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Landlord says dispute system needs changes after tenant holds up house sale

Sale of Fairfield property held up by a tenant who milked system for all the rent-free time he could get, landlord says
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A landlord says the new owners of this house at 130 Howe St. in Fairfield had to stay in a hotel and store their furniture for weeks while the tenant disputed the eviction on the grounds he'd overheard the new owners suggesting they were going to renovate to rent out the home. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

A Victoria landlord says it’s time for an overhaul of the dispute-resolution process for landlords and tenants after fighting for weeks to evict a tenant in order to close the sale of his house.

Liam McGowan said the sale of his Fairfield property was held up by a tenant who milked the system for all the rent-free time he could get.

“It was a disaster — this guy played the system all the way,” said McGowan. He said he went through all of the required steps once a purchase offer was accepted, but the tenant refused to leave.

On Oct. 28 of last year, the tenant was advised the house was sold and he would have to be out by Jan. 1, 2022.

McGowan said the tenant, who had been in the home since October 2019, paying $3,500 per month in rent on a month-to-month basis, disputed the eviction on the grounds he’d overheard the new owners suggesting they were going to renovate, which he took to mean they were going to rent the house out. If that was the case, he could not be evicted.

“He knew that would delay the [transaction], but he submitted no evidence to the Residential Tenancy Branch,” said McGowan. That initially delayed the sale for a month. After an arbitrator found in favour of McGowan, the tenant applied for a review, further delaying the process.

The new owners provided statements to the Residential Tenancy Branch saying the only renovations would be for their own comfort and that the Fairfield home was to be their principal residence.

“There seems to be no consequence for bringing any dispute to the branch, even when they are frivolous and unfounded like this one,” said McGowan. “All he had to do is suggest that there’s new evidence and everything stops again. And there’s no consequence for that.”

The tenant did finally move out last weekend, and the new owners, who are from Kelowna, are expected to take possession soon.

But McGowan notes the move was supposed to happen more than a month ago, and the new owners have had to pay to store their furniture and stay in a hotel for weeks.

McGowan was also forced to reduce the selling price of the home and had the closing date moved to the start of February, while the tenant lived at the home rent-free for two months during the process.

“And you know what, this is not unusual,” said McGowan. “Something has to change.”

Hunter Boucher, director of operations at Landlord B.C., said while the process isn’t perfect, the legislation is relatively balanced and the change that needs to occur is in the wait time for resolution of disputes like McGowan’s.

“The problem is timely access to justice. With the significant wait times, landlords and tenants are denied that,” he said. “And when you have a situation where you may be waiting two, three or four months for a hearing to find out whether or not you are going to receive an order of possession, or whether that notice and tenancy is going to be upheld, that has a significant amount of impact on people.”

The ministry responsible for the Residential Tenancy Branch says it is working to improve wait times and streamline systems to reduce decision delays in the face of a surge in the number of disputes.

In a statement, the Ministry of the Attorney General said the branch is dealing with a 17 per cent increase in applications each month.

It’s now seeing as many as 1,400 applications per month, compared to an average of 1,200 per month between 2017 and 2020. Last year, it saw an average of 1,300 per month.

“This has meant the process is taking longer,” the statement said. “We recognize this can be challenging for tenants and landlords who need to get a resolution to their issue, and are working to improve wait times.

“We agree that both tenants and landlords deserve fast access to services that help them resolve their disputes given the importance of the issues brought to the branch by all parties.”

The ministry overhauled the system in 2020, hiring more arbitrators, introducing a more efficient dispute-resolution system and establishing a compliance unit to take action against bad tenants and landlords. But that clearly didn’t have the expected impact.

“We are currently working to further streamline hearing processes and identify opportunities for faster outcomes for both landlords and tenants,” it said.

It said the branch does prioritize applications so emergency issues are heard first. In those cases, decisions are supposed to be rendered within 30 days, with 80 per cent handed down within three days of a hearing.

The ministry said people can apply for an expedited hearing process where “urgency and fairness require quicker response times” — for example, those dealing with an early end to tenancy, an order of possession for a tenant, or emergency repairs.

The ministry said the dispute-resolution process is intended to resolve issues where one party is not upholding their obligations under the Residential Tenancy Act, adding that until the file is reviewed by an arbitrator, it can be difficult to determine whether a dispute has merit.

“We acknowledge the stress this puts on landlords and tenants who are waiting for a resolution, and are actively looking for ways to address circumstances where one party files a dispute to take advantage of these delays.”

Patrick Corbeil, director with the Victoria Tenant Action Group, said his group did a study of 500 members in 2018 that found a “general dissatisfaction” with the branch and its processes.

“People found the process confusing, inequitable and generally a bureaucratic maze that seemed designed to frustrate,” he said.

He said wait times are an issue for tenants, who also have to fight their cases individually, without guidance and support from other tenants.

Even a nominal cost of filing an application could pose an insurmountable barrier for some, he said, adding tenants feel the system favours landlords and there’s little in the way of compliance and enforcement of the rules.

“Active enforcement would help to sort of give greater confidence in the system and a greater understanding of its function and purposes,” he said. “Then the whole system might work better.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com