Thursday, November 14, 2002

New deal for tenants strikes a fine balance
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Despite the flap from both sides, the Liberals have done a pretty fair job of changing the rules for renters in B.C.
Tenants will run the risk of much larger rent increases, especially when apartments to rent get really scarce in a community. That's an immediate risk in Vancouver and Victoria, where the vacancy rate is already extremely low.
But the trade-off should be an improved supply of housing in future.
The Liberals have dumped the old rules, which allowed any tenant to appeal a rent increase to an arbitrator. The landlord then had to show why the hike was necessary.
It wasn't a terrible solution. Landlords knew not to push too hard; tenants theoretically knew they had options beyond moving if they faced a big increase.
And it was a potentially useful weapon for tenants in bad buildings. Landlords seeking increases knew they better be able to show at least some repair and maintenance costs.
But the reality was that most tenants, especially most tenants in bad housing, weren't likely to use the arbitration process.
And the prospect of a permanent and uncertain constraint on rent increases made investors unwilling to put up new buildings. They were left with the risks of building ownership - a recession which forced down rents or left them with vacant units. And they didn't have the chance to cash in when vacancies got tight.
Now the Liberals have allowed landlords to increase rents by four to six per cent a year without facing any challenge. They can even put off increases for three years and do them all at once, bad news for tenants who could face a 20-per-cent hike in one year.
No one on either side of the landlord/tenant divide seems delighted with the change.
Tenants fear they'll face increases beyond what they can afford.
Landlords - supported by many Liberal MLAs - wanted a true free market. If rents start to rise, they say, more apartments would be built. And then rents would stabilize or fall.
I'm keen on the effectiveness of free markets.
But the Liberals' change recognizes that markets aren't perfect and some controls are needed in an area as critical as housing. Markets work slowly. In a growth period, the lag between rent increases and the arrival of new buildings could leave families homeless or in desperate economic trouble.
Effective markets also require honest buyers and sellers. I offer my goods - say a car I've made - and people decide if they will buy them at my price. If they don't, I stop making the car or cut the prices. If they snap them up, I raise the prices. It's a good balance.
But that falls apart if I can't be trusted. If I rig the prices with other carmakers, or promise people new cars but deliver them junk.
The housing and development industry in B.C. has forfeited its right to a free market. Thousands of people spent their life savings on homes which the builders, and government, presented as adequate quality housing. Instead they got condos that leaked and fell apart.
The Liberals have also come up with a decent compromise on the question of pets in rental units, the other hot topic.
Pet owners wanted landlords to be forced to accept animals. Landlords wanted to retain the right to decide if dogs and cats could live in their buildings.
The Liberals' solution is to allow landlords to collect an extra half month's security deposit if they accept pets.
The change may provide people with pets more options; it may just bump up security deposits. It's worth a one-year trial.
There's lots of smaller puts and takes in the bill. Security despoits weren't increased; landlords may have gained too much power to enter apartments.
But on balance, give the Liberals good marks on this one.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at

Attacks on forest code changes unfair
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - It's far too early to be predicting disaster because of the changes to the Forest Practices Code.
Despite the eye-glazing details involved in the code, it's worth paying attention.
Make the rules governing logging in B.C. too tight, and companies aren't going to bother with any marginal operations. That means fewer jobs and damaged communities.
Make the rules too loose, and some companies will cut corners, damaging streambeds or cutting roads that end up as giant eroded slashes down the hillside.
The NDP - supported by the Liberals - dramatically increased regulation of the industry in 1995.
It wasn't just an act of concern for the environment. B.C. forest products were facing the threat of an international boycott over logging practices. Action was needed to head off a devastating international campaign.
Most British Columbians back moves that will make sure that logging doesn't do permanent harm.
But how far you go, and the way you choose to get there, are still up for debate.
The NDP code, which they later conceded was a tangle of red tape, attempted to regulate every aspect by setting out, in great detail, what companies could and couldn't do.
The Liberals are moving to a results-based approach. Instead of saying no logging within five metres of a stream bed, they will have a regulation that says you can't harm streams. If companies can find a way to log within two metres without doing harm - or if the stream is dry - they can go ahead. If they do harm the stream, then penalties will be imposed.
Sounds good. But there are a few big worries.
One is that the damage is done before anything is detected. Fines don't return a stream to health.
Another is that the Liberals have left a big loophole in the law. If a corporation can establish that it believed it was doing the right thing, it can avoid penalties even if there is damage.
And a third is that the systems depends on active enforcement and tough penalties. Unless inspectors are on the ground, checking, they won't know whether damage is being done.
That's a worry as the Liberals slash the forest ministry by one-third and close 24 regional offices. Forests Minister Mike de Jong says there will be 300 dedicated enforcement officers. But officials can't say how that compares to past enforcement efforts.
Those weaknesses should make British Columbians nervous.
And the Liberals' commitment won't be certain until the regulations setting out the detailed results expected of forest companies are released over the next few months. Again, that's a concern. Those standards should have been included in the legislation, rather than left up to the shifting standards of cabinet.
But all that said, it's a little galling to hear environmental groups already talking about a new international boycott.
Sure, there are concerns.
But nothing in the forest practice code changes announced so far justifies that kind of extreme, damaging response.
Companies will still have to prepare forest stewardship plans, approved by the government. And they will have to have site plans available for inspection by the public. If the government ensures an adequate level of detail is provided in those plans, the public interest will be protected.
I don't know how the new act will ultimately balance the competing interests of industry efficiency and environmental protection. No one can really say until the details of the regulations are released.
But there's nothing so far that justifies an alarmist attack on the B.C. industry, or an international boycott based on fear, not facts.
We need an efficient, sustainable forest industry in B.C. The previous forest practices code was an unnecessary barrier. And so change is justified.
Let's wait and see how well they work before we leap to man the old barricades.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at

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