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Should landlords be responsible for cooling in their buildings?
A survey by the New West Tenants Union, presented recently to city council, showed strong support by tenants
Brook Jensen is a volunteer with the New West Tenants Union. The following is a speech he delivered on behalf of the NWTU to New Westminster city council as it considered a motion to explore making landlords responsible for cooling in rental buildings.
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I know that today you will be debating a motion to investigate a cooling bylaw that will make landlords responsible for keeping rental units cool in the summer. On Aug. 3, the New West Tenants Union surveyed its members with the question: Should landlords be responsible for cooling? I’m here to present the results of that survey.
Twenty-seven renters responded. All but one voted yes, landlords should be responsible for cooling.
Of the 26 yes’s, six selected that their yes came with questions or concerns about how it would be implemented.
Not surprisingly the reasons given for yes all related to personal health and safety. One said the fire department got a reading of 51 C from her apartment. Her husband had a sun stroke. Another was a senior living alone who suffered nausea and fatigue during the heat despite her own attempts to cool the apartment. One family spent over a thousand dollars on fans, blinds, and air conditioning just to make their apartment hospitable in the summer. They say, “That shouldn’t be the minimum for a habitable apartment.” More than one had a neighbour die in their building during the last heat dome.
And our respondents did not believe the solutions to this crisis could be enacted on an individual scale.
Multiple tenants told us that their personal air conditioning units still struggled to control heat in the summer. A sustainable solution requires building upgrades. More curtains in public spaces, black torch on white-painted roofs, heat pumps which offer greater efficiency — all solutions tenants in our survey believed where necessary that can only be implemented by their landlords.
And many landlords in these older buildings may not act without facing real pressure and consequences.
Multiple respondents told us that their landlord did not allow tenants to operate air conditioners in the summer, despite previous record breaking heat waves. One had that condition written into their lease, and while their current owner doesn’t enforce it, they fear what might happen if the building is sold. One low-income tenant who can’t afford their own A/C applied to the BC Hydro program to get a free air conditioner, but their landlord wouldn’t sign the necessary consent form. Given their landlord’s behaviour around other issues, they suspect it's a way to pressure them out of the apartment so they can put it back on the market at a significantly higher rent.
Concerns about a cooling bylaw almost all focused on how landlords would react. Will landlords use this as an excuse to evict their tenants on the grounds they need vacancies to do the necessary upgrades? Would they use the new provincial above guideline increase law to pass the costs onto their long-term tenants? How will we hold landlords accountable if they don’t follow this law?
“Our landlords neglect other issues of health and safety already,” one respondent said. “How will the city ensure tenants’ needs are met?” Another told us “Our landlord barely fixes items that break let alone upgrade [the] heating system.” One senior told us her landlord was pumping heat into their suites during the heat-wave and only stopped when a reporter from CTV News got involved.
But all these concerns come from people who still believed it ought to be the landlord's responsibility. Even the respondent who was both a tenant and a landlord said so. To give voice to the one respondent who said no, their only reason given was “I believe it should be the tenants responsibility.”
You’ve heard here themes of affordability, economies of scale, power, and safety, but there’s one last theme from the responses that I believe is of equal importance: justice.
I’ll quote one respondent who gave me permission to share their words but asked to remain anonymous.
“Rent is not a salary — it is money that is meant to be returned into the building through upkeep and maintenance, including making sure tenants don't burn or freeze to death during seasonal extremes. If a tenant dies due to heat related causes in a rental property, the responsibility ought to fall on the negligence of the landlord to ensure their building is safe for human habitation. Simple as that. If they cannot provide those basic conditions, they do not deserve the title of landlord. The ability to be a landlord should be a privilege — something someone studies and gets licensed for. Human lives are at stake, and we are entrusting them to people who have no urgency to do even basic repairs — who are attempting to ban air conditioners, ... rather than invest in upkeeping the building. It's abhorrent, the contempt some landlords feel for their tenants who they feel they aren't making enough money from. Enough is enough. Landlords ought to be held responsible for climate control in their properties at the very least.”
Note: It’s been a few weeks since I last posted, so I’m expecting to send another out on Monday to make up for the lack of updates. Look out for that in an inbox near you!