Mario Fortin learned Friday that he will no longer have a place to live after the city ordered the evacuation of the dilapidated and drug-plagued Balmoral hotel in the Downtown Eastside for fear it could collapse.
The 58-year-old former drywaller has 10 days to find a new home.
Maybe, he said, a friend who manages a nearby single-room-occupancy hotel will open up a room for him.
“Otherwise, I don’t know,” he said as he stood Friday outside the hotel’s entrance near Main and Hastings. “I’m not going into a shelter. I just want a decent place to live.”
The city notified Fortin and other tenants Friday that the hotel is in such bad shape that it has to evacuate tenants. Engineering reports identified structural concerns and fire hazards, among other deficiencies including rotting wood, sagging floors, water damage and mould.
The city’s order says all tenants must evacuate by June 12, so repairs can be done. The city expects the owners, the Sahota family, to immediately begin fixing the hotel, otherwise the city will contract the work and charge the cost to the owners.
Deputy city manager Paul Mochrie estimated the repair bill to cost several million dollars. Once the hotel’s structure is stabilized, the city will better be able to assess all the work — and further costs — that needs to be done to re-open the building.
At a news conference at city hall, Mochrie acknowledged that for decades the hotel has been a problem for the city, police and firefighters. Asked repeatedly by reporters why the city didn’t take action sooner on a hotel that is also notorious for drug activity and violence, he said recent engineering reports triggered the evacuation order.
“This [hotel] has been a significant focus of enforcement for years and years,” he said, noting the hotel currently has more than 150 outstanding violations and that $1 million worth of structural work was ordered and completed last year. “I think we’ve reached a point here that’s obviously extreme. But there’s been an extensive amount of action on this building and with these owners for a long period of time.”
Members of the Sahota family were in the lobby of the hotel Friday when a security guard allowed the Courier inside. The Courier showed three men the news release from the city ordering the building’s evacuation. One man said “no comment” before the Courier was told to leave.
The city’s evacuation order was posted on the front door of the hotel, where some tenants were seen leaving with suitcases and full garbage bags.
Mochrie said the city is working with B.C. Housing, Vancouver Coastal Health and housing advocates to find accommodation for the tenants, although he noted the Residential Tenancy Act states it is the owners’ legal obligation to relocate residents.
“These are among the most vulnerable residents in our city,” he said. “This is going to be a difficult move for them.”
Fortin, who has lived at the Balmoral for more than two years, said $450 of his social assistance cheque pays for a room that is infested with mice and rats. He said his ceiling and parts of his wall collapsed under the weight of water. He hasn’t had running water for two months and he said the toilet in the bathroom doesn’t always work and is littered with used syringes.
“It’s horrible, horrible,” he said, adding that his complaints to the owners have been a futile exercise. “It’s like talking to a wall. It’s ridiculous.”
Tenant Lazlo Gaal, 45, has lived in the hotel for two years. He also pays $450 a month and moved in after he got out of jail. He described living conditions in his room as similar to Fortin, likening it to living in a refugee camp. He called it “a big dope house,” referring to the level of drug activity inside.
“They don’t give a shit what happens to us,” he said of the owners.
Kevin Brown, 52, said he and his wife pay $850 to rent a room in the hotel. He was homeless for 10 years before B.C. Housing found him the room. Brown said he didn’t know where he and his wife would end up and is worried he could be back on the street.
“If I had known this was going to happen six months ago, I would have looked for another place to live,” said Brown, noting he just got over liver cancer. When told the city and others are prepared to help him find a place, he said “that’s a fairytale.”
Housing advocate Wendy Pedersen was outside the hotel Friday and told reporters the city should have acted on complaints years ago. She said the city has been too lenient on landlords of low-income hotels and, in the end, it’s the tenants who suffer.
Pedersen said the city should have repaired the hotel’s deficiencies 17 years ago — and billed the owners — when the Balmoral was at the top of the list of Vancouver’s worst hotels. Shutting the building down is not the answer and she recommended the city buy the hotel.
“This building wouldn’t be in this condition if [the city] actually prosecuted landlords,” Pedersen said. “But they don’t. They babysit the landlords, they hold their hands too much and they try to negotiate.”
The Sahotas also own the Regent, the Regal, the Cobalt and the Astoria hotels. Last November, the city released a top-10 list of the city’s worst single-room-occupancy hotels. The Balmoral was at the top of the list, followed by the Regent with 166 violations. The Cobalt was third on the list, with 88 violations.
Kaye Krishna, the city’s general manager of development services, told the Courier in November the city was meeting monthly with the Sahotas, calling the discussions “detailed hand holding.”
“We pursued court action with [the Sahotas] over a number of years and the analogy my team used was it was like a whack-a-mole,” she said. “So it was essentially every time we tried to pursue one issue with them, they would fix that issue. But they would stop paying attention to others, and other issues would crop up elsewhere. So it was really problematic and the court cases just really deterred them from focusing on the issues at hand.”
Mochrie noted the city has also ordered a structural review of the Regent but early indications are that it is in better shape than the Balmoral, which is directly across the street.
“Our hope, of course, is that there isn’t further instances like this where we have to actually remove residents from buildings. At this point, we don’t have any information such that any other building is in the same poor condition as the Balmoral.”