The Globe and Mail, Adrienne Tanner, November 15 (interview with BCNPHA CEO Jill Atkey)
Poor people often tolerate injustice, both real and perceived, particularly in expensive housing markets because complaining often makes their situation worse.
Such was the case for people living in Surrey’s Peace Arch RV Park, some of whom recently complained to B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Branch about a rent increase that exceeded the province’s maximum allowable increase for tenants. They soon discovered a big problem; the location they considered a permanent home was zoned as a campground where stays of longer than six months are prohibited.
By the letter of the law, they were classified as tourists, not tenants, and were therefore not entitled to rental increase protection. You could forgive them the confusion – some had lived in the park for 15 years. Even the owner was unaware she was violating the rules, her lawyer Philip Dougan says. When she found out, she sent eviction notices to the inhabitants of 180 RVs at the park. Mr. Dougan maintains she had no choice. “We used the law to defend against overcharging. You can’t use it on one hand and ignore it on the other.” He advised her to comply and evict those who had overstayed.
This happened around the same time that Surrey City Council amended its highway and traffic bylaw to prohibit people from living in RVs on city streets. The motion was supported by Mayor Doug McCallum and passed by one vote. Among the dissenters was Councillor Brenda Locke, who felt it was “mean-spirited.”
There were 27 complaints about RVs on city streets in 2019, 25 of which were successfully resolved under the old bylaw, she notes. “It’s a bylaw [amendment] for no good reason and Surrey doesn’t have enough supportive housing to help individuals who need support.” Ms. Locke is particularly worried about the pending eviction of people from the RV park, many of whom are senior citizens with no housing options. She also now fears for the security of residents who have lived for years in a second Surrey RV park with the same zoning.
Surrey staff assured council there would be no large-scale crackdown and that enforcement would occur only in response to complaints. But the very existence of the new bylaw, which includes a graduated scale of fines for violations, telegraphs that if you are so poor that you are living in an RV, you are not welcome in Surrey. It would also lend heft to complaints that would almost certainly roll in if the 180 RVs soon to be forced out of Peace Arch RV Park suddenly took up residence along suburban streets. So where can these people go?
Staff at the BC Non-Profit Housing Association asked themselves that very question just last week. And the answer is nowhere – at least not permanently. Municipal bylaws controlling RVs on Metro Vancouver roadways are a total hodgepodge, says association chief executive Jill Atkey. Pitt Meadows and Port Coquitlam are among the very few municipalities whose bylaws do not prohibit people from living in an RV. Nonetheless, they require that RVs be moved every 48 hours. In Vancouver, you can live in your RV but can park only three hours if you are in front of a business or home where you don’t work or live. West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Maple Ridge, Langley, New Westminster and now Surrey prohibit people from living in RVs. Delta doesn’t allow them at all except to load and unload.
Many municipalities turn a blind eye unless there are complaints. But in Surrey news of the ban may very well scare people into leaving town. Ms. Atkey rightfully sums it up like this: “We’re criminalizing poverty and there is no where to go but the street.”
As for the street, there are already legal precedents for people’s rights to live on public lands. In British Columbia, homeless people won the right to camp on city property when no alternative housing is available. In Seattle, a court case is being fought by Steven Long who sued the city after the truck he lived in was towed for overstaying the parking limit. The case revolves around impound fees that Mr. Long argues violate Washington State’s Homestead Act, an old law protecting homes from being seized and sold. It would be interesting to see how an RV case might play out here.