Public housing in Vancouver called 'crack shacks and brothels'

Several tenants and ex-employees of publicly owned housing in Vancouver say their buildings are marred by revolting conditions, rampant crime and shoddy management — by a company whose CEO is married to a top government housing official.

"They're all crack shacks and brothels, and the old people in these hotels are too afraid to leave their rooms," said Don Brown, who worked for Atira Property Management as a front-desk clerk in two of the buildings.

"I live on [Vancouver's Downtown] Eastside. But even I was horrified at some of the things that go on, and nothing is done about it."

Go Public went into some of the buildings, where tenants showed doors with no locks; bathrooms with no toilet paper or lights; feces; urine; garbage and dirty needles in hallways; filthy, clogged and leaky plumbing; cockroaches; and black mould.

"I didn't live there. I slept there. I didn't feel safe," said former tenant Shawna Taylor, who lived in the Marble Arch Hotel, an Atira-managed building, until recently. She said she slept with a knife under her pillow.

"The things I've seen! Needles all over the floor. Blood on the walls.… Overflowing garbage, fecal matter. You come into the place and it just stinks."

"The taxpayers are paying for it, and they're getting ripped off," said former front-desk clerk Keith Thornicroft. It's a dangerous environment."

"BC Housing is a slum landlord," said Justin Hall, who lives in the Arco Hotel. "It's incredible."

The worst conditions Go Public documented were in the Dunsmuir, Marble Arch and Gastown Hotels.

The CEO of Atira admitted those buildings — and others — are in "abysmal" shape, but said that's partly because they still have not been renovated, as government promised they would be.

"It's impossible to defend the shape of those buildings. It just is. It's impossible," Janice Abbott said.

However, workers and tenants also accuse Abbott's company of neglecting basic maintenance, leaving staff without enough supplies or support, hiring unqualified people — some who get stoned on the job — and allowing organized drug dealing and prostitution to run rampant.

"You are always afraid for your safety, and not having any backup or support," said former front desk worker Jan Tse, who said she often had to work alone.

"I have had no light in my room for almost two weeks…. There are no lights in our washroom. It has been this way for months," current Marble Arch tenant Terry Wright said.

"Day after day my complaints fall on deaf ears. [In one week] I have laid eyes on the manager of the building only once, for but a few seconds."

"Nobody's really in charge," Tse said. "If you have any issue or if you talk to some of the management, it will not lead to any concrete resolution."

Numerous current and former workers told Go Public similar stories, but most didn't want to be named. Taylor said some tenants also fear speaking out.

"There are so many people in these buildings that are so afraid to say anything to anybody. Fear of losing housing. Fear of having staff retaliate against them," she said.

The old Downtown Eastside hotels were bought by BC Housing in 2007, before the Olympics, so the government could move homeless people off the streets into "supportive housing".

Tenants pay rent for their rooms, usually from social assistance cheques, in the range of $375 a month.

Multimillion-dollar contracts to manage 13 of the buildings were handed to Abbott's company without going to tender. She said that initially, the province was in a big hurry to find someone willing to take the job.

"They were a bit desperate," Abbott said. "No one else was willing to do it."

At that time, Abbott's primary experience was running women's shelters and condo complexes.

"I think [Atira] was in way over their head when they took on the contract for the housing," ex-employee Brown said.

What bothers many critics is that two years after Abbott got the contracts to manage the BC Housing facilities, she started dating BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay. The couple married in 2010.

"One hand is holding the other," Taylor said. "I've gone to BC Housing to make complaints about Atira and I've been told by BC Housing, 'Take your complaint back to Atira.' "

Brown said, "I don't see how that is possible that it's not a conflict of interest. You mean to tell me they don't talk about business at home?"

Abbott insisted her marriage is irrelevant to the work she does. If anything, she said, it's made government reluctant to give her company enough money to manage the buildings properly.

"It actually makes it more difficult. There is so much worry and oversight about the potential for a conflict of interest," Abbott said.

The minister responsible for BC Housing, Rich Coleman, said there is no conflict of interest, because Ramsay stays out of any decisions involving his wife's company.

"I've been very clear about how the firewalls are set up," Coleman said. "Shayne [Ramsay] came to me right away when he first entered into the relationship. It was never something that I wasn't aware of."

BC Housing told Go Public it paid Atira $4.4 million in the last fiscal year to manage 13 buildings. However, it rejected repeated requests to disclose how much taxpayer money has been paid to the company overall. As of end of the fiscal 2010-2011 year, that figure was reportedly close to $22 million.

Abbott said her company makes no money from the contracts — because the terms specify that any leftover funds have to be put back into the buildings. Most of the funding goes to staff wages.

"We have four maintenance staff… for buildings that are in profound states of disrepair," Abbott said. "We don't have a budget for more maintenance people."

Ex-workers said when they run out of supplies and try to order more, some suppliers won't deliver because they haven't been paid by Atira.

"No cleaning supplies due to the bill not being paid again," reads one recent entry in a staff log book.

Shawna Taylor said that near the end of her tenancy, she didn't pay rent — and some tenants didn't pay for months. Ex-workers said some managers failed to collect rent, money that goes to BC Housing.

Abbott said tenants who don't pay are given eviction notices. But many aren't actually forced out, because "we also have a mandate not to put people back out on the street… and we've tried very hard to prevent that from happening."

Atira also confirmed one of its managers was let go two years ago, after selling new beds meant for tenants on Craigslist and pocketing the money. He lost his job but was never charged with any offences

"He got caught because there was a list on Craigslist! Beds… for sale. And that was slated for us," Taylor said

The company has been ordered to address 32 violations by WorkSafeBC since 2010, including exposing workers to asbestos and dirty needles and repeatedly failing to investigate and report injuries.

"I was poked with a needle. I've been punched. I've been spat on. I've had things thrown at me," Brown said

"There's shit in the hallways that we had to clean up…. We had bedbugs crawling across the front counter,… blood on the walls."

"The people who work for Atira should be going to work with a hazmat suit on," said Thornicroft, who said he was exposed to asbestos in the boiler room numerous times before being told to put on a mask.

City inspectors also cited Atira for deficiencies in several buildings in the last year and a half, including pests, broken plumbing and electrical problems.

Support workers in the buildings give tenants needles, and Atira said it tolerates drug use and prostitution inside, because that fits with the government mandate to provide "low barrier" housing.

Unlike other property managers in the area, though, Atira's policy is also to hire people from the Downtown Eastside, to give them a chance at employment and hope for a better future.

Abbott acknowledged most of the employees have "struggled with addiction". She said she's had a huge problem with people not showing up for work and some have been stoned on the job.

"It happens all the time," said Abbott, who added people are eventually fired if they fail or refuse to get treatment.

"You can have the status quo. We can all decide they are a write-off. Or somebody can take a risk with them."

Critics have dubbed Atira's approach "harm reproduction."

"I know of someone that worked for Atira at the front desk that was dealing drugs when he was on shift," said Brown, adding he worked beside a woman who got high at work.

"The tenants complained. Because she was going up into the rooms and doing the drugs and not paying the tenants back, in fact stealing some of the drugs and stealing some of the money."

"I've seen staff… passed out cold. Head back in the chair. Sleeping on the job," Taylor said. "You could tell he was high when he came to work."

Abbott said she is going into partnership with an employment agency, which she hopes will support new workers to stay off drugs.

Atira calls its philosophy "feminist-based." Its stated mission is to help "end violence against women." Atira is a non-profit organization, and the property management division was set up solely to raise money for women's programs.

However, several female tenants and workers told CBC they felt safer on the street than in the Atira-run BC Housing buildings.

"Being on the street was better than this," said Dunsmuir Hotel tenant Marta Plucinksa. "They allow prostitution in here. They allow a lot of other things. How are they protecting [women]? By doing what?"

When asked about women feeling unsafe, Abbott said, "It's not acceptable in any way, shape or form.... This is news to me, so this obviously requires me going back and asking folks what is going on."

Underage girls have been found doing drugs in the buildings. In May, a 13-year old girl overdosed in the Gastown Hotel, after a 50-year-old male tenant snuck her in via the back door — past surveillance cameras watched by staff. She ended up in hospital.

"In theory, [young girls] should not be in our buildings. Anyone under 19 should not be in our buildings," but they are, Abbott said.

The hotels are supposed to be adult-only, and staff are supposed to check any visitor's ID. Abbott said they had refused to let the girl in earlier and what happened was "absolutely unacceptable.

Vancouver police have received 3,640 emergency 911 calls from Atira-run buildings since the start of 2011 — an average of seven per day. There were 193 reported assaults, including six sexual assaults, plus numerous reports of theft, robbery and fraud.

"I was threatened with a knife in one of the hotels," Tse said. "I got so sick. From the stress. From the fear. From the shell-shock of being attacked."

"I was grabbed by my hair. I was thrown to the ground. I was punched. I had a man come at me with a golf club. I was hit with a golf club," Taylor said.

The most serious violent incident was in 2009, when a male tenant in the Arco Hotel attacked a woman with a machete, almost severing her arm.

Atira also confirmed gangsters have moved into some of the rooms, where they run drug-dealing operations.

Abbott showed Go Public emails to the VPD, which show she's been trying for two years to get police to arrest a "high-level" drug dealer who drives expensive cars, but nevertheless lives in the Dominion, another one of the publicly owned buildings.

"We believe he owns some fairly high-end vehicles. We've provided licence plate numbers to the VPD in the hopes that maybe that can lead to something," Abbott said.

She said Atira tried to evict him — twice — but he took his case to arbitration and won.

Workers allege resident drug dealers are running lucrative operations in every hotel.

"One person came into the building and went up to this guy's room. The guy opened his door, he put a knife to him and stole $75,000 out of his bureau," Thornicroft said. "It was money from dealing."

"Some of these dealers that are dealing out of these rooms don't even live in the buildings," Taylor said. "They chase the people who rent the rooms, saying, 'Here, I'll give you an eight ball…. I'm renting your room. Get out.' "

Vancouver police officers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the media, told Go Public they are hindered by Atira, because they say some staffers won't let them past the front door of the buildings to investigate crimes.

"I am told they have staff who are anti-police. Staff members have been told not to call the police or in some places not to let the police in," retired police officer Al Arsenault said.

Arsenault is well-known for his work on the Downtown Eastside and often speaks to officers still on the job.

"The way it is down here is because Atira allows it to be that way."

Abbott said she has told staff explicitly to let police in and assist them, but to not allow them in tenants' rooms without a warrant.

The Vancouver Police Department has ample documentation about its dealings with Atira — and was prepared to release it publicly — however last week Atira intervened to block that.

"The VPD supports and encourages open and transparent communications with the public," reads a VPD letter to Go Public.

"At the same time, a third party [Atira] has provided the VPD with information that the records the VPD intends to release to you may be harmful to third-party business interests and may also constitute an unreasonable invasion of third-party personal interests."

Housing Minister Coleman said as a result of CBC's story, there will be an investigation.

"We're going to investigate it, and we're going to fix it. That's what we always try to do," said Coleman, who added some of the worst buildings will soon be renovated, as promised.

"If we have maintenance issues, we'll look at the maintenance budgets and see what we can do with that. If we have staffing issues, we'll do the same thing by working with [Atira]."

Abbott acknowledged there have been many "lessons learned" and said she is working hard on improvements.

"It's not my intention to kind of point fingers at everybody else. There is no question we've made some mistakes and there were things that we hadn't anticipated."

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