A local non-profit group is taking over the management of two Downtown Eastside buildings that are currently at the centre of legal action.
Gordon Wiebe, the chairperson of the Community Builders Benevolence Group, confirmed his organization will be taking over management and repairs of the Wonder Rooms and Palace Hotel by September 1.
Wiebe said staff have started working in the buildings to identify maintenance and pest-control issues, as well as the need for tenant support.
“In the first two weeks we’ll do our best to get a handle on the situation, but as soon as we can we’ll start in earnest,” Wiebe told the Straight by phone. “It’s a matter of talking to each [tenant] individually and one by one making sure everyone is safe and supported.”
Wiebe said the organization was asked by landlord George Wolsey to take over operation of the hotels, and was given the green light by the City of Vancouver. He said the group has the assurance that they will be given 100 percent control of the facilities.
The organization operates four other supportive housing buildings in the Downtown Eastside.
The news of the change in management at the two rooming houses was announced the same day 12 former and current residents of the buildings were scheduled to begin a series of hearings with B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Branch.
Doug King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, said the tenants are seeking compensation for living conditions in the buildings. Pivot launched a lawsuit in June on behalf of the group of tenants.
King told reporters at a news conference today (August 18) that since the application was initially filed, he has heard allegations from some tenants that they’ve been harassed, threatened or in some cases evicted for taking legal action, or for speaking out in support of the city seeking a court injunction against the building owner.
King later told the Straight that the Residential Tenancy Branch hearings have been adjourned until Monday, August 22, after Wolsey told the adjudicator he hadn’t received all the evidence packages.
King and spokespeople for advocacy groups including the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council urged the provincial government to implement measures to protect other tenants of single-room occupancy (SRO) rooming houses.
“The provincial government needs to stand up for these tenants when they decide that they need to use the Residential Tenancy Branch to uphold their rights,” said King.
“The reality is if a tenant’s evicted from this kind of a rooming house and SRO, there needs to be government support so they don’t land on the streets.”
The 12 tenants will testify individually in telephone hearings with a Residential Tenancy Branch arbitrator.
According to King, the tenants’ complaints include concerns about lack of repairs and maintenance in the buildings, and allegations of methadone maintenance therapy abuse.
Former Palace Hotel resident Al Fowler alleged that his methadone doses were tampered with when he lived there. Other former tenants have alleged that they were pressured to fill their methadone prescription at a particular pharmacy.
“We think it’s time the provincial government sends a strong message. A landlord cannot manipulate the laws,” said King. “A landlord cannot manipulate people’s health for their benefit, and they need to apply administrative penalties in this case.”
Laura Shaver of the B.C. Association of People on Methadone said Fowler’s story is “one of many” among users of the methadone maintenance therapy (MMT) program.
“People who use methadone use it to try to get a stable, more comfortable life, and because of the stigma and the lack of accountability...this treatment is lacking in a lot of ways,” she said.
The city recently agreed to set up a working group to review the alleged methadone therapy abuses. Council also voted in favour of seeking injunctive relief against the owner of the two SROs to force repairs of the dilapidated buildings.
City of Vancouver spokesperson Wendy Stewart said the change in management won’t alter the city’s legal process to enforce repairs.
“Council did give approval for staff to seek injunctive relief,” she told the Straight by phone. “Very preliminary steps were taken on that line."
“At this point, there’s no change in our approach,” she added. “What we want to see is significant process on the deficiencies in the building.”
Ivan Drury of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council said the group wants to see the province fund a legal advocate position to take on tenant rights in all SRO hotels, and for a community organizer position to liaise between hotel residents and the legal system.
“We’re calling for the province to stand up with these tenants and send a clear message to these slumlords,” said Drury.