Displaced tenants of a building that was partially damaged in an Oct. 25 fire are now launching legal action for the right to return to their homes.
The group of seven tenants is asking the Residential Tenancy Branch for an Order of Possession to return to the 36-unit apartment building on Menzies Street.
“I want to go home, desperately,” said Neil Kingswell, who lived in the building for more than 20 years. “I go down sometimes and I just stand there and look up at my apartment, wanting to go home.”
One man died in the blaze and many residents were displaced, with some of the suites in the building deemed uninhabitable due to damage.
But other units were left untouched — yet those tenants are being blocked from returning to their suites by landlord Pacific Cove Properties, according to the Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS), the legal group representing the aggrieved tenants.
“The tenants themselves have been to those apartments and I personally have visited those apartments and seen that there is absolutely no damage in a number of the apartments, they are untouched,” said Leila Geggie Hurst, TAPS’ staff lawyer representing the tenants.
TAPS says this is happening despite a report from Victoria Fire Department “indicating there were no ongoing safety concerns due to fire in the undamaged suites.”
“We’re not disputing the fact that there will need to be some restoration work,” said Hurst. “There was a fire. Some apartments are certainly damaged. We are saying that restoration work can be done while people are still living there.”
After they were displaced by the fire, TAPS said some of the tenants were coerced into signing tenancy ending agreements with the landlord, after they were told the building wasn’t safe to live in.
“When we were presented with those papers, it was two days after the fire,” said displaced tenant Jason Rempel, adding he signed the papers under duress. “None of us had even accessed our units or been inside the building yet we were just told that was the process.”
Tenants were temporarily put up in hotels by the City of Victoria’s Emergency Social Services program, but their stays have either ended or are ending soon, TAPS said.
Barry Johnson has lived in the Menzies Street apartment building for five years and has been living in his car for two weeks, since the end of his temporary stay at a hotel.
“I can’t live like this,” he said. “I need to keep warm. I want home. I need my bed. I need my shower.”
Johnson has been back to his first-floor suite since the third-floor fire and says his unit wasn’t impacted.
“My suite was not affected by water, smoke, nothing. It’s actually exactly the same way as it was when I left,” he said. “It’s perfectly fine for me to sleep in there, it’s just waiting for me to get back but I can’t go back in there because they won’t allow me back in there.”
In a statement to CHEK News, Pacific Cove Properties says it sympathizes with residents but has to rely on the advice of their restoration contractor who has advised the building is not habitable after speaking to the fire department, engineers and a registered architect.
There are a number of factors that make the building unsafe for occupancy, according to Pacific Cove. This includes access and egress being compromised during reconstruction, the roof sustaining significant structural damage, the fire wall being destroyed in the blaze, no functioning fire alarm system, many suites without power, and visible mold in common areas.
While some suites may appear to be habitable, Pacific Cove said, many have significant water damage. The restoration work will take more than 10 months.
“We know this is a very challenging period for residents,” the statement reads. “We have offered each resident their damage deposit and prorated rent along with information on potential rental options in the region. Furthermore, we intend to offer the affected residents a right of first refusal and a continuation of their tenancies at current rents on the repaired suites when the building is safe to occupy.”
A spokesperson for Pacific Cove confirmed the continuation of tenancy at current rents applies to all tenants, including those who signed the tenancy ending agreements.
Many of the low-income tenants paid lower rent since they’ve lived in their suites for many years, according to TAPS. One tenant told CHEK News he was paying just under 800 per month for a one-bedroom unit in the building and can’t afford anything more expensive because of his circumstances.
TAPS said a Residential Tenancy Branch hearing will be held Dec. 2 to determine whether the displaced tenants will be allowed to return to their suites.