Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories - This morning at 11 a.m, current and former residents of the Palace and Wonder single room occupancy hotels will join representatives of Pivot Legal Society, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) for a press conference in front of the Wonder Rooms at 50 East Cordova Street. They will be announcing a new set of actions against slum hotel owner George Wolsey.
Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.
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, a group of tenants from the two hotels got together to speak out at City Council about the conditions in the hotels and to start legal actions against Wolsey at the Residential Tenancy Branch. 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 they will be handing control of the buildings back over to Wolsey. Donna Jesso, a current resident of the Wonder Rooms, said that she has recently been approached by Wolsey. “He asked me if I will switch to his pharmacy for my methadone prescription. I shook my head and walked away. I'm worried about what's going to happen to tenants, and especially methadone patients, if he takes over these hotels again.” Al Fowler moved out of George Wolsey's Palace hotel under duress in July. “George tried to punish us for fighting for our rights in our homes,” he said. “When I went to speak at City Council he cut off my methadone and I had to move out.”
Doug King, a staff lawyer at Pivot Legal Society, is representing the Wonder and Palace Hotel residents at the Residential Tenancy Branch: “Today, on National Housing Day, we are asking the City and Province to do their part to protect vulnerable tenants by enforcing the Standards of Maintenance Bylaw and amending the Residential Tenancy Act to ensure there are options for holding irresponsible landlords to account” says King. “If it is true that the hotels are going to back under George Wolsey’s control the City needs to revisit enforcement by injunction immediately”.
In addition to these 11 new cases, the RTB has now heard the first 11 cases. 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.
Donald McDonald, former Wonder Rooms tenant who won his recent Residential Tenancy Branch complaint against Wolsey, said, “The Residential Tenancy Branch court found that I suffered from living in George Wolsey's hotel. No SRO hotels is any good to live in because they're all the size of a prison cell, but George's are worse because he's abusive towards the people in his building. He gets away with it because the government discriminates against drug users. It is important that the RTB said conditions in the Wonder Rooms violate my rights as a tenant because most hotel tenants don't feel like they have rights.”
Tenants of the Wonder and Palace hotels, along with Pivot, DNC, and VANDU, are calling on the City to follow-through on their injunction initiative against George Wolsey, and to buy the two buildings to protect them as low-income housing. They also want the Residential Tenancy Branch system to better represent the interests and needs of vulnerable tenants, to expedite the hearing process for SRO tenants, and to hold hearings in person and in Vancouver.