How an advocate can help
Reprinted from the "Housing" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 8 (1), pp. 23-25
Affordable housing is an issue for many people, especially for people with mental health and addiction issues. Disability benefit rates put home ownership out of reach, so the majority must rely on mainstream rental stock.
Finding safe, affordable housing is increasingly difficult because of a shrinking number of good quality, secure rental units. With this shortage in affordable housing, tenants sometimes have to settle for units that don’t meet basic safety and maintenance criteria. Renters have rights and responsibilities—as do landlords—that are regulated for the most part by the provincial Residential Tenancy Act. The Act provides a Dispute Resolution Hearing process, which is designed as a ‘self-help’ model, but it can be overwhelming for tenants with mental health and addiction issues.
As an advocate, I help people with tenant/landlord issues. Anyone can see me, but most of my clients are clients of the Canadian Mental Health Association and have mental health problems. I advocate from a perspective that everyone has a right to safe, affordable housing.
My greatest challenge when dealing with tenant problems is to help clients communicate with their landlords. In general, I find that tenants are reluctant to talk to their landlords for fear that they could upset him or her and possibly be evicted. Even if tenants are experiencing hardship from lack of services and repairs, there is a real reluctance to deal with the issue.
People often come to my office after putting up with a problem for many months. The anxiety and stress of having to deal directly with the landlord often results in a decision to just give written notice and move out. Even with the assistance of an advocate in writing a request for service and delivering it to the landlord, the anxiety of how the landlord will react is sometimes too much for tenants who are feeling vulnerable and powerless.
Some common tenancy issues
Whatever the tenancy issue is, documenting the problem is the first step in seeking a remedy. You must be able to prove that the landlord is aware of the problem and has had reasonable time to find a remedy.
Illegal entry by landlord
Ginger,* a client of mine who has high anxiety and depression, was under a lot of stress because her landlord was entering her basement suite when she was not at home. When she confronted him about it, he always made some vague excuse that he needed to check on something.
The right to quiet enjoyment and privacy is protected in the Residential Tenancy Act, and the only time a landlord can enter your home is in an emergency situation like a fire or flood. Otherwise, a minimum of 24-hour notice is required, with the date and time of planned entry and a good reason for the need to enter.
I helped Ginger write a letter informing the landlord of the regulations restricting the landlord’s right of entrance, and we attached a copy of that section of the regulations for his information. Ginger was initially reluctant to send a letter, because she felt the landlord would escalate his behaviour. But actually, once he received the written notice, he was apologetic and the problem stopped.
The old adage, “put it in writing,” is very wise in regards to landlord/tenant relations, as it provides confirmation of events and agreements. In this case, if the problem had continued we would have this letter as evidence in an application to the Residential Tenancy Branch for the tenant to change the locks. This kind of application is only successful if the tenant can prove that the landlord is entering without proper written notice.
Difficulty getting needed repairs done
Another common scenario I see is a client who has moved into a place that needs many repairs. The landlord verbally promises that the shower will be fixed within a week, or that the door that doesn’t lock will be re-fitted as soon as possible. A month later, the repairs aren’t done, and the tenant is totally disillusioned and wants out.
In my role as an advocate, I would write a letter documenting the repairs needed and the tenant’s attempts to deal directly with the landlord through phone calls or personal contacts. I’d then request that the landlord provide in writing a plan to fix the problem including an estimated time of completion. The objective of the letter is to confirm that the landlord is aware of the problem and to give them a reasonable time to remedy the situation. As in most situations, when a third party is observing the process, there seems to be more attention to a timely remedy.
Retrieving a damage deposit
Getting a damage deposit returned is another issue I frequently assist with. In theory, the landlord is required to do a check-in inspection when the tenancy begins and a check-out inspection at the end of the tenancy. This provides an opportunity for the tenant and landlord to reach an agreement regarding the cleanliness and any damages that have occurred as a result of the tenancy.
If tenants are stressed out by this process, I suggest they arrange to have pictures taken and have other people witness the state of the unit on the move-in day, in case there is a dispute later.
On the move-out date, the tenant is required to provide the landlord with a forwarding address for the return of the deposit. If there are fears around the landlord knowing where they are moving to, I often allow clients to use my office address as a forwarding address. Keeping a copy of the move-out notice to the landlord is important. If the damage deposit is not returned within the 15-day limit, the notice provides proof of the deadline for returning it.
Advocacy provides support and information
Whatever the scenario, before the situation gets to total frustration, it’s a good idea to find someone to help you to document the situation, and if possible, to mediate between you and the landlord. When the security of having a roof over your head is being compromised, it’s easy to want to lash out in frustration, and that can result in a further breakdown of the tenancy relationship. The benefit of having the help of an advocate is that they can problem solve without becoming emotional.
There is a dispute resolution process available through the provincial government’s Residential Tenancy Branch. This process provides a hearing, by telephone conference call, between landlord and tenant. However, preparation for the hearing is a challenge for people with low literacy or poor communication skills.
Dispute resolution applicants must present proof of the issue in the form of correspondence, pictures, receipts or witness statements that can confirm their claim. And all this evidence must be submitted to the Tenancy Branch and the other party (e.g., landlord) a full five business days before the hearing. There is a fee for filing the complaint, though this fee can be waived for tenants who provide proof of low income. But there are still costs for things like service of documents, photocopying, property title searches, photographs, etc.
Where to find an advocate? You can find an advocate in your area on the PovNet website at www.povnet.org
Choices in housing are critical
I think the ideal situation for many people with mental health or addictions issues—particularly for people who may be classified as “hard to house”—is to be in supportive subsidized housing. This form of housing provides a security system: there is a subsidy to reduce the rent to income assistance shelter rates, and a manager is available on a daily basis to assist with tenant and maintenance, and to provide support, such as advocacy and crisis intervention, as required. With a stable place to call home, tenants are then able to work on their personal challenges.
But regardless of what kind of housing you live in and what your challenges may be, addressing issues in a respectful and timely manner can go a long way toward supporting long-term tenancy.
About the author
Patty is a poverty law advocate who works at the New Horizon Centre, a clubhouse operated by the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Port Alberni branch. She is also employed as Constituency Assistant for Scott Fraser, MLA (Alberni-Pacific Rim). Patty is Chair of the Alberni Valley Stakeholders Initiative to End Homelessness