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‘Feeling like we’re drowning’: Tenants of rundown B.C. building fear for future

Tenants living in “shocking” conditions fear losing what little they have left

Tenants living at the Coachman Apartments complex in Terrace have been dealing black mould, electrical problems and broken water pipes for years, they say. They’re now faced with uncertain futures after freezing temperatures caused pipes to burst throughout the building on Boxing Day.

Most tenants chose to leave on the advice of city officials and the fire department Dec. 26, while others stayed behind not wanting to leave their homes despite broken fire alarms and no running water.

Longtime tenant Christina Harvie, now staying in a hotel provided by the province, took The Terrace Standard on a tour of the troubled building. Two of the three occupied units visited had black mould, other occupied units had broken doors leading into the hallways of the building.

Parts of the roof of the building are unfinished and the ceiling of the interior parking area appears to be falling apart. Pictures supplied to The Terrace Standard show ice coming out of an electrical socket on an interior wall.

“The condition of the building when I first moved in was already deplorable,” Harvie said.

“A lot of tenants were fearful of calling the city or calling Northern Health or the health unit because they thought that they would just shut the building down. None of us have anywhere to go.”

Northern Health said environmental public health staff have “identified concerns including lack of access to potable water or for sewerage systems.”

And they’re working to ensure any public health risks are identified and addressed.

Vivian Wright worries black mould covering her shower ceiling could be affecting her family’s health.

Despite nothing conclusive after a visit to a doctor, she experiences headaches and breathing problems.

While she’s been looking for another place to live for years, Wright said she can’t find anything affordable that will accept her pets, adding that she’s a single mother, working full-time and her son lives with a disability.

“I’ve been living here for nine years and it’s been pretty much terrible but it’s all we have for now.

“It’s like we’re just stuck here and there’s nowhere to go. And now we’re just in limbo. I’m staying in a one-bedroom hotel room with my son and pets, they’re upset and they want to be home but we don’t feel safe.”

Bonnie Forsythe shares a small two-bedroom apartment with her husband, four young children, a cat and a dog.

Also unable to find another place to live since moving to the building in 2015, Forsythe and her family suffer from breathing problems that they attribute to black mould in the kitchen.

“My oldest kid is sick and we’ve had health problems and we’ve been sick constantly as we’ve been living in the building. Now that we’re out of there and in a hotel we’re all able to breathe better,” said Forsythe.

When she advised Northern Health of the mould last August, a public health inspector responded they were unable to reach the owner, referring Forsythe to the residential tenancy branch.

To make matters worse, the door to their balcony was left unrepaired, exposing the family to the elements amid -30 weather this past winter.

“I had no idea what to do. My kids were cold. They’d come out into the living room and they’d be freezing. We had a blanket there but it just wasn’t enough,” Forsythe said.

“Because I had no money, I had to reach out to the community and ask if they could give me some heaters. And they did. A lady bought me a heater and then another lady gave me a heater.”

Terrace Mayor Sean Bujtas intervened when water pipes blew Dec. 23, breaking into the building manager’s office to get the keys. On Dec. 26, when water to all units was shut of, he went door-to-door alongside fire chief John Klie suggesting tenants evacuate to hotels.

Since then he’s been in meetings with various levels of government looking for a solution. The mayor estimates as many as 56 people now staying in local hotels while three people remain in the building.

The province is paying hotel rooms and meals until Jan. 19. BC Housing and the Kermode Friendship Society, a local non-profit, will cover hotels until Feb. 19.

“Time is the biggest issue. It’s trying to get these things fixed before supports run out. I will lobby to get those supports continued,” said Bujtas.

“So far we’ve been successful at that. I’m optimistic about that but we want to just make sure that people are housed until they can get back into the facility. There’s a lot of people working on this trying to solve a complex issue that’s been thrown at us. The government’s support has been excellent.”

BC Liberal Skeena MLA Ellis Ross described living conditions at the Coachman as “shocking” and suggested the province buy the property to convert into low-income housing.

“I saw disrepair, I smelled mould, I saw all the water damage and I just saw the conditions that these people are living in. I think that the fear that residents have for renovictions is real,” Ross said.

“That’s been happening all over B.C. and I think the only way around that is to ensure that the B.C. government steps in, because the B.C. government has done it before. I don’t see any reason why they can’t do that here.

“The short term fixes are good but ultimately I think we need to get to the point where they clean up the estate and ultimately B.C. has got to come in and they’ve got to own that facility so that nobody gets evicted.”

The situation is further complicated by the Dec. 18 death of the building’s landlord, Irving Kirsch, in Vancouver. While described by tenants as unsympathetic to their plight, Kirsch has been their only point of contact to request needed repairs that tenants say he was rarely willing to make.

The province says it needs to get in touch with Kirsch’s estate to figure things out before moving forward.

B.C. Minister of Housing Ravi Kahlon said the province is working with the city, BC Housing and local non-profits to “explore other options and secure housing for displaced residents.”

“We understand and appreciate the undue hardship that residents of the Coachman Apartments are experiencing. This is a challenging situation with legal implications.”

In the meantime tenants are afraid of losing what little they have left to hang on to.

“We all want some sort of stability. It’s really hard for me to think what the future is going to be,” said Wright.

“I know a lot of people who have moved from Terrace to Houston, to Smithers or Kitimat because there’s nowhere to live here. So, that’s where we’re at right now and it’s feeling like we’re drowning.”

READ MORE: Crisis at Coachman Apartments as water pipes burst amid freezing weather


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