Calls increase for heat limits in B.C. rental housing


An environmental charity is calling for access to energy-efficient heating and cooling systems to be protected as a right.

In a recently released report, Ecotrust Canada makes several policy recommendations that would accelerate several existing policies and introduce new housing regulations. 

In its report, released at the end of June, Ecotrust spoke to nine tenants across B.C. and found several relied on their ovens for heating and needed air conditioning to cool their homes because of a lack of insulation and shade.

 “We are dealing with more and more extreme heat here in B.C. … as well as folks who have really uncomfortable situations in winter,” Dylan Heerema, a senior policy adviser at Ecotrust, said. “It’s possible to ensure that all rental suites are maintained at a safe and livable temperature.”

Ecotrust is asking B.C. municipalities to adopt bylaws requiring rental units to maintain livable temperature ranges during periods of extreme heat.

It also recommends mandatory assessments of each unit’s energy efficiency and financial support for rental unit retrofits and low-income household utility costs. 

Landlords B.C., a landowner advocacy group, declined to comment. The B.C. Landlords Association and the B.C. energy minister did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication. 

Extreme temperatures affect housing safety

Last year, 11 people died of heat-related deaths, according to the B.C. Coroners Service. 

In the long term, Environment Canada says it expects severe weather, including prolonged periods of intense heat, to become stronger and more frequent due to climate change. 

Robert Patterson, a lawyer and advocate at the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, said the heat dome that blanketed B.C. in 2021 illustrates climate change is having an increasing effect on housing security and safety. 

“I think we have to take that tragedy, and being unprepared for it, as a lesson and formulate a proper response to make sure people’s housing safety and security is protected,” he said. “This report talks about some important policy changes that are necessary to get there.”

Housing policies under review

Some of the report’s recommendations are already being considered by the province and several municipal governments. 

The federal government’s EnerGuide labels already promote energy efficiency assessments for homes. In its CleanBC Roadmap, the provincial government committed to developing a home-energy rating tool to let people see how efficient their homes are. 

A label rating a home's energy efficiency on a red-green spectrum.
The federal government’s Energuide program promotes energy assessments for Canadian homes. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

At a news conference about heat pump rebates on Wednesday, Josie Osborne, B.C.’s energy minister, said B.C. Hydro and the province are working toward an offer for individual tenants in rental buildings. She did not address specifics.

Several B.C. municipalities are considering bylaws that would restrict the maximum temperature of rental units. 

In August 2023, New Westminster city council voted to explore a bylaw requiring landlords to install cooling systems to keep at least one room in a rental unit from heating past 26 C. The bylaw is still being researched and has not been returned to council since. 

“We absolutely cannot continue to build housing in a way where people die inside their homes,” Tasha Henderson, one of the New Westminster city council members who tabled the motion, said.

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The municipality already has a similar bylaw for heating, requiring every room in a rental to be heated to a minimum temperature of 22 C. 

“We require landlords to be responsible people that are running a business,” Henderson said. “Part of that is making sure that units can be cooled to accommodate for life safety.”

In September, View Royal city council considered a similar bylaw. In May, at its annual conference, the Lower Mainland Local Government Association resolved to ask that the Union of B.C. Municipalities recommend the province amend building code regulations to allow for maximum and minimum temperature standards. 

Retrofits can be costly

New appliances and retrofits can be costly. According to the province, the average cost of installing a heat pump is between $8,000 and $19,000. Running appliances can also raise a household’s utility costs.

While Ecotrust did propose financial assistance for low-income household utilities, Patterson said aid should also be available for low-income landlords, who may be renting out one unit to make ends meet.

“Is that cost too much to prevent another 600 people dying in the next heat dome?” Patterson said. “It’s kind of far-fetched to say that we shouldn’t be doing that.”

He said any regulations need to come with protections so tenants aren’t priced out of their homes. 

According to Heerema, it’s important that heating and cooling appliances are also energy efficient to reduce their climate impact and the cost of running them.

He noted that while heat pumps consume less energy than air conditioners, there are other ways to efficiently reduce a home’s temperature, including shading and insulation. He said housing should be regulated like any other business. 

“We tend to be very accepting of regulation and inspections and proper health and safety standards in many or every other type of business,” Heerema said. “It’s a bit strange that we don’t treat rental housing in some cases in the same way.”

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