A group of now mostly homeless James Bay residents are pursuing legal action after they say their landlord coerced them out of their homes following an apartment building fire Oct. 25.
Represented by Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS), the group of seven says 48 hours after a fire gutted one of the units at 118 Menzies St. their landlord, Pacific Cove Properties, approached them individually and told them the building was no longer habitable. They say they were told to receive their damage deposits back they had to sign a mutual agreement to end their tenancy.
The problem, TAPS lawyer Leila Geggie Hurst says, is that they aren’t at all sure the building is in fact uninhabitable. Hurst says a report they have seen by a City of Victoria building inspector and the Victoria Fire Department states that all of the units of the tenants she is representing are undamaged.
The city’s head of engagement, Bill Eisenhauer, confirmed fire inspectors had determined some units were damaged and others were not, but says it isn’t their responsibility to decide if a building is habitable.
For Pacific Cove’s part, it said in a statement it is relying on the advice of a private restoration contractor. It said that contractor had communicated with an engineer, architect and the fire department and found the building unsafe to live in due to a damaged roof and fire wall, the lack of a functioning fire alarm and power in many units, and mold in the common areas.
Hurst says they have reason to believe Pacific Cove’s decision could be financially motivated, though. Of the group of seven, all of them say they were paying around $800/month for one-bedroom apartments in James Bay. As of Nov. 24, Rentals.ca pegs a Victoria one-bedroom at $1,863.
All of the former tenants say that price tag is impossibly high.
Neil Kingswell, who lived at 118 Menzies St. for more than 20 years and had the lowest rent, says his only income is a monthly government pension payment. He’s been getting put up in a hotel since the fire, but says in a few days he’ll have nowhere to go.
“I want to go home, desperately. I go down sometimes and I just stand there and look up at my apartment,” he says. “I felt very safe in James Bay due to my lifestyle, my sexuality, and I don’t want to go somewhere where I’m going to be afraid to walk down the street.”
Kingswell, like several others, signed the tenancy ending agreement before even getting to step foot back in his apartment. When he did, he was shocked to see it appeared completely untouched.
All the former tenants are now only able to return to their apartments and collect belongings during scheduled hours, Hurst says. They’re not allowed there overnight.
Kingswell isn’t the only person in a precarious situation. Jason Rempel, a tenant of six years, only has accommodation until Nov. 30 and Barry Johnson, a tenant of five years, is living in his car
“A bed and a shower, that’s all I want. I need to keep warm,” Johnson says. Buying every meal and purchasing enough gas to keep his car warm is adding up, he says.
The former tenants say they were tricked by their landlord in the midst of a traumatic event. They are applying to the Residential Tenancy Branch for the right to return to their homes, and hope for a hearing by early December.
Pacific Cove says it anticipates restoration work will take more than 10 months to complete. Those who didn’t end their tenancies will then have the option to return.
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