I think it is about time that our City Council and our Provincial Government did something about all these evictions that are going on, and all these terrible rent increases… I think we should have some action from the people we elected to give us some protection and a right to live in some security and dignity, instead of being kicked around like so many of us are.
–single father Victor* in a letter to Vancouver City Council, January 1974.
We bring our world with us into the archives. I’ve been reminded of this over the last week, as I commute across Vancouver to spend my days reading letters from tenants like Victor. This city is ground zero for Canada’s housing crisis, with the highest rents, lowest vacancy rate, and smallest proportion of affordable units in the country. My daily trip to the municipal archives brings home the profound housing inequalities that define the Canadian city in 2023, uncomfortably juxtaposing new condo towers with emergency housing in tents and beige portables, and luxury SUVs with people experiencing homelessness and distress. I take those images and that discomfort with me to the research room.
Voices from the past remind me that crises of housing affordability and access are not bugs but a feature of Canada’s profit-oriented rental housing market. Or, as housing researcher Ricardo Tranjan put it in the Walrus this year, for tenants “Canada’s ‘housing crisis’ is a permanent state of affairs”. Victor was just one of thousands of Vancouver renters who in the late 1960s and 1970s spoke out against evictions without cause, excessive rent increases, and their lack of a political voice. The backdrop to their protest was a consensus among public officials, landlords, and tenants that Vancouver was experiencing a rental housing crisis; where these actors differed was in how they defined that crisis, and in the solutions they proposed. My current research on the history of the postwar apartment tower boom has highlighted the importance of the ensuing debates over public policy, private profit, and the right to the city. Similar conversations were happening across Canada.
Tenants’ diagnoses of the crisis are vivid and immediate in a way expert opinions and policy briefs are not. Some of the most dramatic examples were published in briefs to government or in the press—“90-year-old lady hit with a rent hike of 50%” wrote the Vancouver Sun in 1972—but many more were not heard in a public discussion dominated by expert and development industry voices. They have been preserved, however, in two collections at the Vancouver archives. Between 1969 and 1975 the Vancouver Rental Accommodation Grievance Board (VRAGB) adjudicated over a thousand landlord-tenant disputes on behalf of the City. In the same period, hundreds of renters also reached out to Bruce Yorke, a key figure in the BC tenant movement. As representatives of the apartment industry were quick to point out at the time, these messages of frustration and distress did not reflect the experience of every tenant. Rather, their unique value is the rare glimpse they provide of how some of the most vulnerable Vancouverites experienced and responded to acute housing unaffordability and insecurity.
I have a two year old daughter and am presently living in the West End of Vancouver. When I was searching for an apartment more times than not I was flatly told “we don’t take children.” This situation is getting worse all the time as more and more apartment managers, who for reasons of their own may not want children around, refuse to rent to anyone who has a child.
–Diane, June 1973
Letters like Diane’s highlight the everyday infringements on housing rights enabled by a tight, largely unregulated rental market. The average vacancy rate in Vancouver for 1966-76 was 1.37%, with lows of 0.1-0.3% in the mid-1970s (today 3-5% is considered a minimal “healthy” vacancy rate), and in that context finding, keeping, and even leaving an apartment became fraught with problems. Indigenous and racialized people, families with young children, and other “undesirable” renters faced systemic discrimination. For all classes of renters, finding, keeping, and even leaving an apartment became fraught with problems. More than half of the grievances heard by the VRAGB were for raising rents without notice or more than once in a year, or for retaining damage deposits without cause. Others focused on the high fees of apartment rental agencies, middlemen who profited from low vacancy rates and industry connections to further increase the costs of finding housing.
We the tenants of 12** E. Pender St. demand that the premises be sprayed to kill the great quantities of cockroaches and other bugs, that are continuously getting into food.
–petition, October 1972
Neglect of basic maintenance was the second most frequent problem. This was particularly the case for residents of older, low-rise “frame” buildings like those on Pender Street in the Downtown Eastside; renters in newly built high-rises paid a premium to avoid just such issues. Grievances regarding pests were matched by complaints of inadequate heating. The same month as the Pender Street petition, thirteen tenants in the West End wrote the VRAGB to complain that their landlord refused to turn the furnace on between 8pm and 9am, and that “consequently it gets very cold during the night.” The board was able in some cases to order inspections that resolved these problems. In the meantime, tenants like West Ender Roberta, who wrote in 1970 about the lack of heat and the flimsy lock on her door, saw a less welcome result: a notice to vacate as a lesson “not to call City Hall.” Until provincial landlord-tenant legislation was reformed in 1974, there was little recourse for people given notice because they were “problem tenants” like Roberta, or simply because they could not pay the higher rents offered by other housing seekers.
Would you please let me know what recourse I have, to see if there is not some way that my rent cannot be increased arbitrarily from $108 to $130 per month. It is simply not possible to pay such a large amount for what is a steadily deteriorating suite. The cost of living for food is bad enough but to have it compounded with such an exorbitant rent increase is just too much!
–Lee, October 1973
Excessive rent increases are a feature of tenant letters throughout the period, but 1973 and 1974 stand apart. Landlords, adjusting for rising interest rates and trying to get ahead of the minimal rent control regime promised by the provincial NDP, systematically raised rents. This was felt particularly by the thousands of people like Lee who lived in modern high-rises owned and managed by large, investor-owned companies like Wall & Redekop, Block Bros., or Royal Trust. Their letters from the period show systematic rent increases that average 15-20%, but in some cases go as high as 45%. Tenants of smaller buildings were not spared, however. Jill, a single woman in Point Grey, described being forced to leave her apartment by the near doubling of her rent over two years. In her letter, she pointed out that each increase—from $110 to $150, and then to $200 per month—came with a change of ownership. As investor dollars poured into Vancouver real estate, frame rental blocks like Jill’s were sold and resold, each transaction inflating their expected return as “income properties”. The growth of big firms and the financializing of housing had become structuring factors in Canadian rental markets by the late 1960s, particularly in major cities like Vancouver.
We, the undersigned citizens of British Columbia, call upon the Provincial Government to enact legislation [to] 1. Require just cause for eviction (reasonable security for tenants); 2. Require that the level of rents be justified before rent review boards; 3. Require massive amounts of government money to be invested in all types of housing [and] lease the housing to individuals at economic rents.
Vancouver tenants spoke out in search of solutions to immediate, personal problems. But they also connected their experiences to wider demands for housing fairness. In doing so they joined thousands of Canadians in cities across the country who saw their interests as renters ignored by the state, and their voices drowned out by the lobbying of property owners and the development industry. At the municipal level, the establishment of the VRAGB in 1969 and the full vote for renters—the majority of the City of Vancouver’s adult population—in civic elections the following year were both direct results of this political mobilization. Meanwhile, substantial reforms to BC’s landlord-tenant legislation in the 1970s owed a great deal to the persistence of tenants who knew they deserved “the right to live in some security and dignity.” Much as they were fifty years ago, tenants today are demanding that that basic right be extended to all Canadians who rent their homes. We should listen.
Daniel Ross is a professor in the history department at the Université du Québec à Montréal, where he teaches and researches the history of cities and urban culture. He is also a member of the ActiveHistory.ca editorial collective.
* Some names have been changed. The letters and petitions cited in this piece are drawn from the Rental Accommodation Grievance Board fonds (COV-S518/S519) and the Bruce Yorke fonds (COV-S713). I would like to thank the staff at the City of Vancouver Archives for their help in accessing this material.