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Rats, Cockroaches and Dirt: SRO Tenants Say Buildings Make Them Sick

Residents battle vermin and pigeon mites, and say they avoid the water at Vancouver’s Colonial and London hotels.

Jen St. Denis 3 Jun

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

David Wesley hasn’t slept with the light off since he first moved into the Colonial Hotel three years ago. Night is when the rats come out of the walls, through the holes they’ve gnawed under the sink.

Two months ago, Wesley helped his neighbour, Tracy Armstrong, get medical care for symptoms he believes were caused by the rat infestation.

“She would sleep, and they would bite her, and she would scream,” Wesley said of his neighbour, who died in early May of a suspected overdose. “She got an infection in her face — her eyes were swollen shut.”

Residents of two single-room occupancy hotels in Vancouver’s downtown say their buildings are making them sick.

And an advocate who works with SRO tenants says skin infections and other health problems are common in many of the buildings, and Vancouver Coastal Health needs to be more active in identifying problems that are making residents sick.

Andrew Drury advocates for people on bail and probation, a role that involves helping his clients navigate services in the Downtown Eastside, including housing. He said health-care providers don’t take the problems of people living in poor housing seriously enough, or dismiss their illnesses as drug-related, and that Vancouver Coastal Health should be more active in checking the buildings for health risks.

Drury said he works with people who constantly get cellulitis, a bacterial infection that commonly affects people’s legs but can quickly become life-threatening.

Health-care practitioners “just blame it on injecting [drugs], and I’ve had so many people who don’t inject, they just smoke, and they still get constant cellulitis,” he said.

Vancouver Coastal Health declined to answer questions about the role of public health in the SROs, referring all questions to the City of Vancouver.

People who live in the Colonial at 122 Water St. and at the London Hotel at 208 E. Georgia St. complain that drinking the water or showering in the buildings makes them sick, despite repeated tests that have shown the water is not contaminated.

Persistent plumbing problems in the London mean that many bathrooms, sinks and showers haven’t worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Colonial, residents say infestations of cockroaches, fleas and rats are making life hell.

Both buildings are privately owned, and they are operated by Atira Property Management Inc., a subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resources Society.

Atira CEO Janice Abbott said the company takes a number of measures to control rats and other pests and keep the buildings clean, but that’s challenging in old hotels with a large number of residents and visitors.

She said the Colonial has 20-year-old linoleum and 100 tenants, plus their guests. “No matter how often it is cleaned, it will never look clean.”

The buildings receive a BC Housing subsidy that ensures tenants pay the welfare shelter rate for rent ($375 a month), and both buildings have staffing around the clock. Tenants are selected for the buildings through BC Housing’s central application system that matches people who apply for housing with available units.

The plumbing problems at the London have gotten so bad that the building will close by September so the owner, Porte development, can repair the pipes.

In consultation with BC Housing, Atira Property Management Inc. is now aiming to keep the Colonial at just 70 per cent capacity because the building’s aging plumbing and electrical wiring is unable to service a full building, according to Abbott. When Atira first started operating the building in 2013, the owner, Peter Plett, was renting out only 30 to 40 of its 140 rooms, Abbott said.

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Boarded up rooms in the Colonial Hotel. The building cannot be fully occupied because of problems with the plumbing and wiring. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

Plett told The Tyee he was unaware of the rat infestation and would speak to Atira about the problem. He said he was also unaware that BC Housing and Atira keep the building at 70 per cent capacity because of problems with the plumbing and wiring.

Plett said he had renovated the building shortly after buying it in 1991. He said he leased the building to Atira around 2014, and said the company is doing a good job housing people who are difficult to house.

SRO hotels, which have tiny rooms with shared bathrooms and no kitchens, are the housing of last resort for people in Vancouver who haven’t been able to find housing anywhere else because of poverty, substance use or severe mental health issues. Most buildings are over 100 years old, and many are in disrepair.

Atira manages 20 SRO hotels in the Downtown Eastside and other downtown neighbourhoods. Some are privately owned, while 11 of the buildings are owned by the provincial government.

David Porte, the CEO of Porte development, said his company has owned the London for the past 12 years and wanted to buy the property because of the opportunity to lease the retail space on the ground floor in Chinatown, where many trendy new restaurants have opened in the past few years. The retail space at the London is currently rented to the London Pub.

Porte said his company did some repairs when it first bought the building, but it’s now apparent that the plumbing needs to be replaced throughout. The company will also do a structural review of the building.

Atira Property Management will work with BC Housing to relocate the current tenants, Porte said. Porte said he doesn’t know at this point whether rents at the building will stay at the shelter rate of $375 a month when it reopens, but it will remain an SRO with shared bathrooms and no kitchens in rooms.

“The building was in poor condition and has gotten into worse condition,” Porte said. “There are leaks throughout the entire building.”

Eugene Lincoln lives with his girlfriend, Andrea Smith, in a tiny room in the London Hotel. Many of the washroom sinks don’t work, and one shower that Smith showed The Tyee appeared to be smeared with feces. Lincoln said he gets sick after drinking the water from the sink in his room. Smith said there were just two working showers in the building.

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Eugene Lincoln in the tiny room he shares with his girlfriend and two dogs at the London Hotel. Many of the bathrooms and sinks in the building don’t work. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

Lincoln said he was glad the building will finally be closing, and he hopes he and Smith will be able to get a real apartment, not a room in an SRO.

At the Colonial, Jessica Klinger said the rat infestation got so bad in her fourth-floor room that she woke up one night to find a rat biting her hand and a “sea” of rats in her room.

“That’s the scar from it there,” she said, showing a small pink scar on her hand. “When I woke up it was like a whole sea moved — and back into the wall.”

Sarah West lives with her boyfriend in a room on the third floor. She said she discovered rats were coming out of a hole under their radiator, and she can still hear the rats moving through the walls and the ceiling at night. West said cockroaches sometimes drop down from the ceiling on her while she sleeps.

Colonial resident Wesley showed The Tyee his room on the sixth floor, where linoleum had peeled away long ago. He said he lives not just with rats, but with fleas or mites he believes come from the pigeons that roost on the windowsill outside his room.

To get a good night’s sleep, Wesley said he sometimes sleeps outside or at a warming centre in the winter. Warming centres are temporary spaces the city opens during cold snaps for homeless people to come inside and get warm. At times, the constant insect bites cause skin infections and Wesley has to go to the hospital to seek treatment.

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Left: David Wesley showed where the rats have gnawed huge holes under his sink; he patched the holes himself with metal netting. Right: The floor in Wesley’s room was badly damaged. Photos by Jen St. Denis.

“The first day I moved in here, I wanted to move out, but I couldn’t — I got stuck here,” Wesley said.

Wesley said he had been asking for his floor to be fixed, his window to be properly sealed and the holes under his sink to be properly patched for three years. After The Tyee asked Abbott about Wesley’s living situation and sent photos of his room on May 14, he was moved to another room that is in slightly better condition, with intact linoleum, on May 16.

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After The Tyee asked the management company that manages the Colonial about the state of David Wesley’s room, he was moved to this room on the fifth floor. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

Based on his experience visiting supportive housing buildings throughout the Downtown Eastside, including SROs, Drury said the Atira-operated SROs are particularly dirty and his clients who live in those buildings often have skin infections. He said it shouldn’t take a reporter asking questions to prompt change for a tenant who is complaining of serious problems with their room.

“People can’t advocate for themselves, and there is no one out there who can advocate for people that are not already connected to a team,” Drury said. (The Tyee was unable to verify whether our questions actually prompted management to move Wesley to a new room.)

Abbott said every building is different and has different pressures depending on its size, the “relative well-being of tenant population” and factors like the number of guests using the building and the materials used in common areas.

“We have a number of very active buildings where we have up to 300 guests a day, for example, and yes, those buildings are very hard to keep clean,” Abbott said.

In January, The Tyee reported on concerns that the Gastown Hotel, an SRO that is owned by the province and operated by Atira Property Management Inc., was not being cleaned properly. A tenant and an employee said the conditions were leading to residents getting infections, but Atira staff said infections are not widespread at the Gastown.

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The Gastown and Colonial hotels on Water Street are both operated by Atira Property Management Inc. Photo by Jesse Winter.

The Colonial has had a rat problem for years, and Abbott said it “ebbs and flows depending on what’s happening in the neighbourhood and in the individual rooms.” She said tenants throw garbage, urine and feces into the breezeways on either side of the building, which attracts rats, and Atira has asked for more funding from BC Housing to clean the breezeways more frequently. Rats are also attracted by the food tenants leave in rooms, Abbott said.

The same contractor that cleans the breezeway “actively uses sticky and snap traps throughout the building in an effort to control the rat population,” Abbott said.

Abbott said Atira has a contract with a pest control company and does monthly inspections of all the rooms, looking for any signs of bedbugs, cockroaches, mice, rats, fleas and flies, and starts pest control immediately if any pests are found. With the exception of one room, all the tenants have been allowing their rooms to be treated over the past three months, Abbott said.

She said building staff also struggle to deal with pigeons, which some tenants feed, and Atira is exploring installing netting in the breezeway.

Over the past three decades, Vancouver has struggled to make sure the city’s SRO buildings are safe to occupy, and advocates have often criticized the city’s reluctance to enforce its own Standards of Maintenance bylaw, which allows the city to do needed repairs and bill building owners.

In 2017 and 2018, the city closed down its two worst SROs, the Regent and the Balmoral, after years of complaints. That was a blow to advocates and to tenants who had been arguing for years that the buildings should be repaired, not shut down.

The city now has an interdepartmental work team for SRO inspections that includes staff from its building inspections, legal services, fire, police and housing departments.

City communications staff said the group meets monthly to discuss actions for problem buildings. “The City conducts annual inspections of SROs and is in regular contact with the property managers of SROs,” Neal Wells, a communications manager with the city, wrote in an email.

“Through these interactions, the City conducts frequent building inspections proactively as well as based on outstanding and current 311 complaints received. The City contacts the owners and property managers in advance so that they can join the inspection, if possible and to provide tenants with adequate notice to obtain access to their suites. However, the City also conducts regular walk-thru inspections in buildings without notification, especially for the more non-compliant buildings.”

In December, the Colonial topped the list of buildings in Vancouver with maintenance or health and safety issues, with 57 issues identified, while the London had 36 building issues. Building inspection staff at the city say all life-safety violations identified in 2020 have now been addressed at both buildings. Several bathrooms at the Colonial have been renovated and reopened, and city staff are overseeing the boarding up of vacated rooms on the first floor.

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Inside the elevator at the Colonial Hotel. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

Colonial tenants say the rat problem has improved a bit recently but described horrific conditions during the worst of the infestation.

Klinger finally moved out of her rat-infested room to another one down the hall, but she said it took eight months of complaining. Finally, she showed one Atira manager photos of what was going on in the wall behind her sink.

“It was literally rats upon rats upon rats stacked up on top of each other, sleeping behind the sink,” Klinger said. Klinger said she had breathing problems and her eyes often felt swollen and irritated. By the time she was finished moving her belongings out of her room, she had to wear a respirator mask to enter the room.

Klinger said when she first moved into the Colonial two years ago, she lived in a room in the basement with her boyfriend that had a small window opening onto the breezeway.

“These teeny, tiny little rooms all in a row,” Klinger said. “It was so hot and humid down there because the boilers are there. There’s a breezeway above us and people would throw their shit and piss and garbage into this breezeway. It’s fucking disgusting.”

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Jessica Klinger said a rat problem in her room led to breathing problems and swollen, irritated eyes. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

Abbott said that when Atira started operating the building in 2013, “it became clear the [basement] rooms were not habitable,” and they were closed in 2014.

But then, in 2017 or 2018, the rooms were renovated and reopened.

“They were needed for something (winter shelters closing, maybe) and I think about half were occupied again,” Abbott wrote in an email. “However, the issues remained (garbage, urine, feces thrown in the breezeway, small fires); we also experienced increased toilet backups and had ongoing issues with security because people could and did easily break into other rooms via the breezeway windows. In maybe December 2019 we shut them down again as, despite our best efforts, we could not resolve the issues with the rooms.”

All of the tenants The Tyee spoke to for this story also said they get sick after drinking the water at their buildings.

Klinger said she tries to avoid showering at the Colonial or the Gastown Hotel, but when she does, she gets gastrointestinal symptoms.

Christine Connolly, a former tenant of the London, described getting “egg burps” whenever she drank the water at that building. Klinger also described the same symptoms.

“As soon as you start getting the egg burps, I’ve finally figured it out — you have to stop moving, go lay down, take a bunch of Pepto-Bismol,” Klinger said.

Abbott said tenants at the SRO buildings have often complained about getting sick from drinking the water, but repeated tests of the water have not shown any problems.

She said the last test conducted by the city happened six months ago; the water was tested on all floors of the two buildings, and “there is no evidence based on testing results to date that the water is contaminated.”

Lincoln said an independent tenant advocate had the water tested at the London, and nothing showed up in those tests either. But despite the test results, tenants say they go out of their way to avoid drinking the water.

“We buy bottled water, or we go to a sandwich and soup lineup every Sunday and Tuesday at the Main Street courthouse — they give out bottled water,” West said, adding she got very sick in March when an outbreak of shigellosis — a bacterial infection causing diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps — swept through the Downtown Eastside.

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Sarah West in her room at the Colonial Hotel. Like many tenants at the Colonial and London, West buys bottled water instead of drinking the tap water in the building. Photo by Jesse Winter.

Lincoln, who lives at the London, said he spends around $50 on water every week for him, Smith and their two dogs. Sometimes his cash runs out, and then he has to resort to shoplifting bottled water.

Lincoln said that when he lived on reserve at Mount Currie northeast of Whistler, there was a boil water advisory in place, a persistent problem for many Indigenous communities.

“When I moved to the city — no, I didn’t expect to have to buy my water,” he said.

Wesley said he never showers at the Colonial, but goes to a drop-in space, the Evelyne Saller Centre, instead. He compared the conditions at the Colonial to the Balmoral and the Regent.

“It’s very discouraging,” Wesley said of living in the Colonial. “It’s almost like a jail sentence.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Housing

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