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B.C. landlords collect ‘unreasonable amount of personal information’ from tenants

Acting information and privacy commissioner cites violations of Human Rights Code
B.C.’s acting information and privacy commissioner has found that landlords in B.C. collect too much personal information from prospective tenants. Photo Dan Toulgoet

The province’s acting information and privacy commissioner Drew McArthur has found that landlords in B.C. collect too much personal information — some in violation of the Human Rights Code — from prospective tenants.

McArthur reached that conclusion after conducting an investigation that included collecting residential tenancy application forms from eight for-profit and five non-profit landlords, and rental management companies.

“I found a systemic practice of landlords asking tenants to provide an unreasonable amount of personal information during the application process,” McArthur wrote in a report released Thursday titled Always, Sometimes, or Never? Personal Information and Tenant Screening. “Unfortunately, many people felt they had no choice but to provide that information to avoid missing out on a place to live, despite feeling uncomfortable doing so.”

Landlords were asked to explain how the collection of personal information — and use and retention of that information — is compliant with the Personal Information Protection Act.

McArthur also heard from people who reported “several incidents that concerned me,” including one case where a prospective tenant was asked for a copy of their child’s report card.

Others told him they were asked about immigration status and had requests for detailed bank statements dating back three months from all bank accounts. One person was asked to consent to an inspection of their current residence.

McArthur said in his report that he found many “invasive questions and errors” on application forms, including asking tenants whether they smoke tobacco or cannabis, which is a violation of the Human Rights Code.

Other findings included:

  • Many organizations’ submissions and forms didn’t address whether and for how long they retain personal information about unsuccessful applicants.
  • A review found that 10 of 13 landlords investigated would be in contravention of the Human Rights Code and Personal Information Protection Act, if the information collected on applications was used.
  • All but one application form required prospective tenants to give a general consent for the landlord to collect personal information from any source.
  • Requests for marital status, sex, age, date of birth and social insurance number.
  • One application asked whether the number of occupants was expected to change in the next 12 months due to “pregnancy, family joining, family leaving or child in care.”
  • One landlord cited the “Personal Information Reporting Act” in its application form, which does not exist.
  • One person reported the landlord demanded a credit check, even though they offered to pay one year’s rent in advance.

McArthur said low vacancy rates — Vancouver is at less than one per cent — “may prompt landlords to believe they can collect whatever information they want” from prospective tenants. About 1.5 million people are renters in B.C. More than 50 per cent of Vancouver residents are renters.

David Hutniak, CEO of LandlordBC, said his conclusion of the report’s findings is that concerns raised by McArthur confirms many landlords in the province need to be more educated about rules related to renting their properties.

Hutniak noted his organization has 3,300 members and has spent a considerable amount of time ensuring landlords understand their rights and responsibilities. He noted LandlordBC, which is not a regulatory body, launched a registry last year as part of the education strategy.

The challenge, he said, is reaching the more than 70,000 landlords who are not “engaged with our organization.” He said there is a significant number of “small landlords” renting places such as basement suites who are part of the “knowledge gap” in understanding residential tenancy rules.

“Some of what’s occurred [with complaints], we don’t think is malicious — it’s just a lack of knowledge,” Hutniak told the Courier. “More knowledge needs to be shared out there with the broader industry. A lot of these people don’t even realize they’re part of the industry, to be candid with you.”

McArthur made several recommendations, including landlords limit the amount of required personal information on tenant application forms.

Landlords should also clearly state the purpose for the collection of personal information and require a credit check only when a prospective tenant cannot provide sufficient references about previous tenancies or satisfactory employment and income verification.

Another recommendation is that landlords should never collect information from social media platforms or Internet search engines — a recommendation Hutniak finds unrealistic in today’s world.

“We live in the 21st century here — it’s 2018,” he said. “To disallow it entirely, that needs to be reconsidered.”

Added Hutniak: “We are in agreement with the commissioner that respect for one’s personal information is paramount — how that is handled, how it is stored. I mean there’s no debate on any of that, to be honest with you. But I’m not happy necessarily with all of the characterization of the industry. Because, like I said, I don’t think there’s a whole bunch of maliciousness going on here. I think there’s a lot of lack of knowledge.”