The Hellhole

December 2, 2007

A drug dealer threatens to kill you for calling the cops on him. Your sleep is punctuated by shouting, car doors slamming, engines gunning, and the piercing drug whistle. And the police-often with dogs, ERT assault rifles, wagons-are such regular visitors to your street that your preschool daughter often speaks to them on her toy phone, asking them to stop by for apple juice once they've dealt with "the bad people."

What inner-city American hellhole is this, you wonder? Well, the hellhole in question is a toxic apartment building located on my nice residential street in our ethnically, socially diverse neighbourhood between Commercial Drive and the PNE. Like many such apartment buildings in Vancouver, it exists because of a staggering lack of civic political will to do anything about the slumlords who hold us all hostage.

The slumlords in our case are the Zen family, an Italian-Canadian clan with multiple local real estate holdings who have been riding roughshod on the city for some time now. In the 1980s, in partnership with the Aquilini family (since rehabilitated somewhat as developer-philanthropists), the Zens raised the rents so exorbitantly on their West End apartment buildings that a generation of elderly residents was forced into the street. At the time, the Zens and Aquilinis came under assault from the media, from the (now extinct) tenants' watchdog, the Rentalsman, and from the B.C. Legislature, where MLAs expressed outrage over the injustice of it all.

Twenty-five years later, not much has changed for the local weed that is Slumlordis Vancouveris. So, a group of neighbours on our street decided that, since we like our neighbourhood and don't want to be bullied into moving, we'd try to reclaim the garden from the weed.

As it stands, the worst that can happen to a Vancouver slumlord is that he loses his business license and his "problem premise" is closed. All living in the condemned building are evicted, and must be housed by the city. The city is loathe to take this course, for not only does it mean that law-abiding tenants get caught in the crossfire, it also costs much time and money to rehouse everyone. The city's lack of will means that some of our society's most fragile souls live in appalling conditions-both physical and social.

To be sure, a problem premise that blips onto city radar attracts serious attention. If the slumlord fails to heed the orders of city inspectors, he faces show-cause hearings at city council, where he must make the case for why he should be allowed to go forth and prosper. The VPD puts pressure on, too, and in our case has been utterly heroic. The cops must be as frustrated as we are. For the slumlord knows the worst that can happen to him very probably will not.

Last January, having had enough of The Hellhole's assault on our neighbourhood, we contacted the property management company directly. We petitioned demanding change, then sent a follow-up letter via registered mail; it was returned to sender. We next contacted the city and the media. Global TV did a feature on the city's slumlords, while the city-with the support of city councillors Kim Capri and Raymond Louie, and our MLA Shane Simpson-zealously inspected The Hellhole. Last April, after becoming sufficiently alarmed, the city hauled one of the Zens into an unsentimental meeting with top-level city licensing inspectors and the VPD. It came to light that The Hellhole's business license fees had not been paid for this year, and so the license was already suspended. Zen had 60 days to make improvements, or else.

Sixty days came and went. The Hellhole got worse, largely because its manager has succumbed to the toxicity of the place. Garbage litters the property; addicts take drugs or sell them in the hallways; the parkade is boarded up because of the drugs and the prostitution that once took place in it and now takes place in the building itself. Between October 2006 and this October, the combined number of 911 and non-emergency calls to The Hellhole numbered more than 220-or nearly 20 a month.

The law-abiding tenants of The Hellhole, who silently cheer us on (fearing retribution from the owner and manager), complain of leaks, mice, bedbugs, used condoms, used needles, and, from one woman, of having to leave her suite to get her mail armed with an iron pipe, just in case. All for $900 a month for a one-bedroom suite.  

Hellhole management hired a security firm to sit in the lobby from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. each night during its 60-day deadline, which sent the message that ownership and management were incompetent, and simply shoved all the drug dealing into the alley until 11, when it slithered back around to the front of the building. In the end, the security guards-middle-aged moonlighters in ill-fitting yellow jackets-were fired because one was intoxicated on duty and another tried to buy sex from a prostitute who had popped in for refreshments.

A better solution? Sack the manager and hire a competent one, who would use the principles of crime-free multi-housing to rent to law-abiding tenants. Other municipalities in the Lower Mainland have already signed up to this program (which began in Mesa, Arizona, in 1992), and a pilot project in Mount Pleasant began earlier this year. The premise is idiot simple: managers and owners are trained to properly rent and maintain a building by screening tenants and keeping up safety standards. As a result, call-outs to emergency services, and the attendant cost to taxpayers, have dropped significantly-as much as 70 percent-and communities have become safer.

Another model can be found in New York, a place that gives no quarter to slumlords. Last May, New York City council unanimously passed the Safe Housing Act. Problem buildings-the worst 200 in the city as identified by inspectors and the police-get four months to make mandated improvements. If they do so, they're monitored quarterly for a year. If they do not, the city makes the repairs and bills the slumlords. If the slumlord refuses to pay, the city confiscates the building.

Nearly a year has passed since we began our official assault on The Hellhole. The city strike delayed what we hope is ultimate victory, and in the meantime the VPD continues to be a regular visitor, trying to do what the city cannot and the owner and manager have failed to.

While advocates decry the state of residences in the Downtown Eastside prior to the 2010 Olympics, bear in mind that those buildings are simply part of a city-wide phenomenon. If Vancouver wants to truly earn its title as the world's most livable city, it has to hit those slumlords in their moral centre: their wallets. 

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