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Tenants in BC Housing-Funded SRO Are Bullied Out of Rooms, Alleges Support Worker

Andrew Drury says some clients have been threatened with violence if they return to the London Hotel. BC Housing says it is investigating.

Jen St. Denis 19 Jan 2022TheTyee.ca

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

A support worker in the Downtown Eastside says he has concerns about the safety of tenants at a single-room occupancy hotel where a murder occurred in July.

Andrew Drury says four of his clients have told him they’ve been bullied out of their rooms at the London Hotel at 208 E. Georgia St. by people who are not tenants, but then take over the rooms.

Drury works with people who have been involved in the criminal justice system for an agency, helping them access housing and other services in the Downtown Eastside. He often visits clients in SROs and other supportive housing buildings in the neighbourhood. He spoke to The Tyee as an individual, based on his experiences with clients.

He said several of his clients who have been placed at the London have been threatened with violence by the people who have taken over their rooms if they return, and some have become homeless again.

The London Hotel is owned by Porte Development and operated by Atira Property Management Inc., a for-profit subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resource Society. The building houses people who are on BC Housing’s waitlist, and APMI receives BC Housing funding to help operate it.

Sgt. Steve Addison, a Vancouver Police Department media liaison officer, said room takeovers are common in the Downtown Eastside, but police are not aware of any incidents being reported at the London Hotel.

Single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs, are century-old hotels common in downtown Vancouver that have small rooms and shared bathrooms. They often house people who are living in poverty, have addictions or severe mental health issues.

The London is one of 18 SROs operated by APMI as supportive housing, with staffing and other programs to help tenants stay housed. There are around 156 SRO buildings in Vancouver, and around half are privately owned and operated while the rest are operated by non-profit housing providers or other charitable organizations.

Central City Foundation, the owner of two other SRO buildings that APMI was operating, has reported similar challenges.

In a report published this fall, the foundation said it would be changing its approach to providing housing and switched to another building operator after “an organized group of illegal tenants” took over the Cosmopolitan Hotel on West Hastings Street in 2019.

“Early in 2019, we learned from our property managers that the residential portion of the building was taken over by an organized group of illegal tenants who proceeded to cause extensive damage and destruction throughout the building,” the report says.

“While this is not an uncommon problem in the inner city, it was the first time CCF faced this incredibly difficult situation. With no supports from government and little help from the police, CCF took steps to secure the building, bringing in 24-hour security in addition to the onsite property management staff and began a long and costly process to remove the illegal tenants and begin refurbishing and restoring the building.”

The Cosmopolitan and the Abbott Mansion are now operated by Vancouver Native Housing Society, and in its report, the Central City Foundation says the Cosmopolitan Hotel is now providing transitional housing for women, with extensive supports. The foundation declined an interview request from The Tyee.

Based on conversations he’s had with his clients, Drury said that tenants who’ve been bullied out of the London have continued to pay rent for their rooms. The money has been deducted from their income or disability assistance cheques and transferred to Atira Property Management Inc., a common arrangement for people on government assistance.

“Even though they’re still paying for the room, they’re told they’ll get beaten up or hurt really bad if they tell anyone, or if they go back,” said Drury.

Violence at the London isn’t just threatened: on July 20, a tenant named Michael Bailey, who was one of Drury’s clients, was shot and killed in the hotel. Ba Huy Tran has been charged with manslaughter and Joseph Mason has been charged with second-degree murder in connection with the shooting, according to Vancouver police.

Drury said he was shocked to hear his client had been killed. “It’s more frightening than sad at first, and then the sadness kicks in after, but it’s scary.”

Based on what his clients have told him, Drury said the motivation for taking over an SRO room is a free place to stay. “Two of my clients said people started dealing out of their rooms,” he added.

In response to questions from The Tyee, BC Housing says it’s concerned to hear reports of non-residents occupying rooms at the London and has started working with APMI to investigate and address the issue.

“If the allegations are confirmed, BC Housing will assist Atira in resolving the situation with any non-residents,” BC Housing staff wrote to The Tyee. “Atira is also working to tighten security in the building. Additional steps could include changing locks on doors and restricting access through windows.”

“Atira serves a population with high rates of trauma, oppression and health challenges,” the statement said. “BC Housing staff are in regular contact with Atira, as we are with all of our housing providers, and work with them on emerging issues and trauma-informed practice improvements.”

BC Housing says it has not received any recent notifications involving room takeovers, and it relies on non-profit partners who operate the housing it funds “to manage their own operations and to notify us of any incidents that they deem appropriate to disclose or which are critical in nature.”

The Crown corporation said room takeovers can happen in both public and private housing, particularly for marginalized people, “which is why BC Housing prioritizes services and supports for residents as well as building design to help prevent such predatory action.” Police call data for SROs operated as supportive housing shows that in 2020 police responded to calls for service at the London Hotel 207 times, or 2.8 times per room. That’s a relatively low number compared to other SROs operated by non-profits: the building that saw the most police calls in 2020 was Carl Rooms, at 464 calls or 12.2 calls per room.

Bailey’s death was the fourth homicide at APMI-run SROs since January 2020. Tonya Heyer, a tenant of the Gastown Hotel, was beaten to death on Jan. 19, 2020; Jeremy Greene was fatally stabbed at the Gastown on Jan. 31, 2021; and Shania Paulson was shot at the Arco Hotel on March 17, 2021.

APMI is not the only supportive housing operator to deal with deadly violence in its buildings.

On Dec. 15, 2020, Alex Gortmayer was killed at the Biltmore Hotel at 395 Kingway. Police are also investigating the homicide of Joshua Hough, whose body was discovered in his room at the Jubilee Rooms at 235 Main St. on Nov. 11. Both buildings are operated by RainCity Housing and Support Society.

BC Housing says that when violence occurs in any of its housing sites, the housing operator is required to submit a critical incident report. After reviewing the violence that happened at the Arco and the London, BC Housing says it found that “building staffing, training and overall building safety and security were consistent with our standards.”

After reviewing the two homicides at the Gastown Hotel, BC Housing says it and Atira “jointly recommended an increase in security measures and a review of the tenant mix.”

BC Housing gave Atira $80,000 to install more security cameras and upgrade door locks, and BC Housing says a review of who is housed in the Gastown is ongoing “to rebalance levels of support required as new tenants move into the building.”

BC Housing says the review of the incident at the Jubilee Rooms hasn’t been completed yet. After a review of the death of Alex Gortmayer at the Biltmore, BC Housing and RainCity put in place more security measures, including renovating the building lobby to add a second access door that can only be opened by staff. BC Housing says plans are also underway to add a locking system in the elevators, so residents can only access the floor their unit is on.

Meanwhile, tenants at the London Hotel are still waiting to hear whether they’ll be moved out of the building for promised renovations. Because of persistent plumbing problems, some of the toilets, sinks and showers in the buildings have not worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Janice Abbott, the CEO of Atira Property Management and Atira Women’s Resource Society, previously told The Tyee that the plan was to relocate all the tenants by September so that major repair work could get done.

“I haven’t heard any more about moving out or anybody moving anywhere,” says Eugene Lincoln, a tenant at the London Hotel. He and his neighbours received a letter about the plan to renovate the building last April, and he was hopeful he would be able to move into a better building.

Lincoln said he has never been bullied out of his room while living in the building.

He and his girlfriend did move to a larger room, but otherwise things have gotten worse at the building, Lincoln said. Lincoln said only one shower and four toilets are now working in the building, which currently houses 53 tenants.

On Dec. 15, the City of Vancouver’s Rental Standards Database showed the London was at the top of the list of buildings with maintenance, health and safety issues, with 87 issues identified. By Jan. 11, that number had dropped to 49 and the London was in fourth place on the list, indicating progress is being made on fixing the issues. However, Lincoln said conditions inside the building remain the same.

BC Housing said the scope of the repair work is still being determined, and more details will be shared with tenants once the agency has more information about those renovations. BC Housing now says the work is being designed in a way that will allow tenants to keep living at the building.

Drury said he was glad to hear BC Housing will be investigating his concerns about tenants being bullied out of their rooms, but he said it’s a problem that the London Hotel is frequently offered to people who are homeless as a first housing option.

“It’s usually the first place that they get housing from the streets, and those are very vulnerable people,” Drury said.

“And they’re not used to being in a building, let alone a building where they can be bullied out of their rooms.”

Drury said tenants have been scared to report the intimidation, and he feels he can’t report specific incidents because it could put his clients in danger. But he hopes that by speaking out without naming specific people or incidents, more attention will be drawn to the problem.

Fears of violence at the London are familiar to Erica Grant, whose 24-year-old son, Duncan Grant, lived at the hotel. Duncan died there in April 2020, and Grant spent several days trying to contact him before staff at the building discovered his body.

Grant has been told his death was likely caused by a drug overdose but, 18 months later, she’s still waiting for the BC Coroners Service to complete its investigation into the death.

The last night she saw Duncan, she remembers that he was scared to go home.

“He really didn’t want to go home that night — [he was scared] of the dealers in the building,” Grant said. “He cried that night when he was with me.”

Atira Property Management Inc. did not respond to interview requests for this story. The Tyee has written several stories about living and working conditions in APMI-operated SROs.

In previous interviews, CEO Abbott has said that many of the problems at the buildings stem from systemic issues rooted in poverty, addiction, trauma and the prohibition of drugs.

Compared to other housing operators, APMI operates a high number of SRO hotels, a particularly challenging type of housing to operate.

Porte Development, the owner of the London Hotel, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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