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Tenants in “Pandora’s boxes” face mountain of troubles

The Globe And Mail
Shannon Rupp

Parkview Apartments, the nondescript four-storey walk-up at 2255 Pandora in Vancouver looks fine from the outside, but it’s the sort of building where cockroaches aren’t nervous.

Certainly there is an insect or two lingering on the walls of the halls where bare, mildew-streaked floorboards have been waiting, and waiting, for carpets. But what the bugs lack in fear is made-up for by tenants who tell of stray hypodermic needles in the halls, and screaming neighbours who punch holes all over the building and keep pit bulls behind doors with beware-of-dog signs. Bed bugs are a given. Then there’s a weird gas-like smell in that hangs in the air near some suites and those who know the building’s reputation say that’s likely due to someone cooking crack or meth. One stairwell reeks of urine; the other of heavy duty cleaning.

“There was a [property use] inspector here last week,” says Andrew Piontkovsky, explaining why the graffiti, and the people who had inhabited the stairwell and left a stench that made most tenants avoid it, were all gone.

Mr. Piontkovsky, a painter by trade, is providing a tour of the building he is about to vacate to give people a glimpse of what market rent -- $750-a-month for a studio suite – buys in dilapidated buildings on Pandora Street, near Nanaimo. On his arrival arrival six months ago he was robbed by the previous tenant who still had a key to the suite. Then he changed suites, only to find new problems.

“There were maggots in the carpet near [the sliding glass balcony] door. They eat meat -- I wondered if we had finally found Jimmy Hoffa under there,” says Mr. Piontkovsky, adding that his upholstered furniture has been lost to bedbugs.

Pandora’s boxes have long been notorious, but one made headlines in October when its damaged roof left tenants ankle-deep in water and dodging falling plaster. The city closed 2131 Pandora due to electrical hazards and ordered owners to strip the building to the bones so they can check the structural integrity.

Ed Neufeld, manager of building inspections, spent 18 years inspecting buildings on the Downtown Eastside but he said 2131 Pandora Street was one of the worst he had ever seen, because its problems were life threatening. Mr. Neufeld sees a range of issues. Absentee landlords collect the rent and ignore the maintenance. Some of these indulge in what the business world calls “disinvestment,” when the escalating land values land outstrip the rental profits of the aging walk-ups. They collect rents until the buildings deteriorate beyond use, and then they get a free eviction service if inspectors condemn the buildings. However Mr. Neufeld added that has become more difficult due to city bylaws requiring landlords to replace the rental stock they tear down.

In the landlords’ defence, Mr. Neufeld says that many people who inhabit these buildings choose the “drug lifestyle,” which brings a host of problems that affect the buildings. Many of these tenants bring problems that landlords willing to maintain their buildings don’t want.

“Just how many times can you patch the holes [kicked] in the wall before you just give up.”

Mr. Neufeld checked the inspection report for the building Mr. Piontkovsky vacated, and said it isn’t the worst out there. The inspector notes that the owner, Giovanni Zen, has made steps to improve maintenance. Mr. Zen did not return calls from the Globe and Mail, but according to the inspection report, a new manager has been hired to deal with problem tenants. The report concludes that the building “is moving in the right direction.”

However, the families with children living at 2132 Dundas Street, two blocks over from Pandora, didn’t choose the headaches and breathing problems that came with living in a grow-op. On Nov. 15, Vancouver police busted the operation, spread through four suites, after the scent of the maturing plants tipped the neighbour. Police are investigating but no charges have been laid.

Some rooms in the suites below the agricultural units were already unlivable due to the mould coating the ceilings, and one family in an $800-a-month apartment couldn’t use the bedroom for anything but storage because the smell was so bad.

Residents say they don’t feel safe in a building housing drug addicts and grow-ops, but similarly priced lodgings elsewhere come with problems.

“We teach our kids not to play on the grass because of the needles. When they see needles they call us to come pick them up,” said one single mother, who requested anonymity. “I don’t want trouble with drug dealers. But landlords have to take some responsibility for these buildings.”

 Mr. Neufeld muses that the city could enforce maintenance bylaws to the letter – but then, landlords could refuse to comply and close the buildings, leaving residents homeless.

“We have nowhere to put the people,” he says. “If you drive around a night you see people sleeping on the streets and under bridges.”

NDP MLA Shane Simpson, (Vancouver-Hastings) says many building problems in his riding are actually social problems. He is working with the party’s housing critic on some solutions, including a proposal to bring in legislation allowing government to appoint administrators to manage unsafe buildings, particularly in cases where the manager or landlord is complicit in illegal activities.

“Government supplies 75 to 80 per cent of the rental revenue stream for some of these buildings – disability and seniors pensions, welfare – after due process, we could give government the authority to clean-up these building using the rental money,” Mr. Simpson says.

27 Nov 2007