Vancouver database gives renters an online guide to problem landlords

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Vancouver's apartment vacancy rates have edged a little higher in recent months but getting a nice affordable flat still isn't easy. Landlords remain largely in the driver's seat.

So the City of Vancouver has given would-be renters a new tool to reduce the chances of ending up in a crappy apartment, a searchable database that flags negligent building owners.

“The City’s new Rental Standards Database is our latest step to help Vancouver renters and motivate property owners and landlords to keep their properties in good condition,” Mayor Gregor Robertson said in a news release.

“The overwhelming majority of landlords in Vancouver are responsible and treat their tenants with respect, and many of the properties included in the database are for minor infractions.

"We’re putting this information out there in an easily accessible way, empowering renters to make more informed decisions on where to live.”

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City spokeswoman Sandy Swinton told The Daily Brew that only two other North American cities have anything similar.

Toronto has a site that allows potential renters to search by address if a building has infractions or outstanding orders issued by the city, Bruce Hawkins, a senior communications co-ordinator at Toronto City Hall, told Daily Brew. A separate site tracks the work of Toronto's multi-residential apartment building audit and enforcement program.

However, the Vancouver database is modelled on New York City's Worst Landlord Watchlist. It worked with staff of the Big Apple's Public Advocate Bill de Blasio to develop the Vancouver database.

“Too often, the deck is stacked against renters--but information can level the playing field," de Blasio said in a statement. "The City of Vancouver is making big strides to hold landlords accountable. This database will make a real difference for families trying to find safe, decent housing."

The Vancouver database includes information on all of the city's licensed rental buildings containing five or more units that may have "open bylaw issues," or problems that have been resolved within the last year, the city said. That's about 2,500 buildings encompassing about half the city's 131,000 rental units.

The city said 300 buildings in the database currently have open violations or issues.

The database, which will be updated daily, covers the city's notorious single-room occupancy hotels (SROs), located mostly in the poverty-plagued Downtown Eastside, as well as private rental housing and social and supportive housing that have run afoul of city inspectors.

The top five violators are all well-known SROs, with 821 orders against them, Postmedia News reported. For example, the building at 561 East Hastings St., which has 54 units, has 133 outstanding issues, with another 49 issues resolved. They range from non-functioning emergency lights and openings in firewalls to debris buildup and use of unauthorized locking devices.

The database doesn't include private rentals in condo buildings, secondary suites in private homes or buildings with fewer than five apartments.

It is also limited to Vancouver proper and doesn't cover Metro Vancouver's various suburbs.

Will Johnston, Vancouver's director of licences and inspections, said the city used the database as leverage against delinquent landlords before it went online.

“One of our objectives was to have a database that would actually motivate property owners to maintain their properties and keep them in good order,” he told Postmedia News.

“The other one was to be able to better provide information to renters in those buildings so they could make better informed choices about where they live.”

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Councillor Tim Stevenson of the governing Vision Vancouver civic party, who first proposed the database two years ago, said "it is a whole new ballgame for renters.

“Never before have they been able to get this kind of information so easily, because if you wanted to find out if there were violations in your building you just about had to be an investigative reporter.”