B.C. seniors vulnerable to illegal rent increases: advocate

B.C. Seniors Advocate Dan Levitt said seniors in assisted living facilities are consistently facing rental increases that are well above the allowable amounts. (Mike McArthur/CBC - image credit)
B.C. Seniors Advocate Dan Levitt said seniors in assisted living facilities are consistently facing rental increases that are well above the allowable amounts. (Mike McArthur/CBC - image credit)

Many residents of retirement homes in British Columbia are facing illegal rent increases, the province's seniors' advocate says.

In a report released Thursday, Dan Levitt called for increased protections for the 30,000 people in independent living facilities in the province.

"Calls to my office from seniors who are facing unlawful rent increases have more than doubled in the last year," the provincially appointed seniors advocate said in a statement.

The report, titled Forgotten Rights: Seniors Not Afforded Equal Rent Protection, details how some landlords try to ignore the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA) and illegally raise the annual housing costs of their senior tenants by as much as 24 per cent. These landlords, it says, are often large companies that run independent living residences.

Levitt said his investigation into the issue found that some landlords tell their tenants the RTA and its rules on rent increases do not apply to their living situation, or that the rules only apply to rent and not to monthly fees for meals and cleaning.

"The law is very clear that anything a tenant is required to pay to the landlord as part of their tenancy, whether it is for meals or a parking spot, is included as part of the rent and protected by the annual allowable rent increase," Levitt said.

"If the landlord raises any fees beyond the regulated amount, the law says tenants must be able to opt out of those fees or they form part of the tenancy agreement and are subject to cost protections."

Calls for change

Levitt found some seniors, in the face of rent and service costs they can't afford, have tried to opt out of monthly service fees for meals and cleaning. However, their landlords have claimed that isn't allowed and have tried to evict them.

Levitt's office has concluded that the existing processes for enforcing the RTA are ineffective.

According to the report, seniors are then left to challenge their landlords — often large companies — at the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB).

In these situations the seniors are at a disadvantage because they often cannot afford a lawyer and, due to their age, are less likely to be able to adequately represent themselves at a hearing.

When the RTA applies

Health Minister Adrian Dix said Levitt is rightly concerned by his findings that many seniors and landlords are confused about how or if the RTA applies to them.

Dix specified that the majority of seniors in care homes are in assisted living facilities which are not covered under the RTA, but under the Community Care and Assisted Living Act (CCALA). Under the CCALA, monthly costs are tied to a person's income and subsidized by the government.

"In that case it's actually better protection — for the largest group of people — than would occur under the RTA," he said.

But in some retirement homes, there is a mix of rooms or units, said Dix, some of which are considered assisted living and are therefore regulated by the CCALA, while others are independent living and governed by the RTA.

"Better communication on what peoples' rights are will greatly assist," Dix said.

In the report, Levitt said that some landlords have successfully argued at the RTB, that in a mixed building, the independent living units don't fall under the RTA.

"[Some] seniors signing tenancy agreements for independent living receive no regulatory protection simply because
the landlord registered other units in the building as assisted living," it reads.

The B.C. Care Providers Association also responded to Levitt's report, taking issue with its focus on "regulating hospitality services," which the association says overlooks inflation.

"The rent cap imposed by the RTA does not account for these inflationary pressures, making it challenging for operators to maintain high-quality services that seniors expect without some increase in prices," it said in a statement.

According to the RTA, the maximum allowable rent increase in 2024 is 3.5 per cent. However, according to the act, landlords may ask tenants to "voluntarily agree to a higher rent increase," although they have the right to refuse it.

Recommendations

Two recommendations stem from Levitt's report.

First, he is calling on the province to make sure the RTB consistently recognizes that seniors living in rental units, as well as those in units with monthly service fees — such as independent living facilties — are covered by the RTA and its cost-increase rules.

Second, he wants the province to "review the practices, capacity and expertise of the RTB to address the … the intimidation and vulnerability many seniors feel when trying to address legitimate residential tenancy issues" with the RTB and their landlords.

Dix said his government will "take action immediately, where we can."