British Columbia's privacy commissioner has found that some landlords are collecting too much personal information about would-be tenants, including sensitive details protected by the province's human rights laws.

In a study published Thursday, Drew McArthur looked at the kind of data landlords were requesting on 13 different application forms.

“I found a systemic practice of landlords asking tenants to provide an unreasonable amount of personal information during the application process,” he wrote.

Many of the questions were aimed at gathering basic information about the applicant, such as their name, proof of identity and whether they have pets.

But McArthur said he also "found many invasive questions and errors on the application forms."

In one case, a landlord asked the applicant if their family was likely to change due to "pregnancy, family joining, family leaving, or child in care" within the next year. Another requested that the applicant include a scanned copy of government-issued ID and another asked the prospective tenant if they were born in Canada.

Other application forms asked for the marital status, sex, age, date of birth and social insurance number of the applicant and co-applicants.

McArthur also received calls from tenants who said landlords had asked them for T4 tax slips, months of detailed banking statements and even copies of their children's report cards.

Others reported being asked their immigration status and whether they would consent to an inspection of their current residence.

Whether or not prospective tenants realize what information landlords are entitled to, McArthur said many are reluctant to leave any questions unanswered because of how difficult it is to find a place to live in some part of B.C.

"Near-zero vacancy rates throughout the province have created a competitive market where landlords can ask prospective tenants for sensitive personal information as justification for seeking the 'best' tenant," McArthur said in a statement accompanying the report.

"Unfortunately, many applicants feel they have no choice but to provide this information to avoid missing out on a place to live."

Those who represent the interests of tenants say they're happy someone is finally shedding light on these practices.

"With B.C.'s vacancy rate being so low, this is definitely an issue for tenants," said Andrew Sakamoto, executive director of the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre. "So many (renters) are desperate to put a roof over their heads, so they're willing to provide sensitive information."

Sakamoto said invasive questions are a major source of frustration for staff at TRAC because there's little they can do to help those who haven't already entered lease agreements other than provide resources.

While he's happy with McArthur's recommendations, he said the solution is ultimately a higher vacancy rate that gives renters options so that they don't feel pressured into providing sensitive information just so they can have a place to live.

Those on the other side of the argument, however, say they're unhappy with McArthur's damning characterizing of such a broad group of landlords.

"Certainly, we're not unaware of the fact there are some landlords who may not necessarily totally respect the restrictions that are placed on them when collecting information," said David Hutniak, CEO of LandlordBC.

But according to Hutniak, even most those cases are the result of a lack of knowledge rather than bad intentions.

"We don't see anything malicious occurring here. I think there is a real knowledge gap among landlords," he said. "The vast majority of landlords are responsible landlords—just like the vast majority of tenants are responsible tenants."

Always, sometimes or never?

Ultimately, it's important for prospective tenants to know their rights, McArthur said.

The Personal Information Protection Act is based on consent that "attempts to balance the right of individuals to protect their personal information and the need of organization to collect, use or disclose personal information."

McArthur's report sets out a tiered approach for assessing how reasonable it is for a landlord to request certain information.

It's always considered reasonable, for instance, for a landlord to ask for a name and proof of identity, contact information, a reference from a previous landlord, whether or not the tenant has pets and if they've lived somewhere that's had a bed bug infestation.

A landlord can also ask for a criminal conviction history as long as they tell the tenant what they intend to use it for.

With very few exceptions, landlords are never authorized to collect information such as marital status, proficiency in English, number and age of children and other intended occupants or whether the prospective tenant is a smoker.

While some of these might not seem like unusual details to ask for, they are protected under the B.C. Human Rights Code and are considered "either too unrelated to determining suitability or too sensitive to be reasonable for a landlord to collect," McArthur wrote.

Other details, such as date of birth, amount of current or previous rent, and salary information, fall somewhere in between.

McArthur said credit checks can contain sensitive information unrelated to the application process, but that a landlord can request one if the would-be tenant can't provide enough references or adequate income verification.

A request for age, for instance, would be considered reasonable if the unit in question is in a building reserved for seniors.

privacy commissioner tenant question

Search engines and social media

While conducting the study, McArthur said he also found out some landlords are using social media to learn more about prospective tenants. This, he said, is not allowed without consent under the province's privacy laws.

"Landlords must not collect information about prospective tenants from social media platforms or internet search engines other than those few sources of publicly available information prescribed by PIPA," he wrote, adding that some of the information that might be gathered about a person online can also fall under the Human Rights Code.

McArthur's report made a total of nine recommendations, including that landlords stop collecting information on social media without consent.

He also wants to see landlords "state clear, specific purposes for the collection of personal information" in their applications and implement a policy on how long they hold onto tenants' personal details.

McArthur said he will follow up with the landlords surveyed in late April to make sure their practices comply with PIPA.

With files from CTV Vancouver’s David Molko