Fatal east side fire raises questions on City enforcement

Post by Mike Klassen in

25 comments


GlobalTV's top story focuses on the east side home where three died

Only two days before Christmas eve three men living in a flop house at Pandora and Renfrew in east Vancouver died as a result of a fire. Houses like these exist all over the city, and they usually are rented out by someone who refuses to invest anything into home repairs. Additions are made to the homes – often covered decks like the one we see in the video story above – that are not to building codes, where people bunk up and the landlord collects rent despite miserable conditions.

There are many aspects of this tragic story which raise questions about the City of Vancouver's role in enforcing by-laws on problem properties. There are also questions such as: is an overriding political imperative to keep people off the street [see: boasts about reducing 'street homeless'] causing life and safety violations to go unenforced in Vancouver buildings? This and other questions should be asked of Mayor Gregor Robertson, but he just announced that he's offline on vacation until January.

There are also aspects of this story that raise eyebrows, such as the swiftness of the conclusion on the cause of the fire. Within 12 hours of the fire VFD reps were signaling that it was an old string of Christmas lights that caught fire. There are lots of old strings of lights hung around town right now, and thankfully they're not resulting in fires. Was enough time given to city fire workers to exhaustively investigate the reason why this fire started, or was this rushed out for media consumption?

The Mayor and City Manager fired Vancouver's Chief Electrical Inspector earlier this year, and to our knowledge the City has not replaced Ark Tsisserev with a qualified replacement yet. Was life and safety at risk on this property and would have a qualified electrical inspector been able to shut this property down?

Why is Deputy City Manager in front of the cameras and not a political represenative of the city? Perhaps it's because when you have a city councillor, such as Kerry Jang's awkward performance on CKNW this morning (mp3 clip), you get Vision revealing concerns about the loss of housing are on par with concerns about enforcing by-laws. Kudos to morning host Jill Bennett for asking the tough questions.

This home had been visited 21 times by emergency services personnel since early 2009. I've lived next to houses with problem tenants, and it's not fun. How could it have remained such a serious problem for so long? Coun. Jang claims that "action was imminent" by council to shut down this house. Where is the proof that this action was indeed about to take place, such as staff reports?

The City of Vancouver has an award-winning resource called NIST Teams whose purpose is to manage these kinds of problems. They are described on the City website as follows:

What Kinds of problems do teams deal with?

Teams tackle issues that cut across organizational lines. Issues that require an integrated approach such as garbage, noise complaints, illegal activities, traffic issues and problem properties (such as drug houses or poorly managed properties) tend to involve more than one department or agency. NISTs can deal with them more effectively because they can marshal the efforts of experts who are empowered to act quickly and collaboratively. In the past, neighbourhoods became frustrated when agencies failed to coordinate their activities. Complaints about problem properties, to use one example, might bring a series of visits from Police, Fire & Rescue Services, Health or Permits & Licenses workers. However, until the formation of NIST, there was no way for these agencies to coordinate their response, so the problem, and neighbourhood aggravation, was often needlessly prolonged."

So what happened to Vancouver's NIST team approach to dealing with this problem property? We understand that over the past two budgets NIST teams have been all but wiped out. A skeletal form of the program is now lumped into Community Services managed by Brenda Prosken.

If the Mayor and this council are so concerned about the lack of housing, why aren't they using the empty space the City owns at the Olympic Village as interim housing space? Those millions could have been used to buy up tons more housing around town, but they wanted their symbolic foothold on Southeast False Creek. Some good those empty housing units are doing us.

In another cruel irony of this story, apparently the brother of Curtis Brick lived in the Pandora Street house, but to our knowledge Brick's sibling was not injured. Curtis Brick died in 2009 of heat exposure and dehydration in a popular Vancouver park while the public looked on.

We've already heard from several Vancouver media who are not buying the spin so far from City Hall. Perhaps Mayor Robertson could keep his cell phone on while he sits by the pool this winter, and be prepared to answer some tough questions.

- post by Mike

25 Comments

from the Vancouver Sun today...


The owner of an illicit east Vancouver rooming house had been ordered by the city to make repairs and stop renting to multiple tenants four months before Tuesday night’s fire that killed three people.

The order was issued on Aug. 26 and the owner — listed in B.C. Assessment Authority records as Choi H. Leong — was given until Oct. 31 to comply. After a followup inspection on Nov. 5 revealed only minimal repairs had been made, no permits had been obtained and the property was still being rented out as a rooming house, the city continued legal action to have the building vacated.

Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Landlord+ordered+make+changes+ahead+rooming+house+fire+that+killed+three/4013320/story.html#ixzz18xpvLsOk

It's too convenient for the city and Jang to say they were "just about" to begin court action against the landlord. I just don't believe them. They have a track record of being economical with the truth. Hopefully the media will keep investigating this!

My heart goes out to the three men that died. Let's hope they didn't lose their lives in vain and we find out exactly what the city did and didn't do when it came to this flophouse. I think there is a lot more to this story than the mayor is letting on.

This is certainly a complex issue. We have a house a bit like this beside us (not as bad, but of the general type) and there were some on the street north of us when we moved here in the late 1980s.

There are three interlocking problems here - homelessness (a true scourge in Vancouver, and a depserate human tragedy); the high cost of housing for anyone who is not quite welathy; the need to reinvent how we live together and the kids of housing we need over the next few decades.

Does citycaucus have any thoughts on policies that might help with these three issues?

My sympathy to the friends and families of the people who died and thanks to the fire fighters who saved lives.

Thank you for this report Mike, you raise very good questions...
Very sorry to hear of The Brick family's second loss.

As you might recall I questioned the absence of the City's outreach water bottle program when Curtis Brick died from hypothermia...

I too found it curious that the source of this fire was so quickly discovered,especially when there were several fires near Main Street last Christmas that still don't have answers as to how they started...Excellent point about ARK, as I recollect several months ago Ark's job was posted on the City web site..not sure if someone was hired.

I hope we get honest answers this time from the City.. and hopefully this never happens again...my thoughts are with the families that have suffered this great loss.

Several years back, we had a situation in the building I live in.

One of the 'owners' placed floating walls into his 2 bedroom unit. This divided the condo into 7 sleeping rooms.

He moved onto his balcony. He closed it is with heavy plastic and was using a propane heater.

The people he rented to were students -ESL who were unaware of what they were getting into. He charged them each $350.

We, as a strata, got this situation remedied by having 'fire inspection'. The students were evicted and I believe they did get some of their monies back.

Long and short - things can be done but you have to be proactive.

I would be interested in knowing how much money this slumlord was collecting from the 7 men that resided in this house.

@George. Maybe should have made it clearer. Brick's sibling was not one of the casualties, I believe, just a resident of the now burned out house.

Oh my mistake, still very sad...I hope the City finds them alternate housing.. it could be my reading skills... I'm sick

@Steven. We've said on many occasions that we support Coun. Anton and others who have said that the social housing at Olympic Village should be put out on the market (possibly as strata title per Michael Geller's suggestion) and those profits used to buy an increased amount lower cost housing elsewhere in the city. Having those units online would got a long way to make sure folks like these aren't stuck sleeping on a drafty back deck.

"I would be interested in knowing how much money this slumlord was collecting from the 7 men that resided in this house."

I don't know if the issue has been addressed by the province or city since I first heard about it, but one of the problems (and reasons these type of operations are so lucrative) has traditionally been the fact that recipients of social assistance or disability pensions sometimes have the rent portion of their cheque deposited directly into the landlord's bank account. Naturally the landlord charges the max amount allocated for living expenses and by adding extra tenants can double or triple their income from a property.

One of the landlords who typify this kind of behaviour:

http://archive.vancourier.com/issues05/125105/news/125105nn2.html

I assume this was posted to point fingers and deflect from the present day situation Chris.

That was 5 years ago, Vision has been in office several years now, what if anything, other than point fingers has Gregor done to improve the process.

My guess is nothing...except cut budgets for police and fire fighters as well as fire Ark, the safety expert.

In an attempt to protect Gregor and decisions made, you are just making us realize what a failure he has been.

This is such a tragic story and it goes to show how we need to do more to assist our disadvantaged citizens. This is a tough one for the City since they don't want to push people out onto the street. These folks could have used some additional resources to help them with their daily living. I think it is important to have mixed communities and to those who think selling off the earmarked affordable Olympic housing and to build housing elsewhere really miss the point. The poor are entitled to live among the rich and in my opinion the Olympic Housing is a great legacy since this showcases that our poorer citizens also gained some benefit from hosting the Olympics. And isn't this what the spirit of the Olympics truly represents?

"I assume this was posted to point fingers and deflect from the present day situation Chris."

No, it was intended to add some additional information and perspective on the issue, which is far more complex than 'blame the mayor'. Pull your head out of your ass. Merry Christmas Bob.

The City of Vancouver has the authority to regulate building owners of flophouses using the "Standards of Maintenance" Bylaw - the link is attached here:

http://vancouver.ca/bylaws/5462c.pdf

This bylaw was enacted in 1981 and was used to evict residents of the Piccadilly Hotel on Pender Street downtown when it became apparent to the city that the owner was running the building into an uninhabitable state of disrepair. Despite the loss of low income housing, it was deemed better to close the doors of the Pic than to allow the owner to continue letting the residents live in squalor.

Section 21 of the Bylaw outlines the minimum standards for Lodging Houses. Section 23.4 addresses the rules regarding occupancy in contravention of the By-law.

There is a process - at least on paper. The city has rarely stepped in to the extent which it did regarding the Pic.

Jamie Lee there are 250 units of social housing at the Olympic village sitting empty for over 9 months. Why didn't the city (and mayor) offer even one of these units to the men that died? Wouldn't they have been eligible to stay there, even temporarily?

Hi Ken, I agree with you that people should have been housed sooner. I also think that Little Mountain should have remained as affordable housing. I also don't think it right that this blog is calling for the affordable housing at OV to be sold off. However, the Mayor, the Province or City Cauvus are NOT responsible for the fire. But what we must do is use this tragedy to hammer home the need for more affordable and safe housing for those in need.

is swearing at someone with a different opinion "ethical blogging behavior" Chris...

You want to accuse me of playing politics with the deaths of three people, you don't get the benefit of my forbearance Bob. Suck it up buttercup.

Finding your indignation disingenuous Chris..

Read carefully, I said I assume, if I was wrong I would apologize but when you come back swinging and swearing you just prove me right..
You didn't show any respect for the victims not one word.. bully away..it is expected, just as your justifications are.

You are so quick to judge others on line behavior I just find this a little over the top.

Please note I have not resorted to swearing or name calling.

Hi Chris: (re: 3:19 reply)

I have NO doubt this is an ongoing problem - it has been somewhat well documented with the hotels in the DTES.

This is not unique to Vancouver, it is a scam run all over Canada and the Americas.

I would also be curious as to how many tenants this particular slumlord was showing as 'registered' at this house.

JamieLee:

I fully agree that afordable housing is greatly needed in Vancouver, as well as the surrounding municipalities.

It is not just Vancouver where housing is at a premium cost - Surrey is growing leaps and bounds and I have no doubt affordability in Surrey will become an issue in short time.

But, with the Oly Village, the good intentions were there before the credit crunch hit. And because of that international crisis, adjustments have to be made whether we agree with it or not.

The taxpayers of Vancouver are on the hook for a whole lot of money and it needs to be recovered in any which way it can.

Last night I watched the Global news as two persons moved into units for disabled persons. It was stated they were paying $320/month rather than the $900+ / month the units are valued at.

When times are tough and everyone is tightening their belts, it is hard to swallow subsidizing rents for others when people struggle to cover their own rents and put food on their tables.

Don't get me wrong, I am happy for these people but....yikes.

I am reading this in one of the sidebar tweets;


'City of Vancouver orders demolition of east-side house that went up in flames
Fire at illegal rooming house Tuesday night killed three'


Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/City+Vancouver+orders+demolition+east+side+house+that+went+flames/4020987/story.html#ixzz1903ed03G

**************

@ Kerry Jang and the City: I guess now you have no problem eviciting the remaining surviors at this slum property and rendering them 'homeless'.

Too little too late Vision boys and girls.

Nice way to use this tragic event to try to cover your collective asses.

Reminds me of how you used the death of Tracey to push your HEAT shelters.

Shame on you!!!!

George:

You asked a question and all I did was offer up some observations about similar situations. I didn't come out swinging or anything like that. I was trying to discuss the issue, but that's tough to do when individuals are always so keen to ascribe motive or intent where there is none.

The fact that so few on this discussion board can actually imagine someone providing information without it being an attack on another person or politically motivated speaks volumes about the reasons some people come here to comment. It seems a real discussion of civic issues clearly rates pretty low on the priority list for those individuals.

@ Max:

As I mentioned in my first post, I don't know if the city and province have addressed the issue since I first learned more about the situation, but it does require somebody to follow the paper trail of landlords/tenants, cross-referencing addresses, names, etc to be able to flag the problems. Then, as we see with this fatal incident, if the landlord is willing to work the system, in terms of giving assurances they will rectify the situation, it's going to be a challenge for any level of gov't to address the problem. As you note, similar scams go on everywhere, and shady landlords have always been a problem for people living in poverty.

You're right about the benefits of mixed communities and to say that the poor have every right to live among the rich. By the same token, however, the rich have every right not to live among the poor and this is a choice they can exercise and most will make.

So the choice with Millennium Water comes back to economics. Do we degrade its potential value thereby forgoing the increased quantity of social housing that could be financed, possibly at a ratio of two for one, just to make a political point? I'd rather we look at the matter pragmatically to determine how we get the maximum amount of money back and number of homes built and leave the social engineering for another day.

On the main subject of the article, there is in the UK a thing called a 'Dangerous Structures Notice', which can be issued by a local authority to compel a property owner to carry out repairs to a building within a certain time period. Failure to comply results in the work being carried out by the municipality and charged to the delinquent owner.

I'm pretty sure that similar powers exist in Canada and can be exercised by 'Dangerous and Unsightly Premises' committees. If they are inadequate in Vancouver one might hope that Mr Jang and Mr Robertson, ably assisted by their team of dedicated public servants, would be acting swiftly to bring us into line with best practice elsewhere.

David:
re - 'unsightly premises'
The City of Vancouver does have the authority to regulate building owners using the "Standards of Maintenance" Bylaw - the link is attached here:

http://vancouver.ca/bylaws/5462c.pdf

And I fully agree that pragmatics should take precedence over ideology where housing issues are concerned. What's better - a little utopian village amongst the squalor or a larger, better functioning city?

Merry Christmas to all

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