VANCOUVER – The city of Vancouver opened a new front Wednesday in its war against substandard rental housing, releasing a searchable database of 2,500 buildings — from single-room occupancy hotels to private apartments.
That database, which allows anyone to browse the list in its entirety, search by address or examine via a Google map, is part of city council’s pledge to make it easier for renters to know whether the buildings they are living in or want to rent in have been cited by the city as having fire, life safety, maintenance, electrical, plumbing or other issues.
At the same time, the city said it may seek court injunctions against the owners of five of the six worst-kept private buildings in the city, two of which are owned by companies directed by Peter Plett, who also owns a third hotel high on the list. The sixth building is already under a court injunction to clean up its deficiencies.
It is the provincial government, not a private owner, that is at the very pinnacle of the city’s list of 300-plus buildings with outstanding maintenance, fire safety, plumbing, electrical or other issues. The province’s rental housing corporation, which operate a number of single-room occupancy hotels, shows up a dozen times as the owner of buildings that haven’t met the city’s basic standards of maintenance and safety. At the top is the Marble Arch Hotel at 518 Richards Street, a 148-unit hotel with 141 violations currently on file. The province also has the No. 4 building on the list, the Gastown Hotel at 110 Water Street, with 122 outstanding violations.
Almost all of the province’s single-room occupancy hotels on the list are already the subject of a $144-million renovation program to fix 13 government-owned hotels. Those buildings, the city says, aren’t really the focus of its newest efforts to clean up a persistent problem in substandard rental housing.
The database covers more than 70,000 units, including SROs, dedicated rental housing and social and supportive housing that have run into trouble with city inspectors. It doesn’t include private rentals in condominium buildings, suites in private homes or buildings with less than five units that account for another 60,000 units.
From electrical problems to bad piping to health and cleanliness standards to fire safety and even signage and tree protection, the database will allow anyone to scope out problem buildings that are on the city’s radar. The concept is modelled after a similar project in New York City. The Vancouver Sun has also taken the city’s database and plotted it a little differently online, showing the worst and the least-troubled buildings of those on the city’s list.
The city has narrowed its enforcement focus to those private buildings — almost entirely offering rooms in the Downtown Eastside — that currently have 50 or more violations against them.
And it hopes that renters and landlords alike will use the new searchable list as a tool for improving the city’s stock of housing.
“One of our objectives was to have a database that would actually motivate property owners to maintain their properties and keep them in good order,” said Will Johnston, the city’s director of licences and inspections. “The other one was to be able to better provide information to renters in those buildings so they could make better informed choices about where they live.”
The privately owned buildings on the Top 10 list (excluding the Marble Arch and Gastown Hotels) account for more than 700 of the 3,140 outstanding violations the city has against 300 buildings. Just under half of those violations are attached to three hotels owned by companies directed by Peter Plett, including the Patrick Anthony Hotel at 561 E. Hastings and the Seaview Residence at 362 Alexander.
Johnston said the city is considering seeking injunctions against those buildings to force Plett to clean them up. Johnston said he didn’t know about Plett’s connection to a third hotel on the Top 10 list, the Colonial Hotel at 122 Water St. It occupies ninth spot.
Also high on the city’s list of problem buildings is one on W. 11th Ave, owned by the Sahota and Singh families, notorious landlords who have long been identified by the city as problem owners. They have at least six hotels or buildings on the city’s current troubled buildings list, including the Regent Hotel, the Regal Hotel at 1046 Granville, Cobalt Hotel, Cecil Park Mews and two low-rise non-SRO buildings. Collectively, they have 150 outstanding violations.
The flagship hotel for which the Sahota and Singh families are most known, the Balmoral Hotel at 159 E. Hastings, isn’t on the list. It has long been considered a problem property, but in the last year the owners worked hard to resolve more than 1,130 individual violations. That number alone accounts for more than 15 per cent of the 7,210 violations that landlords cleaned up in the 12 months since city council decided to publish the searchable database.
Other hotels in the city’s sights are the Empress Hotel and Pub and the Lion Hotel.
Neither Plett nor the Sahota and Singh families were available for comment.
In addition to the 300-plus buildings on the list that currently have violations against them, another 450 buildings that have resolved their issues will remain searchable for another year.
Johnston said the city also had as many as 20 buildings of its own on the resolved deficiency list, including ones operated by non-profit societies. In the last 12 months, the city spent more than $500,000 to clean up those buildings, and to make sure it wasn’t on the list of those with violations.
Johnston said the city warned owners that appeared on a preliminary list last August that they would be disclosed, and promised to work with them to resolve issues. More than 7,000 violations were resolved in that time, he said, showing that the threat of publication was a strong motivation for landlords to clean up their acts.
Johnston and Coun. Tim Stevenson, who proposed the idea in 2011, said the city could expand the database to include condominiums and licensed secondary suites at some point because inspectors already collect that information.
“It is a whole new ball game for renters,” Stevenson said Wednesday. “Never before have they been able to get this kind of information so easily, because if you wanted to find out if there were violations in your building you just about had to be an investigative reporter.
“I think we should certainly look at the idea of including condos and secondary suites. But we wanted to start with something more manageable.”
The city says that 243 buildings on the list have anywhere between one and nine unresolved issues. Most of those are outside the Downtown Eastside. Fifty buildings have between 10 and 49 problems. Four buildings are on the list for having up to 99 problems, and seven are at the top of the list with 100 or more.
Source: The Vancouver Sun