Dixie Champ, a tenant in a Nelson seniors housing complex, has won her dispute of a rent increase given by her landlord, Golden Life Management Ltd.
Although the decision applies only to Champ, it may have implications for dozens of other rent increases given to residents of the same building and perhaps in others around the province.
An arbitrator at the B.C. Residential Tenancy Branch delivered his decision last week following a formal hearing in July.
The arbitrator found that a rent increase of 4.5 per cent for Champ’s apartment at Lake View Village in Nelson exceeded the rent increase limit of two per cent set by the province.
At the hearing, Golden Life Management argued that part of the 4.5 per cent increase was to cover the increased cost of services made available to the tenants such as one meal per day, weekly cleaning, cable, shuttle bus service, and night-time supervision. The company argued that those services are not part of the rent, and therefore their cost may be increased by more than two per cent.
Champ’s response was that her signed tenancy agreement includes those services — which can not be opted out of — in the rent, and therefore they are subject to the maximum two per cent increase.
The arbitrator agreed with Champ.
“I find that all items noted in section three of the tenancy agreement are considered part of the base rent,” arbitrator C. Amsdorf wrote in his decision. “As such, the entire amount of base rent is governed by the rent increase provisions of the Residential Tenancy Act and Regulations.”
This means that two per cent of the rent increase was legal, and the remaining 2.4 per cent was not. Accordingly, Amsdorf said Champ should deduct $950.86 from her next rent payment to cover the illegal portion of the rent paid over the past several months.
Lake View Village has 65 units classed as independent living — Champ’s is in that category — and 25 that provide assisted living. This rent increase and the ensuing dispute applies only to independent living.
Golden Life Management, based in Cranbrook, owns and operates 16 seniors housing facilities in B.C. and Alberta. The Columbia Basin Trust is a half owner of Lake View Village, but plays no part in its management.
“I’m so encouraged by the result,” said Dede Shave, a tenant at LakeView Village who was also given the same rent increase. “I think that Dixie deserves tremendous accolades for having taken on the hard work to put this petition through.”
Champ and Shave are co-chairs of a residents’ council that has been in discussions with Golden Life Management about the increase.
Ambiguity about the law
The decision in Champ’s arbitration applies only to her apartment, even though many other residents received the same rent increase.
“An arbitrator’s decision on one tenancy does not automatically apply to other tenants in the building,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing told the Nelson Star in an email. “This is because each tenancy is a separate agreement, and it is not possible to make a final decision until evidence and testimony from both parties have been reviewed.”
Arbitrator decisions are not based on precedent, the spokesperson said. So each other person at Lake View Village to whom the increase was given would have to apply for a separate hearing, or they could apply as a group.
In an email, Celeste Mullin, vice president of Golden Life Management, admitted that the distinction between services and rent needs clarification.
“The seniors housing industry has bundled housing and hospitality services since inception with much ambiguity around the application of the Residential Tenancy Act,” she wrote, adding that the company has begun work on “new lease agreements” that will be clearer.
Mullin did not return a request for comment when asked if the company intends to reimburse other tenants at Lake View Village whose recent rent increase was similar to Champ’s.
‘Going all the way for seniors’
The question of rent and services in seniors housing is not new to the provincial government.
The ministry spokesperson said the Ministries of Housing and Health as well as the province’s seniors advocate, “are working collaboratively to ensure there is a clear understanding of the tenancy protections in place for seniors living in assisted and independent living facilities … The Compliance and Enforcement Unit is aware of the concerns related to this provider.”
Champ wants her advocacy to benefit other seniors housing residents, not just at Lake View Village but also similar properties in B.C.
“I am going all the way with this for seniors,” she says. “It can’t stop here. Otherwise, what is the point?”
Champ said that despite recent increases to federal Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security payments, they are not keeping up with inflation.
There are senior women in her building, she said, who have never worked outside the home and who have very small workplace pensions, if they have one at all. If they do have a workplace pension, she says, it is based on wages they made decades ago, not on today’s pay levels.
”Where are these women going to go once they’ve used up all their surplus money that maybe they got from the sale of their house? What happens to them?”
Champ, who is 89, says she has a background in business that helped her navigate the residential tenancy appeal process. She says many of her fellow tenants don’t have this capacity.
“I have to help people who maybe don’t have my education or background, or know how to do these things, because it’s so unfair.”