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Tenants displaced by James Bay apartment fire fight to return to their homes

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From left, Menzies Street apartment tenants Neil Kingswell, Barry Johnson and Jason Rempel, Together Against Poverty Society lawyer Leila Geggie Hurst and tenant Paul Anderson at the TAPS office. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Tenants displaced in a fatal James Bay apartment fire last month are taking legal action to return to their homes, which, they say, were untouched by the blaze.

One man died in the Oct. 25 fire in the 36-unit building on Menzies Street. The fire started in a third-floor suite and about a half dozen other suites below and adjacent to the unit were damaged, Acting Victoria Fire Chief Dan Atkinson said at the time.

The landlord says the building is unsafe to inhabit and needs extensive repairs.

Some displaced tenants say in the stressful days following the fire, they were led by the landlord, Pacific Cove Properties, to believe that their units were uninhabitable and that their tenancies had ended, so some signed agreements to end their tenancies. They say they were reeling from the traumatic experience of the fire and the forms were signed under duress.

“It was given to us as the only option, was that we just couldn’t move back,” said Jason Rempel, who lived in the building for six years and paid just under $900 a month for his apartment.

Seven tenants have joined together to file a dispute-resolution application with the Residential Tenancy Branch to ask for the right to return to their homes. The tenants say they have been allowed limited access to their units and have seen that their apartments are not damaged. Locks on exterior doors of the buildings have been changed.

Rempel and other tenants were temporarily put up in hotels by emergency social services, but Rempel checked out last week and has been staying in the basement suite of generous strangers, where he can remain until Nov. 30. After that, he doesn’t know where he’ll go.

Some are still staying in hotels but have only a few days of assistance left, or are crashing with family members. Barry Johnson, who has lived in the building for five years, has been sleeping in his car, a difficult situation made worse during the gasoline shortage amid supply-chain disruptions. “A bed and a shower — that’s all I want. I need to keep warm,” he said.

Those involved — some have lived in the building for more than a decade — say they can’t afford a move that would likely mean monthly rent increases of several hundred dollars.

“I want to go home — desperately,” said Neil Kingswell, who has lived in the building for more than 20 years and paid $780 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. “I go down sometimes and I just stand there and look up at my apartment wanting to go home. I mean, it wasn’t the best building in the world, but it’s my home. I want to stay there for the rest of my life.”

Leila Geggie Hurst, a lawyer with Together Against Poverty Society representing the tenants, said while Pacific Cove ­Properties maintains the units are uninhabitable, a report by the Victoria Fire Department indicated multiple units, ­including all seven rented by tenants involved in the legal action, are not damaged.

“The tenants now are essentially trapped in a limbo. They know that their homes are undamaged, but they’re being told that the building is uninhabitable,” Hurst said. “They’ve been locked out from their homes but they haven’t been formally evicted and the landlord has followed none of the necessary legal processes to end the tenancy.”

Hurst expects a hearing to take place in early December.

Lee Rennison, vice-president of Pacific Cove Properties, said in a statement the company is relying on the advice of a restoration contractor, which has communicated with the fire department, engineers and an architect, “who have all advised that the building is not habitable.”

Rennison said there are several reasons why the building is not safe to occupy, including significant structural damage to the roof, no functioning alarm system, no power in many suites, visible mold in common areas and reconstruction work that will affect access to the building.

The company expects the work will take more than 10 months, and says the intention is for the building to be restored.

“We know this is a very challenging period for residents. 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,” Rennison said.

Atkinson was not available Wednesday to comment on the building’s condition. The fire department’s report has not been made public.

City spokesman Bill Eisenhauer said fire inspectors determined that some suites were damaged as a result of the fire and others were not.

“It’s not for the fire department to determine whether a suite or building is habitable after a fire or whether residents may move back in,” he said. “That would be a determination of the Residential Tenancy Branch and we understand there is an upcoming hearing planned to determine this.”

Ten days before the fire, tenants received notice from Pacific Cove Properties that the property management company was planning to redevelop neighbouring buildings owned by the company, but not the apartment building in question, raising concerns from tenants about the landlord’s motive for preventing them from returning to their units.

Hurst said the situation illustrates the need for an emergency division of the Residential Tenancy Branch that could enter a building after a disaster to determine whether it’s safe to be inhabited.

“We cannot have landlords making the determination about the habitability of a building. There are huge financial incentives for a landlord to move tenants out and move new tenants in,” Hurst said.

“You need instead a neutral, qualified professional who can do this independently.”

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com