Pivot Legal Society - Equality Lifts Everyone

pivot-points

Bringing DTES landlord George Wolsey to justice

 

As a rule, I try to think the best of people. When someone does something that negatively affects me or something or someone I care about, I try to evaluate that action without drawing too many wider conclusions about that person's overall character. So far, life has taught me that when someone does something that seems to be mean, or hurtful, or stupid, it's generally not fair to make that action indicative of their whole persona. There are a lot of evil things that happen in the world, but that doesn't mean that there's a lot of evil people. I might not even be right about this, but it's a nicer way to go through life than to mentally stamp "EVIL" upon the forehead of anyone wrongs you in the slightest. 

That said, my forced-positive worldview was tested mightily this summer. As part of my Pivot internship, I worked closely with Doug King to help residents of the Palace and Wonder hotels take their landlord, George Wolsey, to court. As the summer wore on, it became more and more difficult to resist making a wholesale negative judgement on his personal character after listening to his tenants' stories and having to deal with him myself.

The problems in the Palace and the Wonder hotel were well-documented in the media this summer after several public events detailing the conditions at the hotel. There is such a litany of issues at each property that I find it's hard to fully comprehend each one individually -- it all just congeals into this mass of suffering, oppression and sadness. However, at the beginning of the summer, myself and other volunteers sat down with residents individually to create affidavits to use in the Residential Tenancy Board hearings, which meant painstakingly interviewing each tenant who was interested in taking Mr. Wolsey to court. Sitting down with each person and recording their experiences meant having to think about each of the individual ways they were suffering as a result of their tenancy. Most of us couldn't suffer through even one of the things they've alleged: Think of how you would feel if you found just a single cockroach in your apartment. What if you found one rat in your home? How different your life would be if your landlord forbade you from bringing a single guest to your home, ever? Or if eviction was threatened for filling your prescriptions at the wrong pharmacy, specifically a prescription that controlled your physical well-being every single day? How angry would you be if your possessions were ruined by bedbugs, or by constant floods of sludgy black water? 

For me, and most of the people I know, one of those many things would be enough to set us over the edge. It was hard to sit and talk with some of these people for hours as they listed all these different things, and more, that had occurred to them in their tenancy. Some were very upset, which made it an emotional experience for myself as well. But others would go through the conditions of their tenancy and never raise their voice, never alter their tone, not really do anything to indicate that any one experience bothered them -- their tenancy was simply one miserable existence defined not by any one thing so much as the overbearing weight of it all. Those people -- the ones for whom personal indignation had been eroded -- were possibly even harder to listen to.  After listening to their stories, it was hard not to conceive of any goodness in a person who could preside over such misery and not only do nothing to change it, but actually go out of his way to effect more.

At least, I thought, reckoning will come in the form of the Residential Tenancy Branch hearings we had scheduled. I was looking forward of taking Mr. Wolsey to task for the list of allegations against him regarding the Palace and the Wonder hotels. And, if there was some (seemingly unimaginable) reason for the conditions in the Palace and the Wonder, perhaps that would come out too. Maybe, I thought, there would be some piece of evidence or sort of explanation that would ease the culpability of Mr. Wolsey that existed in my mind.

None of that happened. What did happen is that Mr. Wolsey showed up to the hearing, and first tried to get me kicked out since it was a "private matter." When that didn't fly, he moved on to asserting that he wasn't the landlord of the Palace Hotel, he was just hired to do repairs by the company that acted as landlord -- a company whose name he said was "confidential." It was then suggested to Mr. Wolsey that, if he did not consider himself to the be the landlord, he had no interest in the proceedings and could just leave, while Pivot would continue with the actual landlord in absentia. At that point, he said that he was the director on the numbered company that appeared on the Land Title as owner (and is a respondent in the RTB hearings) and so he did have an interest. It was then explained to him that being the owner of a numbered company that appears on title does, in fact, make him a landlord under the Residential Tenancy Act -- which, undoubtedly, was a huge surprise to him, given that 10 minutes prior he had considered himself a mere repairman.

Undeterred, Mr. Wolsey then said the hearings could not go on because he was not in possession of the evidence packages Pivot had tendered against him. Ironically, the bulk of the evidence package consists of documents that link him to the buildings, since it was anticipated that he would try to  claim he wasn't the landlord. Despite the fact that Doug and I had put together dozens of evidence packages and delivered several of them personally to the buildings in question, Mr. Wolsey said he had never seen anything. The hearings were all adjourned so that we could deliver two more evidence packages to him -- one by registered mail to an address he specified, and one in person to the RTB that he promised to go pick up. Neither was received. The effect of all of this was to delay by months the hearings we had so carefully planned for, and to extent the ordeal for the dozen or so brave tenants who tried to stand up to Mr. Wolsey. 

I try to see the best in people. But sometimes, there's nothing to be seen.