A Prince Rupert, B.C., apartment building had a history of unsafe conditions in the years leading up to a fire Tuesday that left 16 people without a home, CBC has learned.
The landlords have been handed two fines from the B.C. Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) totalling $11,000 since 2020, documents show. According to the RTB's compliance and enforcement unit website, it's the first time two penalties have been issued to the same landlord since the unit was launched in 2019.
Two reports from the Residential Tenancy Branch, dated Oct. 29, 2020 and Nov. 9, 2021, found "a pattern of deliberate neglect and disregard for maintaining the legal health, safety, and housing standards of the property."
In the most recent report, the RTB wrote to the landlords, Pierre Ka-Ling Wong and Hue Fan Wong, "you have jeopardized the safety of the tenants living at the property."
Residents of the 11-unit apartment building on Second Avenue West were forced from their homes after a fire engulfed two ground floor units on Tuesday evening. Temperatures dropped that night to a biting -15C and snow covered the North Coastal city. Some residents were forced to leave without their shoes and coats.
Housing and poverty advocate Paul Legace said most of the residents are seniors and people with low income.
Legace said some residents were afraid to file complaints about their living conditions. Prince Rupert has a vacancy rate of less than one per cent, he added, and the apartment building was one of the only affordable options left in the city.
According to submissions to the compliance and enforcement unit, residents detailed a rat infestation, electrical outlets and switches not working, and broken appliances. The building entrance does not lock.
One resident wrote, "I have no hot water, no working fridge, no working stove, my electrical breaker box is damaged and a number of electrical outlets are not working so I have to run extension cords everywhere…. I cannot live like this any longer."
According to Legace, the landlords have been exploiting the vulnerability of low-income residents with limited options. "If they had to go anywhere else, it would be probably triple or quadruple" their current rent. He says residents are currently paying between $400 and $500 a month.
"As horrible as the conditions are, it's also the only thing that is truly affordable for the lowest-of-income folks." He says many depend on financial assistance from the government to get by.
CBC spoke to landlord Pierre Ka-Ling Wong, but he declined to comment on the record.
The displaced tenants are currently staying at a nearby hotel. According to Danielle Gentile, a community member who has been assisting residents, they can stay until Friday. Gentile says she doesn't know what will happen next.
Legace said there is limited recourse for tenants who are unable to return home.
Responding with an emailed statement, a spokesperson for B.C.'s attorney general and minister responsible for housing said "our goal is for both renters and landlords to feel confident that their rights are protected, and that they can find resolution in a timely way when they need it."
Prince Rupert Deputy Fire Chief Chad Cooper said the department is assisting residents who are searching for suitable alternatives. The investigation into the cause of the fire continues.
No one from the City of Prince Rupert was available to comment.