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Inspection reports detail years-long battle to fix fire violations in scorched Vancouver apartment building

A apartment building at 414 East 10th Ave. is pictured after a fire in Vancouver on July 28, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
A apartment building at 414 East 10th Ave. is pictured after a fire in Vancouver on July 28, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Inspection reports for a Vancouver apartment building gutted by a recent fire reveal the challenges the city faces in getting property owners to address fire code violations — difficulties that leave renters in neglected buildings at risk, some experts and tenant advocates warn.

An accidental fire devastated 414 East 10th Ave. on July 27, forcing more than 70 residents permanently from their homes.

Court documents show the city has taken the owners of the Mount Pleasant-area complex to court twice in three years over 25 fire code violation charges in the three-storey apartment building.

Fu Ren pled guilty to five counts in November 2021, while 20 more filed in May against him and his wife, Feng Yan, have not yet been proven and are currently before the courts.

Fire inspection reports for the building, obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request, detail years of troubles inspectors faced, trying to get inside the building or compel its owners to make repairs, as staff issued violations for a broken sprinkler system, blocked exits, and holes they feared would allow a fire to spread more quickly.

Many of the violations were outstanding for more than a year before charges were filed, according to the reports and court records.

Firefighters hose down an apartment building in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood during a fire on July 27, 2023.
Firefighters hose down an apartment building in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood during a fire on July 27, 2023.

Firefighters hose down an apartment building in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood during a fire on July 27, 2023. (Nick Allen/CBC)

A retired assistant fire chief says the building is one of several rental buildings in Vancouver facing repeated fire code violations.

"That building is not any different from many other problem buildings in the city," said Ray Bryant, former assistant chief of fire prevention and fire investigations for Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS) from 2016 to 2021.

The case illustrates why tougher consequences, higher fines and closer regulation over landlords are needed, says Robert Patterson, a lawyer at the non-profit Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre in Vancouver.

"So much of the time we put tenants in charge of defending their own rights, enforcing the laws," he said.

'Cat and mouse'

Bryant, who has been inside the building, says the inspection reports outline what he calls a frustrating "game of cat and mouse" that can stretch resources thin and leave tenants fearful about increased fire risks.

The alleged infractions stem from violation notices that began accumulating in early 2021, in the middle of Ren's earlier prosecution, and more than two years before current charges were officially filed in May 2023.

Inspectors visited the building 15 times and issued at least 33 violation notices between January 2021 and November 17, 2022, the date of the inspection that led to the current charges.

Fire officials were concerned with blocked exits, broken windows, and the sprinkler system being in alleged disrepair, in addition to debris in suites, hallways, the parkade and lobby they were concerned could fuel potential fire growth.

Eight months before fire destroyed the building in early January, an inspector alleged the fire alarm system did not work and neither did the sprinklers.

Inspectors wrote that Ren raised concerns the notices and bylaw infraction charges left with the building manager or pinned to the front door had not been properly communicated to him.

Ren previously told CBC News he will present information to show they have been making progress on the alleged violations in court next month.

CBC News contacted Ren multiple times but did not hear back before publication.

The fire alarm system wasn't working and required service since 2018, according to this picture taken by inspectors on November 17, 2022.
The fire alarm system wasn't working and required service since 2018, according to this picture taken by inspectors on November 17, 2022.

The fire alarm system wasn't working and required service since 2018, according to this picture taken by inspectors on Nov. 17, 2022. (City of Vancouver)

Risks hard to assess

Bryant says while the vast majority of landlords take fire safety and violations seriously, it can be a long and frustrating process to ticket and fine those who don't, let alone take them to court when penalties fail.

Tenants can also contribute to fire code violations the landlord may not be aware of, he said, like removing batteries from smoke detectors or putting holes in walls due to mental health issues.

"Sometimes the owner makes themselves unavailable and it becomes very difficult to get in the building. And you'll go there, make an appointment, they may not show up, you'll make an appointment again, they may not show up," he said.

Without documented picture evidence of alleged infractions, city prosecutors are often hesitant to prosecute, Bryant added, and if a property owner makes progress to address a concern, the city tries to work in good faith and give them time to complete that work before escalating to charges.

"But as far as prosecutions go, it takes a while."

inspectors reported nearly all fire doors and exits broken or blocked in a November 17, 2022 inspection, some with debris and others bolted shut or off their hinges.
inspectors reported nearly all fire doors and exits broken or blocked in a November 17, 2022 inspection, some with debris and others bolted shut or off their hinges.

Inspectors reported nearly all fire doors and exits broken or blocked in a Nov. 17, 2022 inspection, some with debris and others bolted shut or off their hinges. (City of Vancouver)

According to the B.C. Fire Services Act, inspectors only have the right to enter after a fire or in exceptional circumstances to complete a co-ordinated inspection due to imminent risk.

VFRS inspectors are also stretched thin, said Bryant, with a team of around 20 expected to complete about 21,000 inspections each year, according to a statement from the city.

A City of Vancouver spokesperson declined to comment on prosecution wait times in a Friday statement to CBC News.

"By working together, fire code violations are usually corrected quickly," read the statement. "VFRS brings forward each year to recommend charges when other strategies have been unsuccessful."

Waits 'unacceptable': advocate

Vancouver Tenants Union advocate Aissa Aggoune says the time it takes to prosecute charges is unacceptable.

Aggoune has helped more than 500 tenants with disputes at the Residential Tenancy Board and says many involve delayed building repairs and fire code violations.

"There are laws that protect tenants and make sure that dwelling building units have proper ventilation, proper fire prevention systems in place. All we need is to apply those laws and unfortunately what we see on the field is that it's not being done," said Aggoune.

He and Patterson say the city needs to take these owners to court sooner, and resource the inspection and prosecutor departments to support it.

"I think we assume that there are regulations, that there are watchdogs … making sure they're held accountable," said Patterson. "And tenancy is one of those areas where tenants are the ones that have to seek their own justice and no one's really coming to save them."

The City of Vancouver says 414 East 10th Ave. has a business licence, as all long-term rentals in Vancouver require, but the city says suspending it isn't an easy solution to make owners comply.

"As it would displace tenants, this is typically considered a last resort if a building was deemed unsafe and required evacuation," wrote the spokesperson.

An apartment building at 414 East 10th Ave. after a fire in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday, July 28, 2023.
An apartment building at 414 East 10th Ave. after a fire in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday, July 28, 2023.

The apartment building at 414 East 10th Ave. is pictured after a fire in Vancouver on July 28, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

David Hutniak, CEO of LandlordBC, says enforcement should be the focus, before deciding if more regulation is needed.

"Our expectation is that building owners are going to abide by the law and they're going to make sure that the buildings are safe and healthy," he said.

Bryant says in his experience, current fines and education work for the vast majority of cases, and prosecution is pursued carefully for the property owners who don't comply.

But Patterson and Aggoune say without stricter enforcement and penalties, tenants stuck in a tight and expensive housing market have little choice but to live in fear or risk retaliation by filing a dispute at the RTB or complaint with the fire department.

"We're just asking for tenants to have proper living conditions and that include clean air and fire prevention protection," said Aggoune.