Social agencies have some reservations about a request from Victoria council to add another criteria to the rental-subsidy checklist.
Already, non-profit housing providers struggle to find available housing that is both affordable and safe for their clients. Should Victoria get its way, the agencies may also have to ensure the housing is legal.
Don McTavish, manager of shelters for the Victoria Cool Aid Society, questions whether compliance with city bylaws and zoning should be his concern.
“Do I care?” he asked. “Whose needs is that serving?”
Last week, the City of Victoria wrote to the provincial government, which provides many types of income assistance, including some specifically allocated to rent. In its letter, the city makes the argument that as a funding body, the ministry has a responsibility to ensure public funds are being directed appropriately. That means housing subsidies shouldn’t be paid to landlords of illegal suites or rooming houses.
“(The province is) essentially cutting the cheques and walking away,” said Coun. Marianne Alto. “That’s not okay.”
The basis for some of the city’s bylaws aren’t arbitrary, she said. “It’s all about public safety and fairness.”
The issue came up at city council after bylaw officers discovered a number of illegal boarding houses in recent months. When attempts to bring the landlords into compliance failed, enforcement action ultimately displaced some tenants. In several cases, the tenants were receiving a rental subsidy.
In May, city council agreed to enforcement action against a property at 830-832 Queens St. The duplex was housing too many people and had electrical and other work done without a permit.
Six of the 11 tenants said to be living in the building were clients of Ministry of Social Development. The property owner is now working to return the property to its legal use. The ministry, however, has had to move its clients to other housing.
Coun. Pam Madoff said it’s a situation that could have been avoided had the Ministry done its due diligence in advance, rather than responding to a crisis after the fact.
She said the city wants to work in partnership with government.
Checking for municipal regulation compliance could involve little more than an email to the city, she added. “We could find a really simple and effective way of doing it.”
It might be simple, but social agencies still have concerns.
Agencies such as Cool Aid and Pacifica Housing could be affected by any new provincial requirements.
McTavish helps people in shelters to find housing and gives qualified tenants a rental supplement. The supplement is supplied by B.C. Housing and paid directly to the landlord.
“We go to the places with people … and we make sure that it’s up to fire and health codes,” said McTavish.
Contacting the city before signing an agreement with the landlord could alert bylaw enforcement, and ultimately shut down a safe, but non-compliant house, he said.
In Victoria, low-end housing is just too scarce to lose.
Phil Ward, director of support services for Pacifica Housing, also feels the work falls outside his jurisdiction and ability as a resource-strapped non-profit. If a housing unit is discovered to be illegal, Ward said it’s up to the client whether or not he or she wants to live there.
“The client’s between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “If they can’t afford anything else, they may choose to live in a rooming house more crowded than the legal occupancy allows.”
Ward turns the onus back on the city. “To me, it’s a question of trying to look at these problems in a holistic way.”
He asked whether the laws fit the current needs, in terms of the housing crunch. Instead of focusing on enforcement, he added, perhaps the city could be better served by saying, “Hey, this has a lot of potential. Maybe we should look at rezoning it and operating it in a safe fashion, working with the owner of the building, working with the housing agencies.”
But Alto said the city has often tried to work with, rather than against, a noncompliant landlord.
“There are a number of instances where we have delayed taking an action or we’ve offered another alternative to try to make it a little bit easier to comply.”