Pivot Legal Society - Equality Lifts Everyone

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This National Housing Day we're taking a slumlord to court

This morning we kicked off National Housing Day 2011 in front of the Wonder Rooms, an SRO Hotel owned by notorious slumlord George Wolsey. Together with current and former residents of the Palace and Wonder single room occupancy hotels, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) we announced a new set of legal actions against Wolsey.

The Wonder and Palace hotels are infamous for being two of the most poorly maintained buildings in the Downtown Eastside.  Residents have also complained about threatening behaviour by staff, being forced to buy prescription drugs from particular pharmacies, illegal evictions, and retaliation for making complaints.

Earlier this year, with help from the DNC and Carnegie Community Action Project, a group of tenants from the two hotels got together to speak out at City Council about their living conditions. The City responded by threatening to file an injunction, and Wolsey agreed to turn over management of the buildings to the Community Builders Benevolent Society. This week Community Builders revealed that their relationship with Wolsey is under considerable strain, and are now turning control of the buildings back over to Wolsey.

Luckily, the tenants didn’t put all their eggs in one basket, and also started legal actions against Wolsey at the Residential Tenancy Branch, with Pivot representing each of the eleven plaintiffs.  With no legal aid, lots of administrative hoops to jump through and no office in Vancouver, it is always a challenge for Downtown Eastside residents to bring forward housing cases, and we knew that this particular case, which included eleven separate actions brought by individual tenants, would be a real fight every step of the way.

As our summer intern Laura Drake previously documented in great detail, George Wolsey has met every application or piece of evidence with an excuse or a delay. There was an assertion by Mr. Wolsey that he was simply the maintenance man and not the landlord (finally a concession after three company searches and two land title office searches proved otherwise), lost paperwork supposedly left at a lawyer’s office, and lots of personal attacks made against the tenants.

A couple of weeks ago we received our first round of decisions, but the process is far from over. Two tenants were awarded aggravated damages for the conditions they had to put up with while living at the Wonder Hotel. Three of the cases are currently under appeal, four of the residents were forced to re-file their claims, and two of the tenants have settled their cases. All eleven of the new cases will be filed by the end of next week and the process will begin all over again.

Today, on National Housing Day 2011, we are asking the City to do their part to protect vulnerable tenants by enforcing the Standards of Maintenance Bylaw and following through with their injunction against Wolsey.  We are asking the Province to do their part and amend the Residential Tenancy Act to ensure there are options for holding irresponsible landlords to account. Finally, we are telling all levels of government that housing is a human right, and that we will keep up the fight until everyone in Canada has access to safe and affordable housing.