On March 11, 2022, the city of San Francisco passed an ordinance amending its Administrative Code to require residential landlords to allow tenant organizing activities to occur in common areas of a building and to require landlords of buildings of five (5) tenants or more to recognize tenant unions and negotiate with them in good faith. The ordinance also states that if a landlord interferes with the tenant's right to organize or to comply with their duty to negotiate in good faith, the tenant association/union may seek a rent reduction. The final version of the legislation is here and came into effect on April 11, 2022.
In mid-2021, the Rent Strike Bargain campaign demanded that Housing Minister David Eby recognize tenants’ rights to organize and collectively bargain, and suggested that rent reductions ought to be used to enforce collective bargaining rights. In our letter delivered to Minister Eby on May 17, 2021, we said: “While tenants have organized rent strikes, they risk their homes when they do so. Currently, a rent strike is extremely risky for tenants. If a tenant withholds any amount of rent, they can be evicted, like many tenants in the Wall and Redekop strikes (1971) were, despite receiving massive public support. The law does not recognize our right to strike. There are limited exceptions to the rule against rent strikes, however. The Residential Tenancy Act does recognize that tenants may withhold rent in limited circumstances. They may do so either after an order is made by the RTB, or where: pursuant to section 19 of the Residential Tenancy Act, the landlord overcharges the tenant for a pet deposit; pursuant to section 33 of the Residential Tenancy Act, the tenant has made emergency repairs themselves and has demanded reimbursement from the landlord; pursuant to section 43 of the Residential Tenancy Act, the landlord increases rent above the legally allowable increase”.
The Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) regularly recognizes that the value of a unit is diminished when a landlord does not provide required services or does not respect a tenant’s right to quiet enjoyment, and will make orders reducing the amount of rent to compensate for this diminished value. The same reasoning must apply to impasses between landlords and tenants. When the landlord seeks to control the tenant’s home - such as refusing to ensure basic maintenance or upgrades or imposing rules that seek to control what the tenant can do in their home - the rental unit loses value for the tenant. Withholding rent is an appropriate response, and even more so when the landlord nonetheless asks for increased rents.
The power to withdraw rent is for tenants what for the landlord is its power to evict, or refuse services. “Striking - the ‘powerhouse’ of collective bargaining - also promotes equality in the bargaining process”: SFL at para. 55. Like the withdrawal of labour from an employer, the withdrawal of rent is the only means tenants have to ensure they are taken seriously in negotiation with the landlord. A rent strike ensures tenants are together able to participate directly in the process of determining their living conditions and the rules that govern their home life. As for workers, “collective action at the moment of impasse is an affirmation of the dignity and autonomy of [tenants] in their [home] lives”: SFL at para. 54.
Minister Eby responded to us on July 26, 2021, promising to “ask staff to address this in their future policy work, in particular your request in relation to clarifying the Act to ensure that retaliation against tenants for organizing or insisting on their rights is not permitted.” We followed up with Minister Eby on November 8, 2021, including with our letter a sample of possible legislation. We received a response on December 3, 2021, in which Minister Eby said “I can assure you that ministry staff are currently exploring policy and legislative changes to further protect tenants”.
Over four months later, we have not seen any changes to protect tenant organizers and the right to tenant collective bargaining in BC. In the meantime, tenants in BC who wish to organize and form a union in their buildings are at risk of being targeted or evicted and remain isolated, vulnerable and seriously disadvantaged in negotiations with their landlords. In fact, we believe that we have seen our rights to organize curtailed by the current government.
On July 1st, 2021 the BC government made an amendment to the RTA that is of grave concern for tenants wanting to organize a union in their building. This amendment is called the "Additional rent increases (ARIs) for capital expenditures", and allows landlords to apply to the RTB for additional rent increases for necessary repairs or upgrades. The government mistakenly believes that this change to the RTA will encourage landlords to invest in their property by allowing them to recover some of those costs. We see this particular RTA change very differently.
This change to the RTA will also encourage landlords to apply to the RTB for rent increases to cover the costs of surveillance cameras or FOB key systems for their rental buildings, and in this way deliberately suppress tenant organizer access and prevent residents from gathering for meetings. Furthermore, landlords will be able to pass the cost of these surveillance technologies to the tenants, in the form of increased rents. Surveillance cameras clearly hold concern for tenant organizers and might be one more way for landlords to intimidate tenants not to organize, aka union-busting.
The Vancouver City Council recently rejected a motion to consider installing CCTV cameras around the city. Multiple community groups came together to release a joint statement against the motion. Their statement outlined to the council that current research shows that any crime deterrence effect that these kinds of surveillance technologies might have are limited and short-term. These technologies also have the negative effect of criminalizing and stigmatizing marginalized communities. If surveillance technologies are the wrong solution for the city, why would they be the right solution for our buildings? We ask any tenants that are experiencing increased surveillance or are facing ARI increases to reach out to us and share their stories to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tenant collective bargaining rights have been recognized in San Francisco and they should be in BC too. These are rights we are owed and it has been shown that they are absolutely achievable. It’s time to demand that the BC government support and recognize our collective rights. That means first repealing the ARIs for surveillance systems to prevent landlords from hampering access for organizers into residential buildings, then legislating a right for tenants to organize, which includes the right to strike and withhold rent payments. In the meantime, we will continue supporting all tenants that want to join together and fight for better living conditions and low-cost, healthy homes.
Join our campaign today at rentstrikebargain.com/get-involved