Skip to main content

The Balmoral and Regent hotels in the downtown Eastside in Vancouver, Nov. 6, 2019.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The City of Vancouver is once again seeking an injunction to force the Sahota family to repair a deteriorated rental building with dorm-style units three years after an inspector first flagged risks to their tenants.

Council’s unanimous vote on Wednesday against the Sahotas – to whom the city paid millions last year for two properties that had to be evacuated – highlights the difficulty the municipal government has had regulating this aging private rental stock, which still houses thousands of Vancouver’s poorest residents.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart said his city has to ensure these units are safe enough for occupants while it pursues funding from Ottawa as part of Vancouver’s $1-billion plan to buy up to 105 privately owned single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels. Mr. Stewart said the economic model of these buildings is broken, in part because they were constructed a century ago as short-term housing for single loggers or fishermen in small bedrooms with shared toilets down the hall.

He said his meeting last month with the provincial and federal housing ministers went well and that he raised Vancouver’s plan to buy and renovate or redevelop 2,500 of these rooms into self-contained social housing units. Mr. Stewart said he was texting on Tuesday with Ahmed Hussen, the re-elected federal housing minister, and is hopeful the Liberal government’s national housing strategy will provide the money to purchase these buildings.

“I want this to be fair to everybody involved, but I think it has to happen rapidly,” he said late Wednesday afternoon.

Until this funding is secured, he said, the city is stepping up its building bylaw enforcement to improve living conditions for tenants.

City staff will now seek an order in B.C. Supreme Court forcing the family to deal with outstanding issues at the 110-year-old Regal Hotel. It would also put a notice on the land title to warn that there are unresolved building bylaw infractions on the property, which sits at the south end of Vancouver’s Granville Strip nightlife district. The building was last assessed at $8.9-million, and has long been owned by the Sahotas, whom a 2018 Globe investigation found had real estate holdings – about 40 properties in and around Vancouver – worth an estimated $218-million at the time.

In 2018, a building inspector found the top floor of the building had only one exit and, a year later, another inspector found a lower floor was rotting badly.

A man who answered the cellphone of Pal Sahota, one of two brothers who run the Sahotas’ real estate empire, declined to comment on Wednesday afternoon.

Evan Cooke, the family’s lawyer, failed to persuade council to delay this legal challenge for four weeks – the time he said it would take to finish the remaining 10 per cent of the work. Seeking an injunction would just add costs and time to this process, he said.

Mr. Cooke told council that the family was in disarray when the city ordered more repairs in June, 2019. That summer, matriarch Parkash “Pash” Sahota, who was head of the corporation that owned the Regal, had a leg amputated, then was put into a nursing home and died months later in January, 2020. Then, he said, the pandemic made it hard to hire contractors to fix the problems in the densely populated building.

Some councillors voiced skepticism about these arguments.

“I’ve been involved with these owners and their buildings for 30 or 40 years, and they have quite the reputation of ignoring requests for decent maintenance standards, so why should we believe that they’re going to actually complete the work now, given their reputation and given the fact that it’s already been two years since they’ve been asked to do this and it still isn’t done,” Councillor Jean Swanson, a former antipoverty activist, asked Mr. Cooke.

Wendy Pedersen, director of the Downtown Eastside SRO Collaborative, which helps tenants push for improved living conditions, praised the city’s actions on Wednesday. But Ms. Pedersen, a long-time housing activist who has organized Sahota tenants in the past, said nearly all of the private landlords of this dorm-style housing are not maintaining their units.

She added that the average rent in these private, dorm-style units is $700 a month – which eats up almost every dollar many tenants get from their provincial monthly social assistance cheque.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct