The ongoing saga surrounding landlord George Wolsey and the search for justice for his former tenants is marked by a series of successes and setbacks. In September, former residents of the Wonder Rooms Hotel were elated when, after plastering the DTES and local media with Wanted posters, Wolsey succumbed and turned himself into the court. As a result of those efforts, Wolsey was ordered to appear at a payment hearing at the Provincial Court of British Columbia on October 21, 2013. What happened at that hearing, however, is a sign that the fight is nowhere near over.
After being questioned for over 2 hours, Wolsey was able to walk away without a payment order in place. He won’t have to face the judge again until the end of March 2014.
Pivot Legal Society has been involved in this case for four years, when complaints first began to come in about Wolsey and the conditions in his SROs. The story leading up to this week’s court appearance, which reads as a crazy bit of fiction, can be found here. Despite these difficulties, Pivot remains dedicated to bringing Wolsey to justice for their clients and improving conditions for marginalized renters in the DTES.
I attended Wolsey’s hearing on the 21st with Pivot lawyer DJ Larkin. The purpose of the hearing was to find out what money and assets he has that could be used to pay the over $18,000 he owes to his former tenants. Arriving at court that morning, we weren’t sure what was going to happen. Would Wolsey show up? Would he have his own lawyer? What sort of state would he be in? - Apparently in the past he has worn neck braces and played up being sick in order to avoid questions.
I was pleasantly surprised when he actually showed up in person (with his own lawyer in tow, retained only two days earlier). I was even a little amused when he hid behind a pillar outside the courtroom to avoid the reporters, the Pivot team and our clients. Unfortunately, my hopes that we would get the bottom of his financial situation and get some money for his former tenants were quickly dashed when Wolsey took the stand.
Wolsey sat in the witness box, mumbling answers that were almost inaudible and refusing to make eye contact with DJ or the court. Almost without exception, DJ’s questions to Wolsey about his potential assets were answered with “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” He showed up totally unprepared, with no documentation and, apparently, no memory. To hear it from him, he has nothing but the loose change in his pocket – which he used to pay the parking meter for the Volvo he arrived in. He couldn’t remember the last time he had a phone and he pays for rent and food with donations that get left for him in anonymous envelopes. What a lucky man he is, to be the recipient of so much charity.
Due to his non-answers, the judge ordered him to return to court at a later date with actual, documented information about his finances. Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts, this next hearing won’t be until March 31, 2014! He gets another five months to evade his responsibility.
While this is frustrating for me as an observer, it is certainly more frustrating for Wolsey’s former tenants. Two tenants attended the hearing, and expressed their unhappiness at having justice delayed once more. It’s not only the payments that the tenants want, though the money could go a long way to help them with their ongoing housing needs, but rather they want Wolsey to be held to account for his actions. Wolsey is emblematic of a larger problem in the DTES, where landlords can exploit their tenants and then get away scot-free. A win for Wolsey’s former tenants would send a message that this is not acceptable and that conditions need to be improved.
Pivot is now preparing for round 2 and will continue to work with Wolsey’s former tenants to ensure that justice is attained. If there is a lesson to be taken from this, it is that we need to keep pressuring housing authorities to step up and improve housing conditions in the DTES and to take initiative against landlords who are so clearly in the business of exploiting and marginalizing their tenants.