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B.C.’s low-income renters thought they’d get free AC units, but face hurdles

Summer isn’t fun for Surrey, B.C., renter Inderjit Singh Ghuman.

Summer isn’t fun for Surrey, B.C., renter Inderjit Singh Ghuman.

It means restless nights with his wife and son in an overheating ground-floor basement suite that lacks air conditioning.

“It was really uncomfortable here in my unit. It was hot and my family couldn’t sleep in the nighttime,” Ghuman said, referring to July. “It’s tough here on hot days.”

His 18-year-old son has been struggling to study in stifling conditions in recent weeks.

Ghuman, 48, has been taking medication for anxiety and depression, and he worries that a lack of rest is making matters worse.

When he heard the B.C. government was providing free air conditioners to vulnerable people, Ghuman thought his sleepless nights were over.

Instead, he encountered a hurdle that is preventing some vulnerable people from accessing the program — the involvement of landlords.

Advocates worry that requiring a landlord’s consent to obtain an air conditioner is putting up an unnecessary barrier.

Health Minister Adrian Dix announced in late June that the government would provide $10 million to fund the purchase of up to 8,000 free air conditioners for low income and vulnerable people over three years.

The program is part of the government’s solution to prevent further deaths in response to the 2021 heat dome, where more than 600 residents died as record-setting temperatures blanketed the province for days.

Susie Rieder, a spokeswoman for BC Hydro, the Crown corporation put in charge of the program, said it received more than 2,000 applications under the scheme and 1,200 had been approved.

Ghuman heard about the program from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an advocacy group for lower-income renters of which he is a member.

But he realized he couldn’t apply because he doesn’t have his own BC Hydro account — his rent includes utilities.

“Now I am sad and so even like this month, there might be another heat wave coming … I think the government should consider (renters like) us,” said Ghuman.

He isn’t the only one slipping through the cracks.

Another Vancouver-area tenant told of her landlord “being a jerk” and impeding her application by trying to impose his own conditions. She didn’t want to be named for fear of being evicted.

“It’s impossible to sleep and we don’t have a cold place to go,” said the tenant.

During the heat dome, the woman said the temperature in her one-bedroom low-rise apartment rose to more than 40 C.

She escaped the heat by sitting in a friend’s car with the air conditioner turned on, she said.

“I’m a senior on low income, I can’t afford to buy an air conditioner and even if I could, I don’t have the physical ability to carry it, to move it,” she said. “I need help.”

She said she thought “it would be a simple process” to get an air conditioner under the government plan.

Instead, her landlord stood in the way. The tenant said that after a prolonged back-and-forth, the landlord finally agreed to sign the consent form.

But he crossed out various sections he didn’t like, including a clause committing that the property remain housing for low-income tenants for at least one year after acceptance into the program.

“He crossed out the sections, which means that I’m not eligible because you can’t just randomly start crossing things out,” said the tenant.

“That’s really frustrating,” she said, adding that many others in her building were in the same situation.

“We have seniors in this building that are in a lot more need than me,” She said. “Some of them face south and their place gets really hot. And some of the seniors are not well. I don’t know what will happen to them.”

New Westminster ACORN chair Monica Bhandari said “it’s not helpful at all” for the program to require a landlords’ consent.

“I think it adds another barrier and possible risk to the situation because having another party having to consent, that gives a greater opportunity for them to be denied,” said Bhandari.

She also said 8,000 units isn’t enough.

“8,000 is like the population of maybe a really small city, like way up north or in the Interior. So how does that even make sense,” said Bhandari.

The Ministry of Health referred questions to the Ministry of Housing.

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon responded with a statement saying tenants can use air conditioners if not prohibited in their tenancy agreement.

“Landlords and tenants are encouraged to work together to identify a solution that is suitable to the rental unit and property,” he said.

But the statement did not address the free air-conditioner program.

Rieder said when Hydro’s contractors make upgrades to homes, the landlord’s consent ensures that the work is allowed within the rental agreement’s terms.

David Hutniak, CEO of Landlord B.C., said that it recently encouraged members to work with tenants within the program.

But Hutniak said the current online consent form has created confusion because it is the same form used for an earlier program.

“The issue that has arisen however, and one which we identified to BC Hydro at the outset, is that the language in the proposed landlord consent form is incorrect for the particular program,” said Hutniak.

Rieder said Hydro is now reviewing the terms and conditions to provide more clarity.

“We’re sorry to hear about this, and we’re working on providing an information sheet for landlords and updating the landlord consent form to make it clearer.”

Vancouver Coastal Health said in a statement that a high percentage of people who died during the 2021 heat dome were living alone and without air conditioning.

“Landlords and strata corporations can make impactful decisions to help protect the health of residents,” said Emily Newhouse, Fraser Health Medical Health Officer.

“We’re recommending they remove barriers that prevent residents from staying cool.”

READ ALSO: With hot days ahead, B.C. has the lowest air conditioning access in Canada

READ ALSO: B.C. cranks up $10 million for 8,000 air conditioners for vulnerable citizens