Privacy commissioner to query whether landlords violate prospective tenant privacy
FOR RENT signs outside buildings like this one in Kitsilano are a sign of the flip side of the boom in home sales. (Ian Lindsay/Vancouver Sun)
B.C.’s acting Information and Privacy Commissioner is moving to crack down on landlords that invade the privacy of prospective tenants through rental applications that ask too many questions, the agency said Wednesday.
Acting commissioner Drew McArthur called for an investigation into what questions major landlords and public housing agencies are asking and whether the requests are becoming unreasonable. The decision came after his office noticed a jump in calls and complaints about the issue in the past year.
Low vacancy rates in cities such as Victoria and Metro Vancouver “means people are in a tough spot,” feeling like they can’t refuse requests for detailed personal information, said Brad Weldon, director of policy at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
“Because we have this power imbalance right now,” Weldon said. Landlords “can ask for information that’s clearly, likely offside of (the Protection of Information and Privacy Act), but they sort of have the upper hand.”
That imbalance is part of the reason why the commissioner is launching a broad investigation, Weldon said.
“We just don’t think we can count on individuals to make complaints. There is too much at stake for them.”
Landlords can ask for a reasonable amount of information, to confirm applicants are who they say they are and are capable of paying rent, but McArthur’s office is hearing of cases of prospective tenants being asked for complete bank statements and T4 income forms, which are out of bounds.
Tenant-rights adviser Andrew Sakamoto has been at the sharp end of the issue as a renter himself facing requests by landlords to provide his Social Insurance Number in applications, though the privacy office considers the number a highly sensitive piece of personal information that shouldn’t have any bearing on rental application.
“I even ended up providing it to my landlord because, you know, you’re desperate for housing and you want to secure a tenancy,” said Sakamoto, executive director of the Tenants Resource and Advisory Centre in Vancouver.
Sakamoto said questions about a prospective tenant’s rights to refuse handing over such information are definitely common in calls to his agency’s staff and at seminars that he delivers, but it is challenging for the agency to give solid advice.
“If you are a tenant and you try to stand up for your rights, (the landlord) is just going to move on to the next person,” Sakamoto said, and he hopes the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s efforts reduces “requests for excessive and unnecessary information.”
The privacy office publishes guidelines for what is reasonable and what isn’t. For example, a landlord can ask a potential tenant to show identification, but can’t write down a document number or take a photocopy.
A landlord can ask for proof that an applicant can afford to pay rent, Weldon said, but a letter for an employer or copies of pay stubs should suffice and requiring full bank statements or tax returns would be excessive.
Credit checks are OK, but according to the guidelines, a landlord has to have a reason for asking, the applicant’s permission, and it “should not be a routine requirement.”
Postmedia calls to Landlord B.C., a lobbyist for the rental housing sector, weren’t returned by deadline.
Weldon said that in the coming months, his office will ask for and review rental applications from major rental firms and public-housing agencies, and ask people to provide information on their experiences as prospective tenants.
The investigation will also consider the limited extent to which landlords should be allowed to use the internet and social media to research and screen potential tenants, Weldon said.
If the investigation determines that landlords are asking for unnecessary information, its report will make recommendations for how they should change their practices.
“Our hope is, if everybody knows what is allowed and what isn’t allowed, there will be less of this information (collected),” Weldon said, “and tenants will face fewer requests for information that everybody knows you don’t have to give.”