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Rights + Justice

Living in Fear of Fire in Vancouver’s Rental Housing

A building gutted by flames lacked sprinklers and was cited repeatedly for fire safety violations.

Jen St. Denis 10 Aug 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

Tenants living in a 45-year-old apartment building in Mount Pleasant say they lived in fear of a fire at their building for years.

On July 27, a fire some tenants say was started by a resident burning candles in his suite got out of control. The blaze gutted 414 E. 10th Ave., leaving 70 residents and their pets scrambling to find new housing in Vancouver’s unforgiving rental market. The fire department is still investigating the blaze, and said they were unable to provide comment when The Tyee reached out to them on Aug. 8.

The building’s three residential floors did not have a sprinkler system, although the underground parkade did. While the BC Building Code requires buildings over three storeys to have sprinkler systems, it only applies to buildings built after 2012.

Court records reviewed by The Tyee show the city had recently resorted to taking the building owner to court for a second time in three years for fire safety bylaw violations.

In 2021, the building’s owners, Fu Ren and Feng Yan, had been fined $500 after being found guilty of five fire safety bylaw violations, according to provincial court documents.

On May 23, 2023, Ren and Yan were charged again, this time with 20 counts, ranging from missing fire extinguishers to blocked exits to inoperable emergency lighting.

The city is alleging interior fire doors didn’t close properly and the parkade sprinkler system was not being effectively maintained. During a November 2022 inspection, city staff say inspectors found “a ripped out power outlet with exposed wires on the second floor” and a pipe blocking the parkade fire exit.

According to court documents filed by city staff, an unrepaired hole in the first floor hallway ceiling could have led to fire spreading more quickly throughout the building.

The Tyee left a voicemail message asking for comment on a number believed to be building owner Ren’s cellphone, but did not hear back by press time. In a previous interview with the Vancouver Sun, Ren said he denied the city’s allegations and would fight them in court. The allegations have yet to be tested or proven in court; with Ren and Yan’s next court appearance scheduled for Aug. 15.

The Tyee spoke to several of the building’s tenants on Aug. 3, when residents were allowed into some suites to salvage their belongings. The restoration company and security guards were present on site.

Tenants told The Tyee that false alarms were common at the building, leading many residents to initially ignore the July 27 alarm.

“We just kind of stuck around and started making food, but after about an hour of it going off people started yelling at us to get out," said Mitch Avery, who lived on the first floor in a one-bedroom unit with his roommate. “We just grabbed what we could.”

A man in a black tank top has his hands on a blue fence, looking at the remains of a scorched building.
Mitch Avery, a tenant of 414 E. 10th Ave. in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, was one of 70 people who lost their homes after a fire on July 27, 2023. On Aug. 3, Avery and other tenants returned to the building to see if they could salvage any belongings. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

Cynthia Saddleman and Rob Taylor lived at 414 E. 10th Avenue for 17 years. Cradling her dog, Tiny, Saddleman said every time the fire alarm went off, Taylor would rush around the building checking for fire. Saddleman said Taylor was vigilant because the couple has two dogs and was afraid that if there was a fire, they could be trapped on the third floor where their apartment was located.

Saddleman said the fire started in a unit just two doors down from her apartment, and she and Taylor escaped with their dogs through thick black smoke, holding their breath.

“My honey here, he came and said, ‘Grab what you can, we gotta get the hell out of here — our house is on fire.’”

All five current tenants and one former tenant The Tyee spoke to said the building was poorly maintained.

Harvey Tyndall lived in the building for 15 years, but moved out in 2020 because he feared for his safety. Tyndall described water coming into his suite during heavy rainfalls, doors that didn’t work properly and frequent false fire alarms. He said he reported the problems to the city many times, but despite visits from building inspectors, the situation never improved.

“My last straw was the rats moving into the building,” he said.

A man in a grey shit, black baseball cap, and glasses looks ahead in front of a brown fence.
Harvey Tyndall moved out of 414 E. 10th Ave. two years ago because of persistent problems with basic repairs not being done by his landlord. Tyndall had returned to the building on Aug. 2, 2023 to offer support to former neighbours after a fire damaged the building on July 27. Photo by Jen St. Denis.

Ron Falkevitch said when his landlord tried to fix a leaky pipe, he left a hole in his roommate’s bedroom wall and never came back to fix it. “We put a poster over it,” Falkevitch said.

Over the years, Saddleman and Taylor got so frustrated with the lack of repairs that Taylor started fixing things himself, including repairing the toilet and a leaking shower. He said he took the cost of the repairs out of his rent check.

City building inspectors were at the building on July 26, one day before the fire. They were there to respond to a complaint about the elevator not working, according to city communications staff. According to the city’s rental standards database, the building has 13 open issues, most related to fire safety violations. The address currently has the sixth highest number of issues on a list of all problematic rental buildings in the city.

“We have so many different people trying to get in our building at night for whatever reason,” said Falkevitch. “Sometimes those back doors were locked — you couldn’t go out the door, so if there was a fire the only place would be the front of the lobby.”

Matthew Trudeau, a spokesperson for Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, said he couldn’t comment on the November 2022 inspection or fire safety violations that are before the courts. But he said when fire safety violations lead to court claims because the landlord hasn’t tended to repairs, firefighters will continue to visit buildings to check the state of the property.

“Fire prevention inspectors will conduct inspections and continue communication with building owners after submitting violations for court processing to see if any changes have occurred at the building,” Trudeau said in a statement.

The tenants The Tyee spoke to were paying between $1,170 and $1,675 in monthly rent for one-bedroom units, depending on how long they’d lived at the building. All of the tenants The Tyee spoke to had pets, and anticipated it would be tough to find a new affordable rental that allows them. Several tenants had been splitting a one-bedroom apartment with a roommate, an attempt to bring costs down in a city with notoriously high housing costs.

While all the tenants have been housed in hotel rooms temporarily or are staying with friends, they’re worried about finding a new place: the average rent for a one-bedroom in Vancouver was $1,629 in 2022, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., although many listings are much higher.

“It took us forever to find this place when we moved in,” said Saddleman. “We had a dog before then and everybody said no, no dog, and slammed the door in front of me. So that’s what’s probably going to happen again.”

Land title records show that Ren and his wife, Yan, have been the owners of 414 E. 10th Ave. since 2002. The property is currently worth $13 million.

According to the documents, Ren and Yan also own a six-bedroom home in Vancouver’s Oakridge neighbourhood that is worth $3.8 million; and Ren is the sole director of a holding company that owns a $4.5 million residential property in Delta, B.C., which includes 32.6 acres of land.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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