Finding it a bit steamy this summer? You’re not alone. Across Canada, people say they are really feeling the heat, especially in their homes. And we’re tracking it. CBC teams have installed temperature and humidity sensors in dozens of homes in several cities, including Vancouver, to see just what happens to people when things go from hot to sizzling to seriously dangerous. This is one of those stories.
Renters in British Columbia have received notices from landlords warning them against installing air conditioning units in their suites, or risk jeopardizing their tenancies.
CBC News has spoken to tenants in multiple buildings under different management companies who have expressed frustration after landlords denied their requests to install air conditioning units, just weeks after the province announced a program to provide air conditioners to eligible British Columbians.
In June, the government said it would provide 8,000 units to medically vulnerable low-income households over the next three years. In a related program, B.C. Hydro is offering residential customers $50 off the purchase of a qualifying air conditioner until July 28.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said at least 50 per cent of the free air conditioning units were expected to be installed in apartments or multi-unit dwellings.
But weeks later, tenants and tenant advocates are speaking out, saying their landlords have discouraged them from using air conditioning units.
Ryan Le Neal purchased a standing air conditioning unit for his New Westminster apartment three years ago. He wasn’t worried about using it until he got an email on June 1 warning him that “management cannot authorize any tenants to install A/C units.”
“I heeded the warning, you know, because of course [the landlord] states everything is in terms of wrecking your lease, voiding your lease,” said Le Neal, a longtime resident of the building on Hamilton Street.
Several tenants in a B.C. building with a different landlord said they have also been told not to install AC units, but none of these tenants were willing to be quoted on it.
Landlord says older building lacks electrical capacity
The notice, which Le Neal showed to CBC News, states that “if a tenant chooses to breach this material term of the tenancy and it creates damages the tenant will be liable for rectifying these damages.”
It also says that “older buildings are not equipped to maintain the high usage of electricity air conditioners require” and that tenants are expected to confirm with an electrician whether equipment is safe before they use it.
Le Neal, who works as an elevator technician, says he followed the notice’s instructions and consulted with electricians about his use of the AC unit. He says because the unit’s rated current is 9.5 amps and it’s being plugged into a circuit able to handle up to 15 amps, he feels confident it is safe for him to use.
“There’s a circuit breaker on the AC unit itself as well as a breaker panel,” said Le Neal. “I’ve used this for three years already. I haven’t had any problems.”
The notice was sent by landlord Dinesh Chand. According to the New Westminster Tenants Union, tenants in at least eight buildings owned by Chand, including Le Neal’s, received the same notice.
Krisztina Fulop, an organizer with the tenant union, says tenants reached out to the group with concerns about the notice.
“Their biggest concerns were that they wouldn’t be able to survive the summer and they wouldn’t be able to live in their apartments over the summer,” said Fulop.
There were at least 33 heat-related deaths in New Westminster during the 2021 heat dome, the highest death rate of any municipality in the province.
‘I’m really sticking my neck out here’
Both Le Neal and Fulop fear the notices are meant to intimidate tenants and discourage them from using AC units.
“I’m really sticking my neck out here,” Le Neal said about continuing to use his unit.
It’s a risk he’s willing to take, especially because he says before he had AC, his apartment had reached temperatures as high as 38 C.
Chand’s lawyer issued a statement to CBC News on his client’s behalf, reiterating that the building Le Neal is living in is old and that “not every kind of A/C unit is appropriate.”
“Some types of A/C units, like window mounted ones, can leak and cause damage to the building envelope, in addition to drawing too much power for the electrical service available in the rental unit,” said lawyer Michael Drouillard in the email.
Drouillard added that a landlord can regulate the use of AC units in a tenancy agreement, including requiring a tenant to pay for damage caused by their AC unit.
Le Neal, who’s lived in the building since 2008, says his original tenancy agreement had no restrictions on the use of appliances. His air conditioning unit also isn’t mounted in his window, but rather feeds a tube outside.
“There should be no problem with using the unit that I have in my apartment unless there’s something seriously wrong with the infrastructure of the building,” he said.
Buildings need to be assessed, says engineer
Building infrastructures need to be individually assessed to determine what kind of electrical load they can handle, said Michael Wrinch, principal engineer at Hedgehog Technologies in Burnaby.
“An electrician or an engineer can do a review and assess if the building is safe for adding everyone [with] air conditioners,” said Wrinch.
He says if the building doesn’t have the capacity, the infrastructure would need an upgrade, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the building.
The CEO of Landlord BC, an advocacy group, is well aware of the potential cost and is still waiting for more details about the province’s program to provide air conditioning units.
“There are still many gaps in the proposed program,” David Hutniak told CBC News in an email. “We know nothing about the specific equipment that the program applies to, for example.”
Hutniak says the government was explicit in saying that consent from the landlord is required.
In an email to CBC News, B.C.’s minister of housing said he hopes landlords and tenants will work together to find solutions
“Tenants can use AC units in their rental unit if they are not prohibited by an additional term in the tenant agreement,” said Ravi Kahlon. “The risks of extreme heat events, especially on our most vulnerable citizens, should not be overlooked, and I strongly encourage strata [corporations] and landlords to consider all the factors and find solutions to keep people safe.”
Fulop isn’t convinced a hands-off approach from the province will help tenants trying to stay cool.
“The province has the ability to mandate landlords to make these changes,” she said. “We pay so much for rent in Vancouver, why should we have to settle for less? And why should we put our lives at risk?”
In the meantime, Le Neal won’t be discouraged from turning on his air conditioning on extra-hot days.
“I really don’t feel that I’m in the wrong about this,” he said.