Infamous North Island apartment building has new owners, new hope

·5 min read

An infamous apartment building in Port Hardy has a new owner, and with that, hopes of improved living conditions.

Highland Manor, a 41-year-old, 50-unit building has been called a fire hazard. It has been notorious for drug use. Tenants have had no to little hot water since April 2020, it has one working washing machine and dryer, black mold lives in the walls, and the stairwells smell like alleys.

It’s a known problem to the District of Port Hardy, which issued at least two fines in 2020 for false fire calls, and is developing a new minimum rental standards bylaw, in part because of Highland Manor.

The same team that bought Creekside Apartments, recently renovated and reopened after a 2017 fire displaced all 65 residents, are now tackling Highland. The sale closed Jan. 29 for $1.6 million.

Greg Vance and his business partners are committed to improving living conditions, starting by renovating vacant suites and giving current residents first chance at the upgraded units.

The new owners will be hands-on, paying more attention to maintenance, Vance said, adding that there needs to be a give and take with tenants.

“You have to have higher expectations of tenants. They need to be accountable for their living conditions, too. If we’re going to put in new lighting, drywall and carpeting, then you can’t have someone parking their motorcycle in the hallway.”

The previous owner, Matthew Liang, had been managing the building himself. He was challenged to upgrade conditions, as vandals would quickly undo any improvements he made. In November, Liang estimated there were 78 residents, with extra people crowded in illegally.

The over-crowding, cold water and poor living conditions pose the question as to why so many people choose to live there.

“Where else can I go?” is the answer from Jane Wardill, who previously lived in Creekside Apartments and was displaced by the 2017 fire. From there she moved to Town Park D Block, where she says she was robbed twice. She moved to another place, but that didn’t work out either.

Finally, Wardill ended up in a ground floor suite at Highland. Her dog Tucker has fashioned a bed for himself in the retaining wall garden in front of the living room window where he greets whoever comes and goes – some with a wag, others with a yip or a growl.

It was April 4, 2020, Wardill wrote in her day planner, when the hot water turned cold. It stayed that way for months, until Liang came and “did something to it,” and thereafter it was hot for a few hours a day, and lukewarm otherwise.

She said Liang posted a hot water schedule at the elevator — which is also broken — but another tenant ripped it down. A few other residents mentioned the schedule that identified blocks of times when hot water would be available, but no one had a copy.

In Liang’s windowless office/bedroom — a queen mattress stuffed behind shelves of maintenance supplies and his desk — he brought out the rent roll, showing rental rates and how much is outstanding. He claimed to be out $45,000, saying that’s why he couldn’t fix the hot water. His own part-time bedroom has no bathroom, nor a sink or kitchen.

He also said it’s a capacity issue – too many people living there, drawing on the hot water. When the Gazette asked plumbers for their assessment, they say the original commercial system was replaced with a collection of inadequate residential water heaters. One local plumber now refuses to service the building because the system is so dysfunctional.

RELATED: Port Hardy council is sick and tired of derelict apartment buildings

RELATED: Late night fire at Highland Manor caused evacuation, but no injuries

Problems at Highland began long before Liang took over. A former building manager, Darrell Gilmore, was tasked with turning things around in 2016. It took a full year, during which time he claims he had to remove 47 tenants, but he was able to reduce 911 calls from an almost daily occurrence to just weekly. Working closely with the police, fire department and local health authority, Gilmore says the building was just about up to code.

“And then, you can track the timeline from when the fire happened at Creekside.” With no where else to go, people from Creekside crashed with friends in Highland, including some drug dealers, Gilmore claims. Things went downhill quickly, and within a year Gilmore quit.

The landlord put another tenant in charge for a while, until Liang bought in. Now the building has another new management team. Liang confirmed the sale, but had no further comments for this story when contacted by the Gazette on Feb. 9.

On the fourth floor, with an incongruously beautiful view of the ocean across a parking lot and the roofs of Lindsay and Westpark Manors, Sheena Popham lives with cold water and mold that keeps coming back, no matter how much she cleans. She has painted designs on the living room wall — probably something that will cost her part of her damage deposit — where mold creeps from the ceiling toward her wolf-feather-skull mural.

The water in the tap runs cold, gradually warming to room temperature after a few minutes. If she wants to do dishes, she can boil water or wash them cold. Sometimes she can get a warm shower in the morning, but there’s no apparent pattern.

On the other side of the building, a broken window in a vacated suite became a calling card for vandals. The unit is in disarray, evidence of parties.

Tenants are hopeful the new owners will have more energy and funds to bring the building up to reasonable standards.

Do you have something to add to this story or something else we should report on? Email: zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca

Zoë Ducklow, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, North Island Gazette