Squamish tenants say realtors' home viewings put them at risk of COVID-19 exposure

‘My people are stuck between a rock and a hard place,’ says real estate manager

COVID-19's descent on Squamish has created a whole slew of unprecedented housing issues that renters, owners, realtors and property managers are trying to navigate.

One of the biggest questions up in the air involves the rights of visitation when a landlord or realtor is trying to sell a property that has tenants in it. Should prospective buyers be allowed to go inside a home when everyone is doing their best to keep themselves socially distant?

or Miranda Jacobsen, that's a question that has life-or-death implications. Jacobsen has rheumatoid arthritis and has been taking immunosuppressant medication for much of her life. This leaves her highly susceptible to illness and drops her in the high-risk category for COVID-19.

"I am warned every year that the flu, resulting in pneumonia, could very well end my life. COVID-19 is a much higher risk," she wrote to The Chief.

She's living in a condo that the owner has put up for sale just before it was realized the pandemic would have local effects. Due to her condition, she had expressed concern about people coming into her home. However, realtors and repair people were entering her home up until March 12.

"They sent in repair people to look at the ceiling….They had scheduled showings and I just didn't feel comfortable," she wrote. "I was overwhelmed with anxiety and with not feeling safe in my own home. I had started to get a sore throat, so I told them I was feeling symptoms and needed to fully self-isolate for at least 14 days."

Since going into isolation, no one has come in, though they have been asking.

"These people were literally asking me to risk my life, in order to sell a condo, at a time like this," wrote Jacobsen. "I stood my ground and thankfully, they agreed not to come in. But I did not feel it was fair for them to even ask."

Two other renters living in a Squamish condo share a similar sentiment.

Caitlin Aboud and Alex Ryan Tucker are both roommates in their 20s. While they are not immunocompromised, they say that home viewings are a risky endeavour in the middle of a pandemic.

The condo they live in went for sale just before COVID-19 pandemic, but realtors have since been showcasing the home.

"Our landlord's realtor....is pushing ahead with viewings and home inspections," Ryan Tucker said. "Attempts to call off and postpone visits to our home have been met with weak assurances that ill people will not be entering our home and the consistent line that they are simply fulfilling their obligation to the seller."

He said that they've even had to provide their own gloves and masks for the people inspecting their home.

"We do not believe that this is happening," wrote Ryan Tucker.

Aboud said the Residential Tenancy Board has told her the sellers are within their legal rights to enter, even if there's a national lockdown, so long as 24 hours' notice is given.

"I just feel like the laws are really not prepared for such an extreme circumstance," she said.

"Right now, the sellers and real estate agent — their purpose is to sell the [condo,] but at what cost? It's very stressful."
Real estate point of view

Lisa Bjornson, the managing broker of Black Tusk Realty, acknowledges that these are hard times.

She said she empathized with people who have health conditions

"My husband has [rheumatoid arthritis] and is 74. He also has a compromised system with his lungs — very severe due to the medications that he is on. So I understand more than most what this all means and what risk factors are involved," wrote Bjornson to The Chief.

"So what can I say is, we are not villains. We have a job to do in a very difficult time. The sellers have problems too, and may have to sell — what are we to do?"

She said her realtors follow guidelines from the Real Estate Board and the Real Estate Council, which they get from the health authority.

Realtors are being told to avoid touching things, Bjornson said.

With respect to supplies like wipes, gloves and masks, part of the issue is that supplies are short and sometimes, realtors can't always get hold of them, she said.

"My people are stuck between a rock and a hard place," Bjornson said in a phone interview. "They're trying to be compassionate…to listen to everybody, but still, at the end of the day do a job. And by the way, their jobs are highly compromised too. These are...people who don't get EI. There's no fall-back position for any of these people."

During the province's March 20 update on COVID-19, health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that open houses could still take place so long as proper social distancing measures are followed.

"It would have to be a one-on-one, and you'd have to be able to maintain distance," said Henry.
Government response

The Ministry of Housing issued a statement to The Chief with respect to tenants' concerns.

"It is our expectation that landlords and realtors be sensitive to the needs of a tenant who may be in isolation or quarantine and not enter without their consent. During this time it is critical that everyone be aware of the health and safety needs of others and practice social distancing. The Residential Tenancy Branch is looking at potential additional protections for tenants," reads the statement.

"We understand the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver has already strongly recommended that realtors refrain from hosting open houses following government recommendations on social distancing."

On March 19, the board issued a statement online "strongly recommending" that its realtors refrain from holding open houses.

"Realtors want to do their part to help prevent the spread of illness in our communities and to meet the housing needs of residents in a responsible way," Ashley Smith, REBGV president said in the statement.

"We've heard from some in the community who are unhappy that their realtors are not holding open houses. To those people, we ask for your understanding given the public health crisis we all face today."

Local MLA Jordan Sturdy acknowledged that government bureaucracy is slow to deal with these unprecedented changes.

He said he wasn't aware of any legal mechanisms to protect tenants in these new circumstances created by the pandemic.

He also said the upcoming meeting at the provincial Legislative Assembly will have only a handful of members due to social distancing protocols, so it will be very hard to raise the issue anytime soon.

"It seems surprising that somebody would insist on doing something like this in this particular time in our society," he told The Chief, referring to the home viewings.

"It doesn't seem reasonable right now, or necessary."