Bullied tenants forced to buy methadone from slumlord: claim
Former tenants at a derelict hotel in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside said they were forced to buy their landlord's methadone – or face eviction.
Twelve of the residents are attending a public hearing at the B.C. Residential Tenancy Branch Thursday about threats and abuses they claim they faced while living at the Wonder Rooms at 50-52 East Cordova St. and Palace Hotel at 35 West Hastings St. Both are Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels.
They allege that the landlord, George Wolsey, abused his power and would evict tenants without just cause. Wolsey is also facing two city investigations into the condition of the buildings.
"We started these [hearings] up as a way to give tenants some compensation," said Doug King of Pivot Legal Society. "The province may step in and get out a political message and get the buildings up to code but there needs to be representation for individual tenants."
Al Fowler, who lived in one of the buildings and also occasionally worked for Wolsey, believes the former pharmacist would tamper with methadone doses depending on his mood.
"When I was doing a good job and he was happy, everything was fine, and then he would get pissed at me and I'd be sick for the next couple of days," said Fowler. "I can't say for sure, but I feel the doses were tampered with."
King said Wolsey, who owns both buildings, would force tenants to purchase their methadone prescriptions from his pharmacy. If tenants did not purchase the drugs from him, they would face repercussions.
"They would be evicted for using another pharmacy and it became a condition for them to live there," said King. "As a result he lost his pharmacy. We had hoped that was over but we are hearing there are still demands on tenants to go to pharmacies related to him and his family."
Fowler said he had his prescription cancelled over a long weekend because of angering Wolsey. Only after his doctor got involved was he able to get his medication.
"He may have risked my health and my life doing that," said Fowler. "These people can't go on treating us like this. Because we are real people, we all struggle with everything we can."
Because Wolsey was the acting director of the Wilson Recovery Society, the Palace Hotel was considered a recovery house for addicts by the Residential Tenancy Branch Association -- exempting it from laws protecting tenants.
After numerous complaints, Pivot approached the province for help, but according to King, tenants who participated began having issues with their methadone or were evicted and had their belongings thrown out.
"It's a pretty unique situation," said King. "We have never had a SRO hotel run by a pharmacist."
Both buildings are at the centre of a city of Vancouver investigation into bylaw infractions, and have been served with more than 20 compliance orders since 2010.
City inspectors found evidence of bedbugs, roaches and rats in many residential suites. In one inspection report, a staff member wrote: "The entire basement and first floor are littered with rat feces and smell very strongly of rat urine."
According to city documents, the building owner did little to fix any of the problems, although new smoke alarms were installed.
Pivot and the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council are asking for provincial support for evicted tenants in the form of shelter. King said he believes this is a good opportunity to get the evicted tenants into social housing.
But in terms of a long-term solution, King said that the province needs to begin using the provisions available in the Residential Tenancy Act. Vancouver City Council passed a policy to use legal injunctions to fix SOR buildings in March 2009, but have yet to use it.
"What we have said is that there needs to be a message shown if they act this way," said King. "They have this tool, and they don't use it, and we don't know why."
Repeated attempts by CTV News to contact Wosley on Thursday were unsuccessful.
The hearings begin Thursday and continue for a week.