Frustrated Harrison landlord at wits end

Jasmine McGown has been trying to evict criminally-charged tenants for over a month

As the B.C. government’s Rental Housing Task Force continues consultations – aimed at improving the B.C. tenancy act for renters and landlords – one Harrison homeowner says something needs to change to protect landlords stuck with bad tenants.

Jasmine McGowan is far from the large-scale, ‘slumlord’ property owners behind rising rent that are often depicted in the media.

The divorced, 49-year-old former Harrison resident bought her three-story Harrison townhouse unit nearly 20 years ago as a long-term investment. In fact, it’s the only investment she has. With no pension plan, McGowan’s property is a vital part of her long-term retirement plan.

That plan is derailing – at least temporarily – by tenants who, according to McGowan, have severely damaged the home, broken into and stolen from her bottom-floor storage unit (an off-limits area in the rental agreement), and have a history of criminal activity in the area. In fact, one of the tenants was convicted of theft charges last year and had a warrant issued for his arrest after breaching his conditional sentence.

RELATED: B.C. rental housing review begins in June

Now, home from her overseas job, McGowan sits in the storage unit of her Lillooet Avenue townhouse. The unit has been turned into a living space during her stay in Harrison while she fights to evict the renters occupying the upstairs floors.

A bed is crammed in amongst stacks of boxes overflowing with books, CDs, photo albums and clothes. A small shelf in the corner of the bedroom-sized space stores dry food and some fresh fruit. The space is lit by a dim orange-hued overhead light and the only small window in the room is facing another unit and welded shut with metal bars.

“My frustration levels are at an all-time high,” she says. “I wake up in the morning throwing up. I can’t sleep at night because of the craziness going on around here. I’m in fear…”

Some shuffling is heard upstairs and McGowan stops talking mid-sentence.

“That could be them waking up,” she says, glancing at the time. It’s mid-afternoon, but she says that’s nothing unusual. “Normally I hear them walking on the gravel…” she’s peering through the bars of the window.

McGowan installed the bars to feel safer. With their large dog and criminal activity, she doesn’t trust her tenants. She says they’ve locked her out of the storage unit and have even threatened her.

A friend found the renters for McGowan in August, 2017 while she was still overseas in the island country of Vanuatu. She admits that there was no criminal background check, and she may have put too much trust in her friend to find suitable tenants. But aside from one or two incidents of late rent payment, McGowan didn’t have any issues with the people living in her home – that is, until she came to inspect it months later.

While she still technically lives in Vanuato, she came back to B.C. in April to see her father who is receiving end of life care in Vancouver.

When she drove to Harrison on May 2 to check on her townhouse, she was told by her tenants, via text message, to be on alert for their pitbull when she entered the home.

The rental application specifically says no to pets.

And things got worse from there. McGowan entered her storage unit and says she found a number of personal belongings stolen. After calling local RCMP, she went upstairs to inspect the rest of the home.

She alleges that a number of her personal things – clothes, CDs, even bed sheets – were in the home, being used by the tenants. She says the damage was extensive, with everything from broken glass, missing window panes and busted doors at every turn. Along with the pit bull, a cat was roaming through the house.

In one bedroom, McGowan says she found drug paraphernalia like pipes, scales, baggies and bongs.

Feeling trapped

McGowan is now staking out her property – unwilling to leave for fear of further damage to the home. She also says that sometimes when she does leave, to get groceries or run errands, she comes back to find herself locked out of the unit.

She wants her tenants out – but since evicting them May 2, nothing has happened. And according to McGowan, that’s because B.C. tenancy rules are protecting the renter over the landlord.

Now she sits on the crowded bed in her storage unit with a laptop out, attempting to go through the mandated process to remove the tenants that she says, are causing her anxiety, depression, and even hair loss.

“The other day I washed my hair and clumps of it fell out and went down the drain,” she says. “I’m stressed out.”

“I have a mortgage on this property…I have no other income but my own. I make $60,000 a year…when I have a tenant like this, that can’t pay the rent and now is taking me to arbitration and wrecking my house, I could financially, quite possibly lose my unit.”

“I don’t understand how a renter [who] doesn’t pay taxes on the land…isn’t a good part of the community, can stay in my house, continue to damage it daily [and] go against the rental agreement…”

As it stands, the B.C. government’s website says it allows landlords to end a tenancy early only ‘when waiting for a regular notice to take effect would be unreasonable or unfair’ – for example, when their tenant, pets or guests have: interfered with another resident or the landlord, or engaged in illegal activity that could cause damage to the property.

If those circumstances can be proven, a landlord can end a tenancy without the usual notice.

So McGowan did exactly that.

And the renters agreed to leave, even signing a ‘mutual agreement to end tenancy’ document. But only a few weeks later they applied for a dispute resolution, refusing to acknowledge the eviction order or the signed agreement.

The Harrison home owner can apply for an Order of Possession; a process that typically takes about four weeks and provides a legal document ordering the tenant to leave. If that doesn’t work, she’ll have to get a Writ of Possession from the Supreme Court of B.C. to hire a bailiff to remove them.

Education vital

Hunter Boucher, director of operations at Landlord BC, said it is important for landlords to be educated on their options before they try to navigate the system.

“If you take the wrong step in this process there is a potential for delays,” he said. “A bad tenant can get through from time to time, that is going to happen…but a lot of this can be avoided through education.”

Landlord BC is an organization representing some 3,300 landlords across the province. Through education programs, advice and legal representation, the group aims to professionalize the industry and provide resources to property managers and owners.

Boucher emphasized that for landlords, education is vital, not just for eviction or dispute situations, but even before a rental agreement is signed.

“The biggest thing is having a robust and thorough tenant selection process,” he said. “It’s really [about] having that core knowledge of the legislation and some of the peripheral legislation that comes into play – knowing their options in advance before making a decision on who to rent to.”

That’s because the legal process to evict takes time. And McGowan says she feels both unsafe and overlooked. The clock is ticking for her personal and professional life as she misses work and misses out on time spent with her father in Vancouver.

“I’m feeling trapped. I’m feeling like the government doesn’t speak to other departments… I’m being passed from one place to another place,” she says. “I don’t know if I will recover from this. I have a mortgage to pay, I don’t have any back up.”

McGowan could leave her home, but worries about what will happen to her property and possessions. For her, that property represents her future, and almost all of her worldly possessions exist in the tiny, bottom-floor storage unit.

She wonders why, with the amount of evidence she’s gathered, there’s no emergency clause to remove dangerous, harmful tenants, immediately.

In its latest budget, the NDP government allocated $7 million in additional funding for the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) – the provincial government’s department that handles landlord-tenant disputes – over the next three years. In theory, this funding should speed things up for landlords and renters navigating the dispute resolution process.

Landlord BC agrees that the provincial process of resolving landlord-tenant disputes could be improved.

“The continuing concern expressed by all parties about timely access to accurate and timely justice at the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB), is an administrative and financial matter, not a legislative one,” it stated in a submission to the Rental Housing Tax Force.

“Those delays appear to be exacerbated by irresponsible tenants who repeatedly prey on small landlords.”

A new task force

An over-saturated rental market with an average vacancy rate of 1.3 per cent has led to headlines and horror stories from tenants who felt taken advantage or struggled to find affordable housing.

RELATED: Almost half of B.C. renters spend more than 30% of income on housing

But landlords get in tough situations too, says McGowan. And any new or changing policies need to keep that in mind.

From May to June, the province is operating the Rental Housing Task Force to engage with stakeholders and the public on tenancy laws and regulations in B.C. – known collectively as the B.C. Tenancy Act.

With 1.5 million British Columbians paying rent, the government says its hoping to make rental policies that are fair and secure for tenants and landlords. An online discussion forum asks participants how the government can build a more fair and balanced system for both parties, and asks for anecdotal experiences from those who have been in either position.

The task force will hold community meetings around B.C. until the end of June, with the closest in Burnaby on June 27 at the Firefighters Banquet Hall and in Surrey on June 28 at the Bridgeview Community Centre.

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