A new Nelson organization says it wants tenants to negotiate with landlords, similar to workers in labour unions.
The Nelson Tenants Union is part of a larger province-wide movement to organize tenants, especially residents of large multi-unit buildings.
“We’re campaigning for collective bargaining rights,” says James Barbeiro, one of the Nelson group’s organizers. “We want to see tenants, like the labour movement, get together and negotiate with their landlords.”
The union held a meeting on May 7 at the Civic Theatre to inform tenants about their rights, at which Barbeiro said approximately 35 people attended.
Barbeiro said the union will educate tenants, build tenant solidarity, carry out activism for bargaining rights, and push for housing affordability.
The union will also encourage the formation of tenants’ associations in individual buildings, or tenants who have a common landlord in several buildings, to bargain collectively with their landlord.
But before this could happen, Barbeiro says, the provincial government would have to legislate a protection for the union so they could require their landlord to come to the negotiating table. One of the group’s goals is to lobby the provincial government for this legislative change.
Barbeiro says there is precedent for this kind of government intervention. He points to a 2022 San Francisco law requiring landlords to bargain with tenants who want to organize.
As of the 2016 census, 39 per cent of households in Nelson rented their accommodation, according to a housing needs assessment published by the Regional District of Central Kootenay in 2020.
The union is affiliated with a provincial organization, the Rent Strike Bargain campaign, which aims to create solidarity between labour and tenants. The campaign is endorsed by several unions including the BC General Employees’ Union (BCGEU).
Barbeiro said one of the biggest issues province-wide is “reno-victions” in which landlords evict a tenant so a building can be renovated, then apply a very steep rent increase to the new tenant – an increase that would have been illegal as a rent increase to an existing tenant. The current limit for existing tenants is a 1.5 per cent increase per year.
He said the group also wants government restrictions on converting rental units to short-term rentals.
The Nelson Tenants’ Union website states that one of the group’s projects is to maintain a list of bad landlords in Nelson.
The head of the Kootenay Landlords’s Society says most landlords are good to their tenants.
“It seems that they (the Nelson Tenants’ Union) are anti-landlord, which I don’t think is entirely fair,” says Trevor Jenkinson.“We’d be happy to work with the them. We do realize that not all landlords are dipped in gold, and not all tenants are either.”
But Barbeiro says that while the union would welcome dialogue with the landlord group, working with them is not a priority because they would rather focus their energy on empowering tenants.
“We want to see a decommodified housing system which goes directly against what landlords seek to do, which is profit off of the backs of tenants. If we can make it harder to profit, then we can start to see solutions that work for everyone, not just housing speculators.”
Nelson City Councillor Keith Page attended the May 7 meeting in his capacity as chair of the city’s housing committee.
“What I witnessed was a group of young people speaking out and standing up for their rights in a housing market that’s going off the deep end,” Page said. “The people of Nelson have the human right to safe, secure and dignified housing and many pay a pound of cash for those services.”
Page said landlords have long had a professional association for mutual support and advocacy, and it only makes sense that tenants should have the same.
“I suspect as this group grows and builds local capacity it will lead us to some interesting and difficult conversations. But I think they are conversations we all need to be having if Nelson is going realize its aspirations of a fair, just, and sustainable community.”