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Bid to expose Vancouver's worst landlords reveals need for a public advocate

Vancouver city councillor Tim Stevenson is hoping to fulfill one of his campaign promises next week with a motion to create a database that will shine a spotlight on the city's worst landlords.

Mr. Stevenson first floated the idea during the civic election campaign in October.

The online database will allow renters to easily look up an apartment building's history and check work orders, property violations and maintenance records.

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The idea is borrowed from a bad-landlord watch list compiled by New York City's public advocate, Bill de Blasio. In a news release last month, Mr. de Blasio noted, "The innovative website will soon be adopted as a model by the City of Vancouver, British Columbia to hold landlords there more accountable."

What's most astonishing about this is not the fact that four months after a campaign promise, Mr. Stevenson's motion is on council's agenda. It's not even that Vancouver was mentioned in a news release issued by the second-most powerful official in New York City (making us officially world class).

No, even more astonishing is the fact that New York City has a public advocate.

I want one of these.

Mr. de Blasio is New York City's third public advocate since the position was created in 1993. He served previously as a city councillor and as a school-board member. He also managed Hillary Rodham Clinton's successful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2000.

This is not an apolitical position, such as the Vancouver city manager.

He is elected and along with the mayor and the city's comptroller occupies one of three positions elected by all five boroughs.

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He is a Democrat who once received a shout out on The West Wing when Rob Lowe's character could be seen standing in front of a whiteboard on which the words "Call B. De Blasio" were written.

His official job description: The public advocate serves as an ombudsman for city government, providing oversight for city agencies, investigating citizens' complaints about city services and making proposals to address perceived shortcomings or failures of those services.

Beyond sniffing out the city's worst landlords, Mr. de Blasio has a lot on his plate.

This week alone he has commented on the Iranian nuclear threat, the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti; he has denounced the sale of swastika earrings at a jewellery store in Brooklyn and urged New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to adopt a living-wage bill.

Last week, he clashed with Mr. Bloomberg over the mayor's refusal to end a program that required the fingerprinting of people who receive food stamps. "This is an inhumane and ineffective policy, which is why every jurisdiction besides New York City and Arizona has dropped it as a requirement," he said.

On Iran, he applauded the passing of the Iran Divestment Act of 2012.

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On the swastika earrings, he wrote: "It is absolutely abhorrent that any New York business would seek to profit off of hate, anti-Semitism, and intolerance. There are no excuses for this brand of ignorance."

In a report on small businesses and job creation released in November, he criticized the city's heavy-handedness when it came to levying fines against shopkeepers for minor bylaw violations.

And then there is the housing issue. Along with shaming landlords into repairing their buildings, Mr. de Blasio has proposed minimum fines for landlords who fail to address serious issues, such as peeling lead paint or a lack of heat in buildings. The measures are part of his eight-point plan to make rental housing safer. At the same time, he contended landlords need to be made aware of government-sponsored programs that could help them carry out repairs. He also said they should be rewarded when they make improvements. The reward, in version 2.0 of the "Worst Landlords" registry, is that they get special mention as owners who have earned their way off the list.

Back here at home, Mr. Stevenson said he wants to be less confrontational. His list of bad landlords won't include single-room occupancy hotels or rental suites in private homes, which make up a substantial portion of Vancouver's rental stock, along with rented condos. The list will be limited to, for now, the city's 4,900 purpose-built rental buildings.

Nowhere in Mr. Stevenson's motion is there a reference to penalties for offending landlords, and history shows the city has been shy to use its standards-of-maintenance bylaw when it comes to compelling landlords to make repairs.

In the end, this may be nothing more than a feel-good exercise, and as long as the rental apartment market remains as tight as it is, renters may look past the minor, or even major, sins to put a roof over their heads.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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