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Vancouver non-profit to renovate two hazardous SROs

Two dilapidated and unsafe single-room-occupancy buildings in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside will finally get urgently needed repairs, but they'll be done by a local non-profit with a growing portfolio of renovated SROs -- not by now-infamous "slumlord" George Wolsey, who owns the buildings.

The Community Builders Group will begin tackling a litany of health and safety violations found at the Wonder Rooms and Palace Hotels -- 165 of them, according to city documents -- including unsafe stairwells, missing or broken smoke alarms, damaged walls, floors and ceilings, and evidence of bedbug, cockroach and rat infestations.

For years, city inspectors have been pressuring Wolsey to repair the dangerous conditions in his buildings, but it took the heartfelt pleas of current and former residents of those buildings, describing the mice, cockroaches and bedbugs to a disgusted city council in July, before a court-ordered injunction would ultimately lead to the Community Builders Group taking control.

At the time, Ivan Drury, a member of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council, told council that Wolsey could not be relied on for the necessary repairs. He spoke today about the important victory.

"What we went to city council asking for was an immediate remedy for this problem, that George Wolsey has been doing renovations in his buildings room by room...releasing the dust and cockroach casings and bedbug casings into the rooms and into the air and making people more sick through his renovations," Drury said.

"We told the city... that they had to have a licensed and serious, competent construction company take over the renovations and that they had to have a company like the Community Builders take over the management of the two buildings."

Drury said the group will take over control of the two buildings on Sept. 1. "Welfare cheques have already been diverted to that management company."

"Because of the pressure brought against [George Wolsey] by the community, by the city and by the province's processes, he has been pushed back, enough that he is relinquishing control over his buildings, and he's giving it over to a non-profit organization that we hope will work with the tenants."

The Community Builders Group also renovated and now controls the Jubilee, Dodson, Powell and Vogue SROs in Vancouver. Phone calls to the group's office were not returned by deadline, but the non-profit's website reads: "the single room occupancy housing centers are self-organizing communities that promote best practices. The operation does not rely on the public purse for funding. The infrastructure of the rooming houses is supported by a three-legged-stool comprised of benevolent investors, agenda-free altruists and innovative social-services providers."

Current and former residents of the Wonder Rooms and Palace Hotels also take a class-action lawsuit against Wolsey to the Residential Tenancy Branch today, claiming compensation for living in the buildings' deplorable conditions, for unlawful evictions and, in some cases, said Pivot Legal lawyer Doug King, having their methadone prescriptions controlled and altered by Wolsey.

"We need to make an example of George Wolsey," said King, who represents the 12 residents seeking compensation.

"We need to show other landlords, other methadone pharmacists, that this has to be taken seriously. Tenants' rights, health rights, need to be honoured. What we hope is that through the Residential Tenancy Branch's actions, these tenants will be compensated for what they've had to go through," he said.

King said they'll be seeking as much as $20,000 for each resident who was unfairly evicted by Wolsey and ultimately forced to live on the street.

Wolsey couldn't be reached for comment by deadline.

Pivot Legal Society announced the suit at a press conference last month and the hearings begin today. Claimants will make their cases by phone, rather than in person.

For Nicole Williams, who used to live in Wolsey's Palace Hotel, that means she won't have to see Wolsey's face ever again. "I don't want to see him. He scares the shit out of me," she told The Tyee.

Tyler Harbottle is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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