Saanich’s rental bylaw system puts the onus on students, not landlords

Op-eds Opinions
Photo by Joshua Ngenda

The lack of student housing in Victoria, B.C., is a well-documented phenomenon. From the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group’s (VIPIRG) 2017 report on the shortage’s impact on student wellness to the current construction of two new on-campus housing facilities at UVic, the issue is one that strikes a chord with many UVic students who struggle to secure the accommodations they need to pursue their post-secondary education. 

Since on-campus housing is only guaranteed by the university for first-year students, securing housing off campus is a major concern for students not from the Greater Victoria region. As a result, the vast majority of students beyond their first year at UVic seek housing alternative to the university’s residence options. In 2018, an estimated 78 per cent of UVic undergraduates were living off campus. Many choose to live in the municipality of Saanich, where UVic is located, out of convenience.

When students transition to off-campus housing in the municipality, they are no longer subjected to the rental conditions of the university but those of private property owners — landlords. Saanich’s rental bylaw system, however, does little to protect students from inadequate housing conditions. Instead, the current system largely holds students — not landlords — responsible for bylaw violations of Saanich rental properties. 

Competition for off-campus housing is generally fierce. Although 46 per cent of housing in the Victoria Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) is rental properties, the region’s vacancy rates are notoriously low. As of October 2018, the primary rental market vacancy rate stood at 1.2 per cent. According to the District of Saanich’s site, the latest vacancy rate for the municipality itself was a mere 0.4 per cent as of 2011 (according to the most recently available Canadian census data). As well, many students face additional obstacles to renting, such as the need for shorter rental periods, a potential lack of references or rental history, and the financial constraints that come along with being a student — all factors which makes securing housing even more difficult. 

Current Saanich rental bylaw system, however, put the onus of upholding the legal requirements of rental situations onto tenants more than landlords and make the rental situation for students more precarious than it already is. 

One major bylaw, Zoning bylaw 8200, features a condition that few Saanich residents and renters are actively aware of. Section 5.20 states that “the total number of persons unrelated by blood of marriage occupying [a single] dwelling unit” cannot exceed four. Many students unknowingly violate the requirement as they move into shared rental units that maximize the amount of living space available to cut down on housing costs. 

Oftentimes, landlords or existing tenants post ads of housing units that exceed this four-person limit on Facebook or websites like Kijiji or places4students.com. And until the landlords are caught violating the bylaw, this stipulation often gets ignored.

When landlords do get caught, however, student renters are the ones who pay the price. Just last January, UVic student Emma Edmonds was evicted alongside her six roommates from the property they had been renting due to their violation of Section 5.20 and were forced to find alternate accommodation mid-academic school year. 

Saanich’s rental bylaw system is currently complaint-driven, meaning that bylaws are largely left unenforced until active complaints are brought forward by its residents. Student renters — rather than landlords themselves — are accountable for ensuring properties are suitable for being rented. This includes ensuring the property complies with occupant capacity, health or safety standards, and qualifies as legal suites. Any individual with reasonable concern for the violation of these rental bylaws can call the district, who then investigates potential violations as they are reported on a case-by-case basis. Otherwise, rental properties are largely left unregulated and unchecked. 

There are currently no stipulations for landlords to demonstrate that their property satisfies rental property bylaws prior to putting them onto the rental market. The District of Saanich does offer a single section on its official website as a guide to the responsibilities that are placed on renters as they search for prospective rental units, with links to the various relevant bylaws and an infographic on common concerns. It is often may be too little too late, however, for students who move into properties without knowing about the obscure list of requirements provided by the city on this site. 

Little support is available for student renters against poor rental conditions that are being put onto the rental market by landlords. And without any mechanisms to keep these violations in check, students will continue to suffer from a system that does the bare minimum to protect renters in the municipality. 

The restrictive section 5.20 of Zoning bylaw 8200 is expected to be put to a vote soon. At the time of writing, it is currently unclear whether the vote concerns immediate amendments to the bylaw or if it will allow for further investigation on the issue, as Saanich’s council has yet to release the formal details of the vote. Regardless, this vote does stand as an attempt to more accurately reflect the reality of the rental market in 2020 and allow for vulnerable persons such as students to more easily secure student housing without fear of sudden eviction due to Saanich’s rental regulations.

And while the district council has shown support for relaxing the current rule, many Saanich homeowners cited common concerns about noise, street parking, and property maintenance as reasons to oppose any changes during a council meeting in early 2019. Without any amendment, however, the bylaw will continue to hurt students’ abilities to secure affordable housing in a rental market as tough as that of Greater Victoria. 

For more information on the upcoming vote on Zoning bylaw 8200, see our coverage here.