Landlord of hastily evacuated apartment block calls collapse warning 'absolute lie'

The president of a Calgary property management company says his Kensington apartment building did not need to be immediately evacuated of its 125 residents.

City of Calgary says its orders were warranted 'to protect the lives of those folks'

Kensington Manor, at 321 10th St. N.W., was evacuated Nov. 23 on short notice, giving residents only 15 minutes to pack a bag. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

The landlord of a Kensington apartment block says it's an "absolute lie" that the building was in danger of imminent collapse and needed to be rapidly evacuated.

The 125 residents of Kensington Manor, at 321 10th St. N.W., have yet to get their belongings nearly two weeks after the crisis.

Don Lowe, president of National Equity Management Ltd., a property management company, said he understood there was no pressing emergency on Nov. 23 and asked for more time to vacate the building.

"We asked for a 10-day window," Lowe told CBC News in an email. "After all, it has stood for 47 years, so let's move with speed but not haste."

But the City of Calgary disagrees, saying it had had no choice but to hastily remove the residents because the building was "in serious shape."

"It could, in a worst-case scenario, collapse," city building safety response co-ordinator Wayne Brown told CBC News on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, advocacy group Renters Action Movement says it's heard from many residents struggling to get information from the property manager and not being able to afford an unexpected move.

'Such a strict order'

The property management company started working with the city and an engineer after identifying a problem in the summer, Lowe said.

On Nov. 23, he met with the city to receive the engineer's findings, who Lowe said described "very clearly that there was no immediate danger."

The subsequent city order to evacuate that day by 11 p.m. was a surprise, he said.

"Knocked right off our feet. Totally unexpected. The engineer pleads for at least 24 hrs. No go," Lowe said in the email.

"Never did we expect such a strict order."

A sign outside Kensington Manor states the building has been declared unsafe for occupation. (Mario De Ceccio/CBC)

Lowe said he co-operated fully and wanted to keep his tenants safe, but felt word of risk of collapse told to the public and media were overblown.

"I'm told by the city that the headline is 'imminent collapse!' I am floored," Lowe said.

"This is an absolute lie. A complete fabrication. No such situation existed then nor does it exist now."

Correct action to protect the lives of those folks.- Wayne Brown, City of Calgary

Brown, however, said "that's inaccurate," adding the building was not safe to be in — and still is not safe to live in.

The structural problem will require repairs for each of its seven floors.

"The professional engineer that had been working with the property management company gave us exactly that: immediate shoring, vacate without delay," Brown said.

City investigating

The city is investigating what caused the building's structural problem. Brown would not comment on whether neglect or maintenance delays were being considered.

The building will be shored up before residents can safely reenter to pick up their belongings and furniture, he said, likely this week.

"The correct action to protect the lives of those folks that were in the building [was] to vacate immediately — certainly understanding that the implication was... very, very difficult for those residents," Brown said.

"But in our minds, there was nothing much we could do other than to act quickly."

Meanwhile, people are displaced indefinitely, with some reporting voided tenant's insurance due to the evacuation being caused by a pre-existing condition in the building.

'Responsibility to house them'

Better communication and financial support could have softened the unusual "speed and the severity" of the evacuation, Kate Jacobson of the Renters Action Movement told the Calgary Eyeopener.

This situation highlighted for her how not everyone can rely on friends or family for emergency housing or money.

"To me, that really is the landlord's responsibility, because they benefited off collecting rent from all these people for years and years and years, so they have the responsibility to house them," Jacobson said. "That's kind of the contract you turn to when you rent."

Kate Jacobson of the Renters Action Movement is trying to help residents get answers from their former landlord. (CBC)

The group plans to lobby the province to clarify how much support a landlord should give tenants, such as providing a hotel overnight, paying moving costs and clearly relaying developments.

Lowe said he's been updating tenants, and any questions can be sent to him directly.

The company promises to refund a quarter of November's rent, plus $250 as a "gesture of goodwill," enough to cover almost a week's stay at a hotel where he had negotiated a deal for evacuated residents.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener