News

A City Soft on 'Slumlords'

The Sahotas own crime-ridden, decrepit buildings, but Vancouver hasn't forced them to meet legal standards. A Tyee special report.

By Sean Condon, 10 Nov 2008, TheTyee.ca

Bathroom at the Balmoral Hotel

Bathroom in the Sahota-owned Balmoral Hotel. Photo Ken Villeneuve.

When heavy rains caused ceilings to collapse at a rundown East Vancouver apartment last year, the building's 81 tenants had three hours to collect their belongings and move out. What they couldn't grab was stolen or lost to water damage and mould. Rodents, cockroaches and bed bugs infested the rooms that weren't flooded.

The calamity at 2131 Pandora St. on Oct. 18, 2007, shocked Vancouver and caused an untold amount of financial and emotional hardship on the low-income tenants that lived in the building. But it was just the latest incident involving one of Vancouver's most infamous landlords, the Sahota family.

Over the past two decades, the heads of the Sahota family, Pal and Gurdyal, have been accused by the tenants, the police, city inspectors, the province's Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) and Downtown Eastside housing advocates of allowing their buildings to fall into disrepair and abusing their tenants.

"They're the worst slumlords in the city," said Anna Hunter, a housing advocate with the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) who is representing tenants from 2131 Pandora at the RTB. She says the Sahotas have hired people who "harass tenants who complain, and they do the most minimal amount of [maintenance] work that they possibly can."

With at least 10 properties under the family's control, the Sahotas own some of the most crime-ridden hotels in the Downtown Eastside and some of the most dilapidated buildings across Vancouver. Municipal politicians and housing advocates are now calling on the city to start enforcing the Standards of Maintenance bylaw more aggressively and crack down on the family before any more leaky roofs cause people to lose their homes.

Opening Pandora's box

After the Pandora building was shut down by the city, Pal and Gurdyal Sahota gave the tenants back their October rent and security deposits. But for many of the tenants, it's not enough. After complaining about the roof for months, they ended up losing most of their possessions and had to live in motels for three weeks before B.C. Housing could find them new housing.

Alan Williams, his wife and 13-year-old son lost their clothes and a couple of used televisions. It was everything Williams owned.

"I felt like crying, I was hurt," said the 38-year-old security worker, who lived in the building for three years and paid $800 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. "Because it took me four years to get everything I own at that place. I even went so far as to get a couple of Nike outfits. And to have to throw that away because of the mould -- I was hurt, I was upset."

Damage claims filed

Twenty-eight tenants have filed an aggravated damages claim in the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) -- some seeking the maximum $25,000 claim. They want the Sahotas to pay for the pain the displacement caused. It's become a growing call across the city.

"The bottom line when it comes to the Sahotas it's all about the money," said Hunter. "The way that they repair and do maintenance in the buildings is all about how much money they can save and it really exploits the tenants."

According to the affidavit of the former caretaker at the Pandora building, there have been problems with the roof for the past 10 years. He claimed the Sahotas constantly ignored his warnings and ordered him to patch the roof up with tar. Both Hunter and Williams also said it is not uncommon for the Sahotas to hire unqualified tenants to do repairs instead of hiring expensive professionals.

Tenants claim harassment

Not including the Pandora case, Hunter has represented more than 15 clients in cases involving the Sahotas over the past year. She said she has been told that the Sahotas have hired people who have been physically abusive towards tenants, but that many of them are too scared to speak out.

According to a police report on the Pandora building, tenants told police on the day that ceilings collapsed that "the owner is threatening that if anyone gives them trouble, they are going to hurt them." The affidavit from a former caretaker claims that Pal Sahota hired a man named Bilesh Liyanage who continually harassed tenants. He also claims that Sahota and Liyanage got "physical" with a tenant and it wasn't uncommon for them to forcefully evict people.

More recently, Hunter worked with tenants at the Astoria Hotel who were complaining about the noise ever since the bar was turned into a popular live music club.

But on the day of the RTB hearing last May, Hunter said most of the tenants were intimidated into not showing up, with two of the disgruntled tenants appearing at the hearing to now support the Sahotas. However, on the testimony of one tenant who stuck with their complaint, the dispute resolution officer ordered Pal Sahota to soundproof the bar.

The victory was bittersweet. Hunter said the complaining tenant was evicted a month later for having a hot plate in their room, and it took another four months before a city inspector finally forced the Astoria to stop hosting late-night shows and make the repairs.

Sahotas blame tenant

When reached by telephone, Pal Sahota refused to comment about accusations that his people have harassed tenants, the Pandora case or any of his other properties.

"The case is at the RTO [Residential Tenancy Office], so I'd rather talk to you after the decision," he said. "I don't want to say something that is somehow misread by people."

George Metrakos, a tenant-landlord mediator who is employed by the Sahotas, said the family was in the process of repairing the building's leaky roof when one of the tenants "vandalized" the roof's tarps, which caused the leaking.

Metrakos, who was briefly involved two years ago with another Downtown Eastside landlord accused of carrying on a business "to the detriment of the safety and well being of the neighbourhood and the public," admitted he initially had doubts about the Sahotas' claim that the flooding was a tenant's fault. Over the past 20 years Metrakos has represented about 10 clients at the RTB against the Sahotas.

"I've known the Sahota family for over two decades and I know their reputation," he said. "I've sat many times on the other side of the file, but in this particular case, this is a case of vandalism at Pandora."

The tenant accused of vandalism, Steve Goddard, admitted he cut a hole in the tarp because the Sahotas paid him $20 to clear the puddles that had collected on the roof. But according to an insurance policy investigation completed by ING Insurance Company of Canada obtained by The Tyee, Goddard's actions may not have had any impact on the roof's collapse.

"The alleged act of vandalism was not causative of damage to the roof," wrote ING's claim representative; adding, "the assembled evidence indicates a roof that was in long-standing total disrepair, and water leakage, which had already begun, was inevitable."

From rags to riches

Many of the Sahotas' properties produce a litany of complaints about pest infestations and disrepair. According to city records, some of the properties the family owns include the now-vacant 2131 Pandora, 2178 Triumph (which is across the alley from the Pandora building), 1847 Larch, a three-building complex at 525 E. 5th Ave. and the notorious Cobalt, Regent, Balmoral and Astoria hotels in the Downtown Eastside.

In 2005, the Astoria was a part of the Vancouver Police Department's Project Haven, a 10-week sting operation of three Downtown Eastside hotels that uncovered widespread drug dealing, welfare fraud and the selling of stolen goods. Last year, two people were injured at 525 E. 5th Ave. when a rotting balcony collapsed and threw the tenants onto the floor below. A city building inspector recommended last May that the vacant 1847 Larch building be demolished because it is "unsafe, dilapidated and is an eyesore."

Because the Sahota buildings are separate companies listed under different names, it's difficult to know how many properties they actually own in Vancouver. Sometimes it's listed under Pal or Gurdyal's names or under companies such as Yang-Myung Hotel Management, North Star International Motor Hotel and Triville Enterprises. Others still are simply under a numbered company.

But each building has the Sahota family address listed as the property owner: 6626 Angus Dr. -- a Shaughnessy home valued at $1.5 million.

'Not completely horrible'

After the Pandora evacuation, city inspectors went across the street to 2178 Triumph St. to check in on the conditions of the building. According to a report filed by a city inspector last November, there were rotted balconies, electrical fixtures hanging by their wires, kitchen exhaust ducts crushed and non-operational, rampant infestation of cockroaches and mice, cabinets and counter tops in disrepair, and mould below sinks.

The city issued an order to Gurdyal Sahota under the Standards of Maintenance bylaw to make repairs or face charges. Six months later, the city was back issuing a "not safe to occupy" notice on the building because the rotted balconies were "unsafe and hazardous."

"We shouldn't have to be out there doing this," said chief licence inspector Barb Windsor. "This should be something that any owner should be aware of and proactive in doing."

But although the list of infractions is just as long with the Sahota's Downtown Eastside properties (one visit by city inspectors to the Balmoral last March found 78 bylaw violations), Windsor said the family is much better at maintaining the hotels.

The Sahotas' Downtown Eastside hotels hosts "hard-to-house" tenants with mental illnesses or drug addictions, who can often cause serious damage to a room or building, Windsor said. The city does regular inspections of most single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels in the Downtown Eastside, and Windsor asserted the Sahotas are usually responsive to maintenance problems in these buildings.

"I know everybody wants to write them up as being horrible -- and I'm not a big fan -- but they're not completely horrible," she said. "They're very slow to do work and they take a lot of time, but the Downtown Eastside and an apartment building are two completely different things."

Despite their responsiveness, Windsor said the city has fined the Sahotas more than $35,000 for Standards of Maintenance infractions at the Balmoral and Regent hotels over the past three years.

Legal challenges scare city

In order to ensure the Sahotas maintain their buildings, housing advocates are calling on the city to start using the Standards of Maintenance bylaw more aggressively. While the city can issue an order for repairs, a provision in the bylaw allows the city to actually make the repairs and then bill the landlord.

The Non-Partisan Association's mayoral candidate Peter Ladner said it's not easy for the city to turn from enforcer to landlord. While he "does not have a favourable impression" of Pal and Gurdyal Sahota, he said he's worried the construction could end up evicting tenants or get the city involved in a massive renovation project when the building should be demolished. He's also worried about legal challenges.

"There is some difficult history in enforcing the Standards of Maintenance bylaw," said Ladner, "where we've been challenged in courts and tied up in legal cases and wasted a lot of resources not achieving what we wanted to achieve. It's inexcusable that people should be living in these kinds of conditions, but the city's actual powers to change that are not clear."

According to Windsor, the city is hesitant to be more aggressive because of legal challenges and because maintenance work could escalate into structural construction. She said the city has only used the bylaw's more aggressive provision once -- at the Columbia Hotel in the 1990s. The owner did launch a legal challenge because they felt the work was excessive, but the building was foreclosed before it went to court and the city recouped its costs.

Bylaw needs test cases

But aside from actually making repairs, the Pivot Legal Society's David Eby has pointed out that the city appears to be backing away from using the bylaw altogether. According to the Pivot Legal Society's Cracks in the Foundation report, the number of orders for repairs dropped from 106 in 1999 to just eight in 2005.

Eby said there's no reason for the city not to be more aggressive. The only legal case involving the Standards of Maintenance bylaw that reached the courts occurred in 1990 when the owner of the Cambie Hotel sued the city for ordering repairs. The owner lost the case.

While Ladner is taking a more cautious approach to the bylaw, Vision Vancouver mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson has made enforcing the Standards of Maintenance bylaw a key campaign issue.

"There's a lack of clarity right now," said Robertson. "To me it seems that [the bylaw] can be enforced more vigorously and there's potential for it to be meaningful.... There's a need to instruct staff to remedy the problems with the bylaw and expand the test-case buildings so we can assess how much we can really do across the city by enforcing the bylaw."

Robertson has said the Pandora building should have been one of the city's test cases.

Walking a fine line

The Sahotas are now in the process of repairing their Pandora building. Once city inspectors have determined the building is up to code, the Sahotas will go before city council and ask for the building's business licence to be renewed.

While council may have reasons to deny a licence, permanently closing the building will mean one less low-income building in Vancouver at a time where there is a severe scarcity of affordable housing. Vision Vancouver councillor Tim Stevenson, who has also called the Sahotas "slumlords," said the city is walking a fine line in keeping buildings open while trying to get landlords to make repairs.

"[The Sahotas] just operate on the edge of the law," he said, "and given the rental situation in Vancouver, the city is loath to close buildings down."

When the Pandora business licence goes before council, councillors may hear of a new plan for the building. According to Metrakos, the Sahotas are planning on reducing the number of units in the building from 51 to 45 and offer a sliding scale of rents from $975 to $212.

Metrakos said the changes are evidence that the Sahotas are showing "a willingness to invest in their properties." While he admitted "mistakes have been made" in the past, he insisted the Sahotas are learning to spend more resources in training building managers so there are fewer conflicts with tenants. He even suggested the flooding at Pandora might have actually been a good thing for the tenants.

"I'm not saying that they're better off, but they are," said Metrakos. "Regrettably, a tragic event like this had to happen for them to be provided with social housing."

An emotional drain

A year after they were jarringly forced to evacuate their homes, you would be hard pressed to hear any of the tenants say they feel "better off." At a meeting last month at DERA's office, more than 30 former Pandora tenants gathered to get an update on their RTB case.

The meeting quickly turned from an update to a venting session as tenants blurted out frustrations that ranged from having "lost everything," to the health problems and stress the evacuation was still causing. Others worried that if they did win their settlement they would get kicked off welfare or out of social housing.

Alan Williams said he's still scarred by the event. While he's not part of the claim currently in front of the RTB, he's one of a handful of tenants waiting for the dispute resolution officer to make a ruling before filing for compensation.

But Williams' grievance isn't about getting a windfall of money -- he figured he only lost about $7,000 worth of goods. This has become personal. Over the past 20 years, he said different members of his family have rented apartments from the Sahotas and have constantly had to fight to get back their security deposits. Losing his home and all his belongings was the last straw.

"The flood has brought back a lot of memories of all the stuff they've done to my family," he says as he chokes back his tears. "It's an emotional drain. I'm done. I can't take it anymore. This has to stop."

An RTB dispute resolution officer is expected to make a ruling on the Pandora complaint before the end of the year.

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