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Landlord refusals turning B.C.'s air conditioner giveaway into hot mess, renters say

Air conditioner

The announcement of free air conditioners for low-income and medically vulnerable British Columbians two years after a historic heat dome killed 619 people was welcome news for many who expected to benefit from the program – until they started the application process.

The barriers some faced left them wondering whether the government's giveaway, operated through BC Hydro's Energy Conservation Assistance Program, was designed to fail.

"This isn't about whether or not it's perfect," said Gabrielle Peters, a disability advocate. "It's about whether or not the effort is sincere, whether it reflects the current knowledge we have about heat and the commitment we should have to human life."

If poor or disabled residents who qualify happen to own a home, they can easily apply for a portable air conditioner online using their BC Hydro account number. Those who rent must print off a consent form and have it filled out by their landlord – which some property owners have balked at doing, for a variety of reasons that range from increased utility costs to confusing language in the document.


Among the hopeful tenants was Arvind Gulhati, a 70-year-old Vancouver resident whose apartment has been so muggy this summer he's struggled to sleep, even with a fan blowing and the deck door open.

"Sometimes I just bring my bedsheet and sleep on the floor," said Gulhati.

While the government's promise to deliver thousands of free air conditioners was quickly criticized by some, particularly due to the timing – it was weeks into summer before applications opened up – Gulhati was just eager for whatever relief he could get.

But his landlord was not comfortable signing the consent form, which requires two pledges that have proven unpopular among some building owners: "To keep this property as housing for low-income tenants for at least one year," and "not implement rent increases as a direct result of any products installed or improved under this program."

Gulhati said his landlord couldn't tell whether the first pledge applied to the entire building or just the individual unit receiving the air conditioner, noting that his building charges market rent, which he affords with provincial assistance as a low-income senior.

"If I was the landlord, I wouldn't sign it myself," Gulhati said. "I've basically given up."

The form appears to be the same one used for landlords consenting to have heat pumps installed under the Energy Conservation Assistance Program. But those are permanent fixtures, unlike the portable air conditioners that become the property of the tenant and can be taken with them when they leave.

In response to questions from CTV News, BC Hydro said it is "reviewing the terms and conditions to provide more clarity to the expanded AC offer."

"To enable installations in the short-term, the offer was being included as part of our standard ECAP terms and conditions, but we are actively looking at updating them," spokesperson Mora Scott said in an email.


Setting aside those clauses in the consent form, Gabrielle Peters questioned why landlords are allowed to withhold consent for cooling devices at all, particularly to tenants who are vulnerable to the heat.

"You are legally obliged to provide a liveable unit," Peters said. "You need to make sure that your units are cool in the summer the same way you need to make sure your units are heated in the winter. It's that simple. This is not a luxury, this is not an indulgence."

"It's well-documented that people die inside their apartment when they are too hot," she added.

A report into the 2021 heat dome deaths found 98 per cent of the victims perished inside a home, and more died in multi-unit buildings than any other type of housing.

And while World Weather Attribution concluded an event that deadly is only likely to occur once every 1,000 years under current conditions, scientists have also cautioned similar heat domes could strike as frequently as once per decade if global warming trends continue. 

Even without a heat dome, the B.C. Coroners Service is investigating 16 deaths believed to be heat-related from 2022, and another three so far this year.

With increasing numbers of air conditioner conflicts between landlords and tenants – including some tenants who wish to purchase their own air conditioners – Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health issued "guidance" for landlords last week to "encourage the removal of barriers that prevent residents from staying cool during heat events."

Peters said she appreciated that the health authorities were speaking out, but doubted the guidance would have much of an effect.

"I think what would be helpful from public health is an unequivocal statement saying … if you are providing housing without cooling, you are providing an environment that could lead to the death of your tenant," she said. "That's better than saying can you please be nice? Can you be kind? Can we move past this? Because this is about rights."


LandlordBC, an organization whose members include everything from property investment companies to regular homeowners with mortgage-helper suites, told CTV News it fully supports the government's AC program.

"This is an initiative that we feel has value," said CEO David Hutniak. "We want our members to facilitate this wherever possible, so that's the approach we're taking and that's the approach all landlords should be taking."

Hutniak said he hasn't heard "a single member" raise issues around the giveaway.

With temperature records continuously being broken in the province, LandlordBC acknowledged the growing need for air conditioning – something that fewer Lower Mainland residents considered a necessity just a few years ago – is a major issue among housing providers.

Hutniak said his organization is looking to different levels of government for help addressing the costs associated with installing and operating air conditioning, heat pumps and other measures that can ensure livability.

"We're not naïve. This is an issue that our industry is going to have to address and be part of the solution to over time," Hutniak said.

"There's no way it's going to happen, or easily happen, on the building owner's dime because the dimes just aren't there," he added.

LandlordBC is already working on a pilot project with the City of Vancouver and the province's CleanBC program to decarbonize older buildings by, among other things, replacing gas boilers with heat pumps, which can provide both heating and cooling.


Last year, the B.C. Human Rights Clinic published a statement on human rights during heat waves, asserting that anyone with a medical condition that makes them vulnerable to heat has a right to cooling under the province's Human Rights Code.

Bans on air conditioners for those individuals "may be the subject of a human rights complaint," the clinic warned.

In a statement to CTV News, B.C.'s Ministry of Housing acknowledged that property owners have a "duty to accommodate" some renters with health concerns under the HRC, and that the Residential Tenancy Act also requires landlords to provide homes that are safe and suitable for occupancy.

While the RTA does not currently have "specific requirements for the temperature at which a unit must be maintained," renters who feel their landlord has failed in their obligations can file a dispute with the Residential Tenancy Branch, a ministry spokesperson said in an email.

The RTB will "continue to explore policy options to meet the needs of tenants and recognize the potential impacts on landlords," the spokesperson added.

"The risks of extreme heat events, especially on our most vulnerable citizens should not be overlooked, and we strongly encourage strata corporations and landlords to consider all the factors and find solutions to keep people safe."

There are no provincial mandates for landlords to allow air conditioning, however, even for properties that receive funding from B.C. Housing. The ministry said some non-profit housing operators may refuse because of concerns that a building's electrical system would not support air conditioners.

LandlordBC said a few of the AC units offered by BC Hydro, which were specifically chosen with low amperage, would not put significant pressure on a building's power grid, but suggested there could issues if there were an air conditioner running in every home.


Even with the barriers in place, there has been "significant interest" in the air conditioner giveaway, with 2,000 applications received as of Monday and 1,200 approved, according to BC Hydro.

A message that has been up on the utility provider's website since July 20 notes that it has been "experiencing a high volume of inquiries" about the offer, and directs interested customers to an FAQ page

In total, BC Hydro hopes to distribute 8,000 AC units over the next three years, using an investment of $10 million from the province.

But critics argue 8,000 air conditioners barely scratches the surface of need in the province. According to the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, 7.6 per cent of British Columbians were living in poverty as of 2020, which would amount to nearly 400,000 people.

"So they've gone from doing nothing to doing almost nothing, and I don't think that's an adequate response at all," Gabrielle Peters said.

Peters believes there's an argument to be made that, as temperatures increase, everyone should have access too cooling in hot summer months, regardless of whether face an increased risk of hospitalization or even death from the heat.

"Maybe people shouldn't suffer inside their homes," Peters said. "Maybe we can remove that using technology that has already existed for a century now." Top Stories

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