Heajung Son said she was terrified when two men banged on the door of her apartment and demanded to be let in.
The men, the building owner and an employee, eventually unlocked the door and confronted her roommates about three months of unpaid rent, said Son. Son, an ESL student from Korea, said she and her roommates were up to date on their payments – but their landlord was not.
“They could tell we were totally lost,” said Son, who four years later is still angry about the episode.
She had rented a room in the east Vancouver apartment through an online website. She said the rent, $1,000, was expensive for her budget and the apartment was overcrowded. There were not enough electronic key fobs, she said. So she always had to co-ordinate her arrival with her other roommates.
Son said this was not her first housing challenge as a student. She had been forced to leave her previous lodging, a home- stay, with one-week notice after relations with one of her host parents deteriorated.
ESL education is a multi-million dollar industry in British Columbia, and stories like Son’s are familiar to those working in the field. Critics, however, say that ESL schools and the agencies that arrange for students to come to the country to study English should take a more active role in educating students on tenants’ rights.
But despite a 2008 government report, private ESL schools continue to operate without provincial or federal government oversight.
‘Higher levels of scrutiny’
Of the approximately 200 ESL schools currently operating in BC, 68 belong to Languages Canada, a self-regulating organization that confers accreditation. Linda Auzins, director of member services for Languages Canada, said her organization is “pushing for higher levels of scrutiny” of home-stay families and will discuss the issue at the next annual general meeting.
Languages Canada said it does not, however, plan to implement any policy regarding educating students about tenants’ rights. Auzins said Languages Canada schools offer home stays or residence apartments, or encourage students to go through an agency that will find them accommodation. Students who seek out their own accommodation, she said, are taking a risk.
“Finding an apartment may be cheaper,” she said. “But there are all kind of pitfalls.”
Mitsuo Ogishima, an advisor on consul affairs at the Japanese consulate, said he would like to see schools take “a leadership role” in instructing students about the B.C. Residential Tenancy Act.
He said he has seen cases of students who were robbed of rental deposits that were three to four times their monthly rent. The act sets maximum deposits at one half of one month of rent.
Tom Durning, a staff member at the Tenant Resource & Advisory Centre, a non-profit that advises B.C. renters on their rights, said ESL students are unlikely to get in touch with TRAC and report instances of fraud because of a lack of understanding of tenants’ rights.
“It would be desirable if they all outlined rules regarding tenants’ rights,” said Durning of ESL schools. “But unless they are mandated, they won’t.”
Damage to B.C.’s reputation
ESL schools used to be governed by the Private Post-Secondary Education Commission, a provincial government agency that provided consumer protection. The commission was replaced by the Private Career Training Institutes Agency in 2004 and private ESL schools were exempted from its oversight.
In 2008, the B.C. government hired John Watson, former British Columbia Institute of Technology president, to study the ESL education industry. His report, Private Training Institutions Act Review, calls for “enhancements in student protection.” And though the report does not specifically address issues surrounding accommodation, it recommends ESL schools be overseen by PCTIA in order to better regulate the industry and guard against negative experiences amongst international students.
“There have,” wrote Watson, “been many reports from consulates, the press and from other stakeholders that point to significant problems with respect to the lack of consumer protection, instances of victimization of students, lack of standards as well as immigration and visa scams.”
The report also underscored the damage such incidents have on the province’s reputation as a leader in ESL education.
This sentiment was echoed by Ogishima. He said that while many Japanese consider Vancouver to be one of the best places in the world, it only takes a few instances of fraud to significantly damage its reputation as a good place to study English.
“It gets around,” he said.