Stepping up the fight against slumlords

Can Vancouver’s slumlords be forced to clean up their properties? A promise to step up enforcement of standards of maintenance bylaws was a key plank in Vision Vancouver’s election platform, a reflection of the widespread outrage at appalling conditions in some Downtown Eastside hotels.

In response to a motion moved by Councillor Tim Stevenson and me in December, city staff have prepared an analysis of the city’s options. (Download it here, item 4.) It will be debated before the Planning and Environment Committee meeting Thursday.

Housing activists have demanded that the city use its powers under the Vancouver Charter to step in when landlords fail to maintain their buildings. The city has the power, if necessary, to do the repairs itself and charge the owner for its trouble.

But the staff report argues the existing “collaborative” approach is producing good results and offers court injunctions, if necessary, as a better way to force reform.

Two families have faced the most criticism for the conditions of their buildings, the Sahotas and the Laudisios. The Sahotas, in particular, have been at the centre of a number of controversies regarding their properties — like the Regent, the Balmoral, the Astoria and the Cobalt — and are regularly called slumlords. They have not, to my knowledge, ever sued.

Laura Track, of Pivot Legal, says they are “responsible for the most serious and ongoing violations of the law.” She terms conditions in their hotels “shocking and atrocious.” (Remarkably, Portland Hotel Society director Mark Townshend defended the two families, calling criticism of them “very, very unfair.” The Sahotas are providing a service, he argued, for the hard-to-house. Housing Minister Rich Coleman scoffed at the suggestion: “they would just rather let it deteriorate to the level they can redevelop it.”)

The staff perspective is unlikely to satisfy housing activists, who will review the report’s appendices with interest. They list (with identities withheld), the city’s enforcement record during the past two years. It seems clear that collaboration works for most of the landlords most of the time, but not for some landlords at any time.

If the city can’t find a way to crack down on repeat offenders, why should ethical property owners make the effort?