Arrest warrants have been issued for a former Downtown Eastside landlord who has refused to pay thousands of dollars owed to tenants – and advocates say the years-long quest for justice shows the city and province need to do more to protect vulnerable renters.
Douglas King, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, announced the 10 warrants for George Wolsey's arrest Wednesday. Mr. King said this was the first time such warrants had been issued against a Vancouver landlord and called the two buildings previously owned by Mr. Wolsey the most notorious hotels in the poverty-stricken neighbourhood.
Mr. King was joined, among others, by a former building resident. They shared stories of suites overrun with bedbugs, cockroaches, and mice, with holes in walls and plumbing and heating that didn't work. As the men spoke, 'wanted' posters with Mr. Wolsey's image stuck to the office wall behind.
"We're here today to send a strong message, a message not only to Mr. Wolsey but to every landlord in the Downtown Eastside. If you neglect buildings, if you take advantage of marginalized people, it will come back to you, there will be consequences, and eventually you'll have to be facing the court system," Mr. King said.
The Residential Tenancy Branch has ruled Mr. Wolsey owes $18,163.75 to 10 different tenants for the infestations and health and safety risks. But Mr. King said Mr. Wolsey has refused to show up for court dates and not paid the money.
A judge issued the warrants Tuesday. Once he's served, Mr. Wolsey has seven days to turn himself in. If he doesn't, it will be up to B.C. sheriffs to locate him.
Attempts to reach Mr. Wolsey on Wednesday were unsuccessful. He does not have a listed phone number and an e-mail to an address believed to be his went unanswered.
He did not have a lawyer for the latest court proceedings and a former lawyer could not be reached because he was on vacation.
Mr. Wolsey sold the buildings – the Wonder and Palace hotels – last year, after the city said it would seek an injunction. Mr. King said the buildings were believed to be worth between $3-million and $4-million combined.
DJ Larkin, another Pivot lawyer, said it should not have taken five years for the case to reach this point. She said the Residential Tenancy Branch has the authority to investigate landlords who aren't in compliance, but rarely does and needs to take more initiative.
Ms. Larkin also said the city has taken a good first step in implementing a rental standards database to track issues, but needs to inspect more actively.
Andrea Reimer, a Vancouver councillor, said inspections have increased substantially in recent years. She said council has been taking a harsher line with landlords since 2009, when it overturned a policy against seeking such injunctions.
She said the city's willingness to take matters to court has led to greater compliance from landlords, and the city has not had to seek an injunction against anyone else.
A government spokeswoman said Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for housing, was unavailable for an interview Wednesday. A statement attributed to him said the province is not considering changes to the Residential Tenancy Act.
"The process is effective. However, as with any arbitration process, there will be situations where one of the parties will need to pursue enforcement through the court system," the statement read.