British Columbia

Tight-knit community unravels as 80 residents are forced out of fire-damaged building

Residents of a West End apartment building in Vancouver are looking for new homes after a fire last week. Even suites with minimal smoke and water damage are being shuttered with lease agreements ended, permanently displacing dozens of residents.

Renovations are expected to take about a year, and rents will jump once everything is repaired

Alexis Maledy named her new son Thurlow after the street where their apartment is located. They're now looking for a new home. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

More than 80 residents of a West End apartment building that caught fire last week in Vancouver have learned they'll be permanently displaced, after the building's owners ended all lease agreements to carry out restoration work.

Washington Court tenants had access to emergency social services for hotel stays and other requirements, but that ran out on Tuesday, leaving the tight-knit community to fend for itself.

"As of Friday night, we were told that regardless of what kind of damage our suites appear to have, the whole building has been deemed uninhabitable," said Alexis Maledy, who said October rents have been returned, along with damage deposits.

According to Maledy, the rents were very reasonable and stable at the building — something that's quite difficult to find in the Vancouver rental market.

The fire only seriously damaged a couple of suites, but the entire building suffered smoke and water damage. As a result, Washington Court management is ending all tenancy agreements while restoration is carried out over nine to 14 months. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Maledy lived in the building for nearly five years. She said that throughout that time, about seven friends have also moved into the building, and they've become close with several other neighbours.

But that community is being disrupted, with friends scattering like feathers in the wind.

"It's the kind of place with a lot of pets in the building, a lot of families — people living here for 20 years. It is a really tight-knit community, a place where you know your neighbours names and you say 'hi' in the elevator," said Maledy.

She even named her new son Thurlow after the street where the apartment is located.

'Then I started crying'

The landlords bought the building about eight years ago. Jeff Taylor has been the building manager for the last six.

"I had a meeting with the owners in the alley after we did a little tour, and they were in tears — and not because of the financial hardship, because that's not an issue with them, but because it was their baby," said Taylor. "And then I started crying, right?"

Taylor said the entire building will be reopened at the same time after nine to 14 months of work. He said rents will definitely jump, but he's going to try to keep them low and bring some of the tenants back.

But most tenants won't be returning. They're now focusing on finding new places to stay and trying to get back into their suites to gather stuff that isn't damaged.

Elizabeth Locke was relying on emergency social services for a place to stay — but that ran out on Tuesday morning. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Now [Tuesday] is the last day for emergency shelter that was provided, so we're out of that space," said Elizabeth Locke. "It's a matter of coming into the building to gather some personal items and clothing for this week and start hop-scotching from friends to friends."

"Not everybody in our building has friends that can house them or accommodate pets," said Locke, noting that as a pet-friendly building, many residents have cats and dogs.

Displaced resident Matt Perrin had two cats in the suite above the one where the fire started. He was able to get one of them, Jax, out immediately, but the other, Luna, suffered major injuries from smoke. He now has to feed her through a tube in her neck and keep an eye on her all day.

Matt Perrin holds his injured cat, Luna. Perrin says the metal music community has rallied, raising funds online and offering support. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Perrin is lucky to have a friend nearby with space for him, his girlfriend, the two cats and his smoke-covered belongings.

"It smells like a campfire, but it's more toxic than that, and I know it's pretty unhealthy to breath for extended periods of time," said Perrin.

His neighbours, Bryan Coletti and Melanie Sutherland, are still looking for a place to land, but they have insurance to cover the hotel cost for them and their dog Dallas.

Bryan Coletti and Melanie Sutherland lived in separate suites in Washington Court before meeting each other and starting a relationship. Now, they're looking for a new place together with their dog, Dallas. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The two were living in separate suites in Washington Court when they met. Now they're hunting for a new apartment together.

"So we've been looking at a few units, but it's looking pretty bleak right now, so we're just continuing our search," said Sutherland.


Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

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About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.

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