A Broken Elevator Causes Misery — and a Tenants’ Union

Jason Reimer’s foot was almost healed, until the only elevator at the Portland broke down.

Suddenly, Reimer had to climb nine flights of stairs anytime he wanted to leave his room in the supportive housing building in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The elevator started breaking down frequently in January 2022, and was completely out of service from Sept. 9 to Feb. 7, 2023, according to tenant organizers.

Reimer, who has Type 2 diabetes, had been recovering from an ulcer on his foot; the strain of the daily climb made it come back, he said. Then he developed ulcers on his other foot.

“I would just force myself. I didn’t really have much of a choice,” Reimer said.

“I went to management, I made it quite clear, I cannot walk up nine flights of stairs every day — I’ll lose my foot.”

Reimer is now one of dozens of residents at the Portland who have formed a tenants’ union in the hopes organizing will prevent future long elevator shutdowns.

Residents say it wasn’t the first time the elevator in the 25-year-old supportive housing building had broken, and that stoppages meant tenants with mobility issues either couldn’t access their rooms or suffered to do it.

Others have continued to use the stairs, but say the strain on their bodies has caused existing health conditions to worsen.

Frustrated residents have now formed a tenants’ union with the help of organizers from the Vancouver Tenants Union and another grassroots organization called Our Homes Can’t Wait.

But the CEO of the Portland’s non-profit operator, PHS Community Services, says it doesn’t recognize the union and won’t meet with its representatives.

“It is not clear to us who this group represents,” Micheal Vonn told The Tyee. “So regardless of concerns about the elevator — and we’ve been fielding many of them and we are working with our residents and have been communicating with them very intently — we are dismayed and very concerned about this organization.”

Ben Ger, an organizer with the Vancouver Tenants Union and Our Homes Can’t Wait, said the Portland Tenants Union is made up of current and former residents who contacted the VTU in early 2022, when the elevator had been out of service for over a month. Over 40 residents showed up at the first meeting to form the tenants’ union, and since then the Portland Tenants Union has held over 10 meetings, according to Ger.

Hamish Ballantyne, a community organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said the organizing effort was sparked largely by the broken elevator and what residents described as a sluggish response to it.

In some cases, Ballantyne said, residents were trapped on their floors for months at a time. He estimated half the building’s residents are disabled and said a significant number use mobility aids like walkers or wheelchairs. Even though the building is relatively new — it was designed by renowned architect Arthur Erickson and opened in the late 1990s — the 10-storey building has just one elevator.

“Some of them would literally throw their wheelchair down the stairs, crawl down after it or slide on their bum down after it for every flight of stairs, and then do the same thing for the way back up,” Ballantyne said.

On Wednesday, about seven tenants and several organizers rallied outside the offices of one of PHS’s directors, hoping to present their demands to Varun Banthia, a senior policy advisor with Deloitte Canada and a board member of PHS.

The group chanted “PHS sucks” and “Varun is a goon” as they demanded compensation for tenants who have been affected by the elevator issues.

Vonn said PHS was alarmed that the group would gather in front of Banthia’s office, calling the protest “intimidation” of a volunteer board member.

Vonn said PHS staff have been working directly with tenants throughout the ordeal. Ten tenants have been moved out of the 88-unit building. Three tenants have refused to move, and one moved to another building but returned to the Portland. According to Fader, others have decided to wait until housing units they’ve been promised that remain under construction are ready for them to move in.

Tenants who want to return to the Portland can go back to their homes, Vonn told The Tyee.

“This particular intervention is not assisting our communications with our residents,” Vonn said, referring to the tenants union and the protests.

The Portland Tenants Union is demanding compensation for tenants who have had to go weeks at a time without a working elevator but continued to pay rent. They’re also asking that all tenants who were moved out of the Portland because of the elevator breakdown be able to return. And they’re calling for the halting of eviction proceedings against one tenant.

Ger said that tenant has been warned they will be evicted after her dog relieved itself in the hallway and after her partner got in a fight with someone outside the building.

“[She] also has pretty severe back problems,” Ger said, explaining that this was a factor in the tenant being unable to take her pet outside. “She’s not in a wheelchair or using a walker, but she does have mobility issues.”

Vonn said she couldn’t comment on individual tenant issues.

Ger said organizers and tenants chose Banthia’s office on West Georgia Street because it’s relatively close to the Portland, and because Banthia is the treasurer of the board.

“A lot of these issues stem from PHS claiming that they don’t have the money to be able to do these types of repairs,” Ger said. “We would like to hear directly from the person who is overseeing those types of budgets.”

Vonn said PHS staff have been working on the elevator problem for months. As soon as one part would be fixed, another would break, leading to a year of constant breakdowns and short-lived reprieves. The longest outage was between March and September 2022, but there have been many other problems with the elevator being down for hours or a day before working again.

BC Housing has now approved funding to completely replace the elevator. That work will happen this year and take around five weeks, Vonn said.

Reimer said he supports the tenants union.

“As soon as we did our first action, the elevator was fixed the next day,” Reimer said. “I definitely can’t see that it’s a negative.”

Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter and Jen St. Denis, The Tyee