Lawyers say Vancouver has failed low-income tenants

Jack Gates, a tenant of the Regent Hotel since 2014, worries about getting trapped in the fire escape whenever the fire alarm goes off — which it does pretty frequently.

After hundreds of violations, squalid conditions remain at the Downtown Eastside hotel.

Living in the Regent Hotel means constantly guarding your belongings from mice and rats, lining up to use one toilet shared between 20 people, and the constant concern that someone might be overdosing in the bathroom.

It also means being afraid of fire.

“Every time that fire alarm goes off, and it does go off pretty frequently, (I worry) whether that fire escape is going to hold 20 people or not,” said Jack Gates, who has lived in the Regent since 2014.

“Or whether we’re going to get trapped in there in the smoke.

“People squatting in the bathrooms and the hallways, they build little fires in the hallways. I know what it’s like to be an addict and you do some pretty silly things and things that aren’t right when you get high.”

Jack Gates, a tenant of the Regent Hotel since 2014, worries about getting trapped in the fire escape whenever the fire alarm goes off — which it does pretty frequently.

Last week, the City of Vancouver wanted the public to know it’s getting tough on the longtime owners of the Regent, the Sahota family. Paul Mochrie, deputy city manager, told Metro the city has ramped up building inspections of the Regent through the fall, has issued nearly 500 repair orders, and have taken the Sahotas to court in an attempt to fine them for 132 fire and building violations.

This follows the city’s decision in June to evacuate the Balmoral, across the street from the Regent and also owned by the Sahotas, because of fears the building could collapse. The Balmoral remains empty, and the Regent has many of the same structural problems, mostly caused by constantly leaking pipes.

Jason Gratl, a lawyer who is representing Gates in a court action lawsuit against the Sahotas and the city, called the city’s actions “ineffective sabre rattling.”

A screenshot of the City of Vancouver’s database of building violations shows the city has issued hundreds of repair orders to the Regent Hotel in the past six months

While the Sahotas have neglected the buildings they own for years, he said the City of Vancouver is ultimately to blame for refusing to enforce its own standards of maintenance bylaw, under which the city can do necessary repairs and then bill the building owner.

Fining the landlords won’t change a thing, Gratl said: even a very large fine, such as $500,000, will fall far short of the amount the building owners would have to spend to do proper repairs.

“Expressly or implicitly, (the city) has agreed that the ordinary standards of maintenance bylaws don’t apply in the case of the Sahotas,” Gratl said.

“The evidence for this is 15 years of compromise on the part of the city, which has allowed the Sahotas to do some repairs but not others, to effect temporary repairs but not others, to engage in belated, after the fact repairs rather than ordinary preventative maintenance.”

In its response to the lawsuits, the city denies this and says it can exercise discretion when deciding whether to enforce bylaws. Mochrie also denied Gratl’s assertion that the city’s stepped-up enforcement was in response to the lawsuit.

The Sahotas did not respond for a request for comment.

The class action cases, whose plaintiffs are Gates and Jay Slaunwhite, a former tenant of the Balmoral, are now at the Court of Appeal. That’s because there is a concern that if the class action is allowed to proceed at the Supreme Court instead of through B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Board complaint process, it could set a precedent that tips the scales against tenants.

A hallway in the Regent Hotel. Vacant rooms are boarded up with plywood to prevent people from squatting in them, according to Jack Gates, a tenant.

“Let’s say that the heat is off in an apartment building and a tenant goes and says the heat’s off, I want the landlord to fix the heat,” Gratl explained. “If the landlord turns around and says the RTB can’t decide this because the amount is in excess of small claims limit, you’ll have to go to the Supreme Court — well that may be a very daunting task for a cold and miserable tenant.”

Gratl said B.C.’s Attorney General, David Eby, could resolve the question “before Christmas” by making a change to the Residential Tenancy Act. The ability to bring a class action forward is an important tool for tenants’ right, Gratl argues, and he believes the tenants have a good chance of winning.

While the Supreme Court case grinds on and the city attempts to fine the Sahotas in Provincial Court, Gates continues to live without reliable heat in his room, to do battle with the mice that eat his Christmas presents, and to carefully disinfect the shared shower so he doesn’t get a skin infection, a common ailment in the building.

“The city might sound like they’re doing a very good job,” he said. “But they’re not.”

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