Arson Highlights Need for Debate on Bill 40

Blog, Commentary, Housing Affordability, Manitoba, Regulation, Steve Lafleur

The Manitoba government tabled a series of amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act in May that have yet to come up for a vote in the legislature. Among many other things, Bill 40 would make it easier for landlords to evict tenants who are acting unlawfully.

Bill 40 crept into the news after a Winnipeg man was charged with arson and explosive charges earlier this week. Tenants had previously felt threatened by the man, and the garbage fire a few days earlier (the charred remains of which I walked by) suggested something was amiss. Yet, as the  property manager mentioned, it can be difficult to evict tenants. Fortunately, the Residential Tenancies Branch has approved their application to evict the man. Given that he was already scheduled for an eviction hearing before the incident (which may not have even resulted in eviction), one can’t help but think it should be much easier to evict people who clearly pose a danger to the property and fellow tenants.

From a glance at the news reports, one might think that the relevant provisions in Bill 40 are obviously correct. After all, it should be easy to evict arsonists and others who clearly threaten people and property. However, the details could be problematic.

Section 74.1 of the proposed bill reads as follows:

Unlawful activity by tenant

74.1        A tenant or a person the tenant permits in the residential complex must not engage in an unlawful activity in a rental unit or the residential complex that

(a) causes damage to a rental unit or the residential complex;

(b) interferes with the enjoyment of a rental unit or the residential complex by another tenant or occupant of the residential complex, the landlord or a person permitted in the residential complex by any of those persons; or

(c) adversely affects the security, safety, health or well-being of another tenant or occupant of the residential complex, the landlord or a person permitted in the residential complex by any of those persons.

And Section 96(5):

Conviction for unlawful activity not required

96(5)       A landlord may give a tenant a notice of termination under subclause (1)(a)(vii.1) or (3)(a)(iii) whether or not the tenant or other person the tenant permits in the residential complex has been convicted of an offence relating to the unlawful activity.

Sections 74.1 (a) and (c) make perfect sense. If someone is causing damage or endangering other tenants while performing illegal acts, they should be evicted. However, (b) could be problematic. “Interferes with the enjoyment of the rental unit” is pretty vague. It’s likely use would presumably be to expedite eviction of suspected drug dealers or users. Given that the tenant does not have to be convicted of anything, this seems ripe for abuse. One could easily mistake a young tenant with regular visitors for a drug dealer even if he isn’t actually even using drugs recreationally. Furthermore, even if someone is using marijuana, for instance, in their own apartment, does having a neighbour notice a whiff of smoke one time when you open your door constitute grounds for eviction? It seems like it could. Given that 39.4 percent of Canadians over 15 have admitted to using marijuana (2011), this seems problematic.

I’m all for more flexible rental regulations, but inserting a vaguely worded provision that could be used to evict people for using a benign product that a near majority of people have tried, and two-thirds of Canadians support decriminalizing seems unwise.

Enforcing the rule of law is important, but the legal status of marijuana is bound to change soon. If this were part of a broader move to liberalize rental regulations, I might be for it. But simply amending the law to allow landlords to remove tenants who are not charged with a crime seems like the wrong approach, especially when the crime in question is victimless.

The government of Mainitoba should either create a regime where landlords have more flexibility to use their property as they see fit, or maintain the regime that merely allows landlords to evict tenants that are doing harm or not paying their bills. A predictable regime is superior to one where 40 percent of the population believes they have security of tenure, but really don’t.

Landlords shouldn’t be in the business of enforcing drug laws by the back door. As such, Bill 40 should be amended to remove Section 74.1(b), or 96(5) should be amended to ensure that only those charged with a crime can be evicted (or both).