On today’s show we are talking about how to speak to bureaucrats. This past week I attended a public consultation meeting with city officials. They are trying to gather community input on the question of housing quality, availability and affordability.

Tenant advocacy groups showed up at the meeting in force. They had lots of stories of problems with their property that quite frankly should not have happened. I have a tremendous amount of empathy for the folks in the room who have endured hardships.

It’s true that not all landlords are educated on how to run a quality rental business. People had stories of molds being hidden behind a coat of paint. They had stories of recurring pest infestations. They had stories of broken elements that had not been repaired despite numerous requests.

The city has a mechanism for enforcing property standards. It involves a simple phone call to a 3 digit hotline and any resident can report a problem to city bylaw enforcement officials. The most common complaint at the meeting was that residents either didn’t know about the hotline or were too shy and intimidated to call. The proposed solution would be to institute a landlord licensing scheme that somehow would improve the quality of the rental properties. The cost of implementing such a system would inevitably be passed onto tenants, making housing even less affordable.

One of the proposals is to levy an administrative charge against landlords that face repeated complaints requiring repeated visits to the property by bylaw enforcement officers. The funds collected from the administrative fees would funds proactive enforcement.

Let’s unpack what this really means.

I stood up at the meeting and made the case for properly addressing rental affordability. The root cause of affordability is that the underlying cost of properties in the city is high. When a basic commodity 3 bedroom townhouse costs $450,000 to purchase, the cost of owning that property is going to be somewhere in the region of $2,500 a month. It doesn’t matter who owns the property. If the property is owned by the landlord who rents it for zero profit, it’s still going to cost $2,500 a month. That’s out of reach for many in the community.

We discussed many ideas for creating affordable housing. But at the end of that discussion city officials said they weren’t really trying to create affordable housing. They were simply trying to make sure that in the process of implementing any new rules, they didn’t make the situation any worse. So the study was really about what if any new rules would be implemented to govern rental housing.

The city does maintain statistics on where they get complaints. Of the 133,000 units in the market, only a small number are the subject of property standards complaints to the bylaw enforcement hotline. In fact 233 units are responsible for 23% of the complaints in the city. We’re talking about some 233 units that represent 0.17% of the total inventory in the city. That’s less than 2 properties in 1,000.

In my view, the city knows exactly where to focus its attention. It’s on those 233 properties.

The second major question was on the topic of proactive enforcement. City staff mentioned the concept of proactive enforcement on several occasions. That’s a word that is code for going on a fishing expedition to find problems. You can’t get the police to respond to reports of drug activity at a property, real criminal activity.

City staff seemed to accept my argument that the bigger picture priorities needed to be examined.

The point of today’s episode is that you absolutely can influence recommendations made by city staff to city council. You can absolutely influence decisions that are made by politicians. But you have to get out from behind your desk, you have get off your sofa on a Tuesday night and go down to city hall and engage in the dialog directly, face to face.