Know your rights as a renter

Assuming, of course, that you have any rights to begin with

Meg Sequeira was searching for a place to rent during her first year at TRU. Like many other students, she used classified ads in her housing search and found an attractive posting for a furnished suite, went for a viewing and decided it would be a good fit.

Sequeira said she was told that she would be staying in the bottom portion of a split-level home and would have her own bathroom and access to a private entrance. She would be paying a flat fee for rent and the living situation fit her needs.

After moving in, Sequeira found that her landlord was changing much of what was agreed upon originally. She said the landlord tried to increase the rent, never provided a key to her private entrance (only to the main entrance upstairs), and the family started using the downstairs bathroom without consultation or discussion while the top floor of the home was under repair.

Not wanting to stay in the house any longer, Sequeira decided to move out. She packed her things, left them in her room and went to visit her family. When she returned, she found that the locks had been changed and all of her personal items were outside in the snow. In January, right before winter semester, without money, a place to live or a backup plan, Sequeira was forced to stay with friends.

“It was rough. I went to a really bad place. I didn’t go to class. I didn’t pay my fees. I told my parents that I wasn’t coming back here,” she said.

Sequeira and her landlord did sign a Residential Tenancy Agreement, but she was never provided a copy. Because she didn’t have a copy to show the police, there was no proof that she had ever lived there. All she could do is collect her things and try to move on. Under the province’s Residential Tenancy Act (RTA), landlords are required to provide tenants with a copy of the signed form within 21 days.

Unfortunately, situations like the one Sequeira found herself in are common amongst university students. Many are first-time renters and can easily fall into bad or unsafe living situations.

An affordable renting option that attracts many students is renting out a single room, rather than a full suite or apartment, which is what Sequeira intended to do. The bulletin boards at TRU are plastered with ads for “rooms for rent.” Kijiji boasts dozens of “rooms for rent” postings.

Renting a single room is attractive to students for many reasons. Primarily because the room and the rest of the house is oftentimes furnished. Basically all the student has to provide is personal items. Additionally, these rooms offer utilities and Internet included in the rent, which can save the renter anywhere from $50 to $100 per month. Usually, these rooms are in the landlord or owner’s home, and this is when things get complicated.

“If there are any kind of shared utilities, like a bathroom or kitchen, with the landlord or owner, the RTA doesn’t apply,” Livingston said.

In a typical renting situation (where the landlord does not live in the same residence as the renter), the landlord will require the tenant to sign a month-to-month or fixed term lease. The lease agreement is a standard form that outlines all the rights and responsibilities of both landlord and tenant. It is issued by the province’s Residential Tenancy Branch. The Branch offers legal protection and representation for both parties in case of legal dispute, according to the province’s website.

According to the Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre, an organization that provides legal and renting information to tenants, when a renter agrees to rent a single room in the same house as the owner that shares common areas, the renter is not protected by the RTA. Technically, they are not even “tenants” under the law. Even if the standard form is filled out and signed, it essentially just becomes a personal contract outlining how long a person agrees to stay in the room.

Neither the renter nor the landlord has protection under the RTA in this situation. If any dispute should arise, the landlord or tenant must pursue the case through small claims court. This can be surprising and misleading, because many might believe that by signing the agreement, they have the same legal rights and protections as a tenant.

Law student Matt Livingston volunteers for the TRU law program’s free legal information clinic for students and community members and confirmed that this is an issue.

“If there are any kind of shared utilities, like a bathroom or kitchen, with the landlord or owner, the RTA doesn’t apply,” Livingston said.

Because the traditional legal rights of tenants are non-existent in this circumstance, the landlord is free to act in whatever manner they choose. This could mean changing terms that had been agreed upon, or invading the renter’s privacy.

“It’s just intimidating if you don’t have experience looking at legislation. Just be aware of your rights before you enter any agreement,” Livingston said.

This means that students who are first-time renters can get into trouble quickly, unless they take the proper precautions to protect themselves.

If students or members of the community find themselves in a troublesome legal situation, there are resources available on campus. The school of law at TRU is offering free legal information. While they cannot give legal advice, they can help individuals navigate the laws. The law school provides online resources, toll-free hotlines, pamphlets and most importantly, assistance in navigating through often complicated legal text.

“We will sit and go through the information with the client, and if they still need help with some of the information, we can direct them to advisory or informational resources,” TRU law professor Margaret Hall said.

The weekly information services run during the school year and are currently being scheduled for the upcoming fall term.

TRUSU also has experienced and knowledgeable members’ advocates who can provide support for housing and tenancy issues. They can be contacted through a request form on the TRUSU website. Once the form is submitted, a meeting with an advocate can be scheduled. They can also provide contact information for non-profit and pro-bono legal assistance.

All students should be aware and knowledgeable about their legal rights as tenants and what protections the RTA actually provides before searching for housing. The last thing students need is the added stress of an uncertain or unsafe living situation.

Looking back now, Sequeira recalls the lesson she learned.

“Keep a copy of the agreement. Bottom line. Even if you see a place and like it, spend a long time looking for [warning] signals and talking to the landlord. Even if you’re desperate, it’s better to wait.”