier for a woman attempting to escape an abusive relationship, according to the city’s renters’ advisory committee, which wants the provincial government to overhaul the Residential Tenancy Act to allow tenants to break rental agreements without penalties.

“The Act should be amended to ensure that victims of domestic violence aren’t trapped by fixed-termed tenancies,” said the committee in a report that goes before city council Tuesday.

Breaking an agreement can weaken a tenant’s credit rating, if there are outstanding unpaid fees. Once a tenant breaks a lease, she is usually considered to have a poor rental history, making landing a new place difficult.

Under B.C.’s Act, a tenant cannot end a fixed-term agreement earlier than a specified date reached at time of moving in, unless the landlord agrees otherwise or has breached a term of the agreement.

The report notes the B.C. government has introduced a bill in the legislature related to fixed rental agreements. But details of how it would work haven’t been finalized. The committee predicts “significant policy work” will need to be done for amendments to the Act to have any effect.

“We urge that this policy regime be developed in conjunction with women-serving organizations and with sensitivity to the particular circumstances of victims of abuse and violence,” said the report, noting Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Ontario have legislation in place to support tenants fleeing violence.

In April 2014, West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) submitted a briefing note to provincial legislators that requested the Act be changed to protect victims of domestic violence.

Kendra Milne, director of law reform for LEAF, said domestic violence is an underreported crime and should be recognized in changes to the Act. Milne said requiring a woman to report violence to police can be an additional barrier to fleeing an abusive relationship.

That’s why, she said, a tenant should be allowed to have a person such as a nurse or counsellor verify the circumstances for suddenly breaking a rental agreement. That provision should be enough to authorize a tenant to move out of an apartment, without penalties.

“It’s a somewhat easy way for the province to remove barriers for women who are trying to access safety,” Milne said.

David Hutniak, CEO of LandlordBC, which represents 3,300 owners and managers of rental housing in B.C., said his organization is sensitive to the need to amend the Act to protect victims of domestic violence. But Hutniak is concerned new regulations could be compromised by tenants simply wanting to break leases.

“The reality is most landlords today are, on a case by case basis, accommodating folks that are in those unfortunate circumstances,” he said, noting his organization continues to consult with the Residential Tenancy Branch regarding proposed changes to the Act. “Some of the language is vague and it could be subject to abuse in the sense that it could open the door to false claims. The necessary checks and balances – based on what they’re currently proposing – don’t appear to be in place.”

Added Hutniak: “It’s a tough one. We really want to look at it much more closely before we wholeheartedly support it.”

LEAF’s submission to the government quoted several Statistics Canada studies showing the level of domestic violence in the country, including that almost half (49 per cent) of women killed by their spouses are killed within two months of separation.

The 2012 Statistics Canada report, “Family violence in Canada: A statistical profile” said there were 16,259 victims of “intimate partner violence” reported to police in B.C. in 2010. That’s a rate of 427 victims per 100,000 people, which is much higher than the national average.

The renters’ advisory committee’s report includes several recommendations to amend the Residential Tenancy Act, including waiving dispute resolution fees for low-income tenants, providing translation for dispute resolution hearings, creating mandatory minimum penalties for landlords who break the law when evicting tenants and limiting rent increases when fixed-term tenancies end.

The Courier requested an interview with Housing Minister Rich Coleman to discuss the committee’s recommendations but he was unavailable. In an emailed statement to the Courier Nov. 12, Coleman noted the bill introduced in the legislature to address concerns by women fleeing abusive relationships. He said the government learned of the committee’s report last week and will review and consider the recommendations.

Council will receive the report at Tuesday’s public meeting at city hall.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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