A tenant in a single-room occupancy hotel in Vancouver’s Gastown and an employee who works at the building say it’s filthy, poorly maintained and violence is common.
The Gastown Hotel at 112 Water St. was the scene of the city’s first homicide of 2021 when two people were stabbed, one fatally, early on Jan. 31.
Violence and fights are common at the hotel, said a 58-year-old tenant who asked The Tyee to use her middle name, Lynn, because she’s ashamed to live there and doesn’t want her family to know.
But the problems go beyond the constant violence, Lynn said. The hotel is dirty, shared bathrooms are filthy, and tenants get infections. There are often floods, sometimes with sewage-contaminated water, according to Lynn.
“We pay $750, everyone else upstairs pays $375 a month. But it doesn’t matter, it should be at least livable,” said Lynn, who has a two-bedroom unit with private bathroom.
“This is Canada. This is Vancouver. This is a rich city — our real estate is worth a ton, you know? There’s no way that people should be living like this.”
The building is not staffed with enough people to deal with problems that can quickly spiral out of control, Lynn said.
The night of the Jan. 31 homicide, just one employee was on duty. He attempted to provide first aid to the most badly injured stabbing victim while fending off the assailant who was still armed with a knife, according to Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Property Management, the company that operates the building. He “eventually [had] to defend himself, while waiting for the police and ambulance to arrive,” Abbott said.
A person who works at the Gastown Hotel shares many of Lynn’s concerns. The employee asked not to be named because they fear losing their job, but said they wanted to speak out because the building is not safe for either tenants or staff. The Tyee viewed the employee’s pay stub to confirm they are an employee of the company that runs the building and is referring to them with a gender-neutral pronoun to protect their identity.
“The SROs are very unsafe,” said the employee.
Atira Property Management is a housing operator that runs several SRO hotels owned by the provincial government in the Downtown Eastside. The company is a subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resource Society, a non-profit organization committed to ending violence against women.
Along with 12 other SRO buildings in Vancouver, the Gastown Hotel was renovated in 2014 with a mix of federal and provincial funds. The building, which has 95 SRO rooms, is owned by the province.
Atira CEO Abbott said in an email that her organization cannot choose which tenants are housed in the building. She said the problems are “systemic issues and complicated.”
“They are related to the size of the building, increased use of methamphetamines over time, an inability to restrict the number of guests in the building — in part because of Residential Tenancy Act rules and in part because of access doors that cannot be secured (e.g. fire egress).”
Abbott said the person accused of stabbing two people on Sunday was the roommate of a tenant, and the victims of the attack were a tenant and his guest. Kenneth Gates was charged with the murder of Jeremy Greene on Wednesday.
An assault and a broken window
Lynn has lived in the building for two-and-a-half years. She has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and has trouble walking, so she often uses a wheelchair.
In October, a man got onto the fire escape outside her apartment and tore her window frame out of the wall. The man came inside her suite and assaulted her, and Lynn ended up in St. Paul’s Hospital with a badly injured back and a blood clot in her arm. While she was in the hospital, Lynn said she also became ill with COVID-19.
Three months later, her window is still not repaired and is covered with plywood. Lynn said she’s afraid someone could easily kick through the plywood, which is fastened to the wall with screws and L-brackets.
In an emailed response to The Tyee, Bruk Melles, executive director of operations for Atira, said work orders are always placed immediately, but “it may take some time for the specific materials to come in at the right specifications” and the COVID-19 pandemic has created some delays in building material supply chains.
Melles added that a public-private partnership agreement at the Gastown Hotel means exterior building windows are the responsibility of a third party. The provincial government awarded an 18-year contract making a private partner responsible for the initial renovations and ongoing maintenance when it launched its SRO initiative in 2012.
The Tyee contacted Black & McDonald, the contractor responsible for maintenance at the hotel. A spokesperson for the company, Tareq Ali, acknowledged The Tyee has “raised some important concerns” about delayed repairs, but said “the terms of our contract with BC Housing restricts us from making comments on any work that we do for that organization.”
Filthy toilets, infections and fears
Lynn has her own bathroom and kitchen in a two-bedroom suite, but the rest of the units on the upper floors are small SRO rooms with shared bathrooms. She said a friend who lived in one of those units recently got an infection on her leg after her calf touched one of the toilets.
That friend doesn’t ever shower in the hotel because she fears she could get sick, Lynn said.
Melles told The Tyee that washrooms in the building are cleaned regularly, but “they are impossible to keep clean 100 per cent of the time. We… do not have the staffing resources to clean after every use.”
Chauncey Carr, director of operations with Atira, said infections are not widespread.
But the Gastown Hotel worker who spoke with The Tyee said tenants get infections often and the building is not cleaned properly. They said the bathrooms are rarely stocked with soap or paper towels. Conditions in the building raise the risk of infections, the employee said.
“I’ve taken pictures of the same stuff, sitting in the shower for weeks. Every week I’d take a picture of it and it’s still there, rotting away,” said the employee.
They said they often feel nauseous and have irritated throat and eyes while inside the building.
Lynn and the employee who spoke with The Tyee said there was recently a flood that sent water from the sixth floor of the building to the second floor, and there are problems with mould. The flood was caused by a pipe failure, the employee said.
“We’ve had six floods in the last [six weeks] in my suite and the last one was, like, toilet water,” Lynn said.
Melles said most of the floods in the building are caused by tenants putting things in the toilets. When floods happen, Melles said staff and managers work right away “to minimize damage and call in contractors immediately if sewage water is involved.”
Abbott initially told The Tyee there has been no issue with the pipes on the sixth floor, and the building’s pipes were replaced as part of the 2014 renovations.
But after The Tyee sent her photos showing the ceiling on the sixth floor ripped out, moisture on the walls and “leak” written on a wall with an arrow pointing to a pipe, Abbott said she investigated further and found out that a pipe had ruptured on Jan. 14.
Abbott said a third-party contractor is also responsible for that work, which Atira has no control over under the public-private partnership agreement.
The employee said many tenants’ doors don’t lock at all, and some tenants have had their belongings stolen repeatedly while waiting for locks to be fixed. When one man’s lock was fixed incorrectly, he locked himself in his own room by accident, the employee said.
When the building was renovated in 2014, expensive electronic locks that open with a fob were put on the doors. Abbott said many of the locks are broken by tenants who get frustrated when they forget their fobs, and Atira is lobbying to get simpler locks installed that will be cheaper and easier to fix. The organization doesn’t own the building and can’t make decisions about larger renovations.
“We limp them along as best we can, but need approval from the building owner to replace, because of cost,” Abbott said of the broken locks. “We were just approved to replace eight locks, which will cost in excess of $20,000.”
Working the graveyard shift alone
Lynn noted the overnight front desk was staffed by one person the night of the homicide, and that employee is responsible for monitoring a safe drug consumption room where people frequently overdose, as well as dealing with other issues that might come up, like buzzing people in or having to tell visitors to the building to leave if they’re causing problems.
Lynn said she’s afraid that staff working alone will be seriously hurt one day.
In the past, it was Atira’s practice to have two people on duty at all times and there is still funding in place for that staff complement, operations director Melles said.
“There has been a shortage of frontline staff to take on these positions, in particular over the last year given extra anxiety over COVID and working in congregate, supported housing settings,” Melles said.
The overnight shift is always the hardest to fill, Melles said, a challenge not unique to the Gastown Hotel. “However, it is a bigger building so feels the pressure.”
The hotel employee said it’s too much for one person to handle. A current job posting for building service workers on the site Glassdoor shows Atira pays $17.38 initially and $18.21 after 1,920 hours of work.
‘They need to get rid of the dealers’
Several Atira tenants have complained about guest restrictions that were imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Abbott said a high number of guests coming through the buildings “exacerbate tensions in the SROs” by being noisy and keeping people awake, using the bathrooms and making it hard to keep the buildings clean.
But the employee who spoke with The Tyee said they don’t think guests of tenants are a major problem.
Instead, they said, Atira needs to address a long-running issue at the hotels.
“I hate to say it, but I think they need to get rid of the dealers in the buildings,” the employee said. “We have, like, 12 dealers in our building, so we have heavy traffic.”
The employee said the drug dealing leads to incidents where people have been threatened or assaulted.
Abbott previously told the Vancouver Sun that drug dealers sometimes use tenants’ rooms, sometimes in exchange for money. “It is not pervasive,” she told the Sun after Tonya Hyer’s death last year, “but once set up it is extremely challenging to dismantle.”
Abbott told The Tyee there are drug dealers in all the SROs, not just the buildings Atira operates. She said it was an impossible problem to fix, because tenants who have substance use issues need access to drugs.
“Our tenants have a right to have guests, including drug dealers and debt collectors,” Abbott wrote in an email. “We don’t select our tenants. They are assigned through the co-ordinated access system. Most won’t talk to us [or police] with respect to dealers/violence. Charges are rarely laid, if ever.”
Violence at the Gastown Hotel has been getting worse, Carr told The Tyee in an email. Carr said personal grudges, not the drug trade, seem to be behind most of the violent incidents. She added that increased use of methamphetamines also appears to be a factor.
The Gastown Hotel staffer told The Tyee that women who live alone in SROs in the Downtown Eastside run the risk of having their rooms taken over by male drug dealers — that is what happened to Hyer, the employee said. But Abbott said Hyer’s room did not get taken over by dealers and called the allegation “gossip.”
“We know what happened to Tonya,” Abbott said. “We are unclear why the person who killed her hasn’t been arrested.”
The employee The Tyee spoke to said staff do not have enough training to be able to deal with tenants who have severe mental illness. A mental health team works with tenants with mental health issues, but sometimes problems aren’t caught quickly enough to prevent violence.
Abbott said many of Atira’s staff are “heroes” for working in difficult conditions that have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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