The dog ate my summons – The endless search for justice against a slumlord

After years of complaints by tenants, legal proceedings, and even a Vancouver City Council recommendation for an injunction,  landlord George Wolsey continues to evade his creditors.  The epic search for Wolsey is not just a tale for the ages, it is also a shocking and sad example of just how far out of reach justice is for most marginalized renters in BC.

Pivot first began hearing from residents of the Wonder and Palace Hotels, two SROs in the DTES, owned by George Wolsey, in 2008. They shared stories of Wolsey abusing his (now suspended) pharmacist license to force tenants to buy methadone and other prescription medications from his business, llegal lockouts and evictions, unlivable conditions and a myriad of other complaints. Tenants have kept up the fight for over five years. Alongside those tenants, multiple lawyers, advocates, interns and volunteers from Pivot Legal Society, VANDU, CLAS, and CCAP, have all been fighting for these tenants’ rights. Despite all of this work and the overwhelming body of evidence that Wolsey was breaking the law, bringing him to justice has been an uphill battle.

Wolsey has done his best to see us stymied at every turn.  Our first case against him at the Residential Tenancy Branch, many years ago know, involved a woman who had been illegally evicted after refusing to purchase prescription medications from his pharmacy. Wolsey argued that the Residential Tenancy Act did not apply to him, because his rat-infested, decrepit SRO was actually supportive housing, because of his "methadone program." He lost the case, but continued to operate as he had been.

The situation at the Wonder and Palace Hotels hit a boiling point in 2010. There was a rash of illegal evictions targeting people who asserted their rights or were active with community organizations, and the very vulnerable tenants who remained in the building  were dealing with deteriorating conditions, infestations and ongoing harassment by staff. Eventually, community organizers rallied a group together to head to City Hall and seek some support. Tenants were so frightened of retaliation that Council took the unusual step of having security escort them to a closed balcony from which they could tell their stories in relative safety. What they had to say was horrifying. Allegations of walls that were crumbling around people as they slept, rats running through the rooms, threats of physical violence by staff, tenants being forced to perform jobs for the landlord at well below minimum wage, and communal appliances being turned off as collective punishment for individuals' complaints.

It was clear that Mayor and Council were moved by that they heard. There were attempts made to intervene by the City, including turning management over to a non-profit organization for a period, but the agreement with Wolsey soon fell apart.  

While the City attempted to address the issue on their end, Pivot took on the task of representing a large group of current and former tenants. There is no legal aid funding for housing matters in BC, so in most cases tenants are on their own. For people living in conditions like those in the Wolsey-owned hotels, or who have been made homeless by an illegal eviction, taking on a legal fight is next to impossible. Even with the help of a lawyer, it was next to impossible to pin Wolsey down and move the cases forward.

Day after day, community organizers at CCAP and VANDU would track people in precarious situations down, and get them to our office, nervous, but ready to participate in the phone hearing with the RTB. Wolsey, would fail to call in or adjourned hearings with little or no notice. He evaded service of documents, claimed he wasn’t the landlord, lied to a process server about his identity and, yes, most recently it seems he is claiming ‘the dog ate my summons.’

Attempts to find Wolsey could leave even the most patient person a frazzled mess.  It’s actually hard to explain or even understand what the process has been like so I’ll give you one small piece of the puzzle to illustrate.  Here is how Brett, one of our interns here at Pivot, described his experience of searching for Wolsey this summer:

“When I went to serve George Wolsey in early August, his reputation for avoidance was already well-known to me. Judging from the conversation that followed anytime his name was tossed around the office, George was always a tough guy to deal with, and for a good period of time he just seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth. At first I thought, maybe he's dead? Nope, turns out he's just hiding from the people he's hurt.

We were only able to confirm his existence once a process server, in some miraculous stroke of luck, managed to encounter him in front of his residence in Langley in August. And even then George found a way to beat the heat. Preying on the process server’s unfamiliarity with his face, George claimed to be someone else, and that the real George Wolsey would be away ‘fishing’ until September. Add to this the fact that he owns what was described by the process server as a “160-pound Rottweiler,” it became clear to me that George would not go down without a fight.

To match his antics, our team went so far as to pose as high school students with a lovely bouquet of flowers for good ol’ Mr. Wolsey. We drove over an hour to his residence, knocked on doors, spoke to a man who I believe is Wolsey’s son and when we were told that George would be home later, we waited. 

We returned a little later to find the lights on in the house so we knocked, repeatedly.  I should mention that when I knock on your door, people know it. Heck, my knocking registers on a Richter scale. It didn't matter though.  I could hear someone moving inside, but George absolutely wasn’t coming to the door.  Instead, he let his dog do all the talking (it’s okay, the dog was inside starring us down through the window). Even though I could see George wandering about his house, those papers were no closer to getting into his hands.”

After that night, we got a court order stating that attaching the court documents to his front door was good enough; we had ‘served’ Mr. Wolsey.  That part of the process was done.

This brings me to September 3, 2013.  I was due in court at 1:30pm.  My hope was that Wolsey would come to court, as ordered, and we could finally get the information we need to get him to pay his debts.  How quickly my naive hopes were dashed.  At about 12:50pm, my colleague Scott came running out of the office as we drove away and handed us a letter.

The letter made me furious at first.  Once again, George would not be coming to court.  This letter, written ALL IN CAPS, and apparently signed by George Wolsey's ex-wife Viola (though to my untrained eye, it certainly does look like George’s handwriting) said that George doesn’t live in Langley, he can’t be contacted and, the pièce de résistance, the ‘dog ate his summons.’  The letter actually claims that Wolsey would not appear because the resident Rottweiler ate the court documents; it would have been hilarious if it didn’t mean our clients were again being denied justice.

After my initial fury I realized that this letter meant 2 things. First, George got those papers, otherwise how would he have known to fax my office? Second, George wasn’t coming.  This was going to be another of a long line of excuses and lies to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.

I showed that letter to the court where Judicial Justice Brent Adair, QC, carefully read it and asked if there was any reason why he should consider it.  I explained that it contradicted all other evidence before the court and should only be considered as evidence that Wolsey knew he had been summoned to court.

After reviewing all the evidence, Judicial Justice Adair, QC, issued warrants for Wolsey’s arrest.  One warrant for each of our 10 clients who were again denied justice by George Wolsey.  Now the court registry will mail those warrants to him.  Once that is complete, he has 7 days to turn himself in. After that? We will be following up with the Surrey Sheriffs to ensure that these warrants are executed and Wolsey is arrested and brought to court. 

We may finally be close to an end to this battle, or maybe we’re not.  I know that Pivot will fight this fight for as long as it takes, but the reality is most people don’t have the resources to hire process servers, hunt down multiple business and residential addresses, travel out to the far reaches of the Lower Mainland, make multiple court appearances and pay endless filing fees to try to enforce judgment.  How can a DTES resident on income assistance and with no car be expected to do it? The answer is, most can’t, and I think George Wolsey knows it.

The Residential Tenancy Act currently makes it economically beneficial to refuse to do repairs and to wait until a building is nearly falling down around tenants before taking action.  Then a landlord can evict everyone in order to make necessary repairs and raise the rent as high as they want.  The Act needs to be reformed so that landlords who are shown to have neglected their properties must give tenants the automatic right to return to their suites after renovations are complete, without increasing the rent. On September 4, 2013, Minster Coleman stated that the Act works just fine and won't be reviewed.  To Minister Coleman I must respond with all due respect - Mr. Minister, you are wrong. Come and meet our clients; you will have no choice but to see that the Residential Tenancy Act is in great need of repair if it is ever going to protect BC's most vulnerable tenants.

The City needs to keep the pressure on these landlords so buildings never get this bad again.  Creating the Rental Standards Database is a good first step; however, without consistent enforcement, this database becomes essentially meaningless against an intransigent landlord.

The Residential Tenancy Branch needs to step up and investigate bad landlords.  The RTB has the authority to investigate landlords who they believe are breaching the Residential Tenancy Act and can levy hefty administrative penalties for non-compliance with the Act or an RTB order.  Despite having this power, the RTB has only ever levied one penalty, which was later negotiated away.  When it comes to the worst of the worst, where there are dozens of complaints over the course of years, the RTB should be stepping in and taking the lead to enforce the Act.  Leaving this fight at the feet of tenants who have been subjected to unlivable conditions, many of whom feel threatened and fearful of their landlord, is not an acceptable option.

This may be a case of justice delayed, but we cannot let it become a case of justice denied. This means too much to the people Wolsey has hurt and all landlords must know – if you exploit people this way, there are repercussions.