Fort McMurray condo owners financially ruined by embattled rebuild

Owners of a Fort McMurray condo project ensnared in lawsuits and plagued by delays are becoming increasingly desperate.

'If one person's life is lost, the blood is on your hands,' owner says in message to premier

The Hillview Park wildfire rebuild is mired in lawsuits. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Owners of a Fort McMurray condo project entangled in lawsuits and plagued by delays are becoming increasingly desperate.

Residents have been burdened with the escalating cost of rebuilding the original complex, which was destroyed in the May 2016 wildfire.

Some are even talking about suicide.

In an open letter addressed to Premier Rachel Notley earlier this month, residents of the Hillview Park Condominium shared personal accounts of heartbreak and financial ruin.

The letter signed only "desperate owners" included a series of anonymous submissions.

If my life ended now, my mortgage would be paid off.- Condo owner

"We can't take it anymore," wrote one owner. "If my life ended now, my mortgage would be paid off. It's terrifying that this is what I, and many others are hoping for.

"If one person's life is lost, the blood is on your hands."

Another owner said she felt helpless and feared the legal dispute has become a life-and-death situation for her family.

"We are at our wits' end. My life has become doctor's visits to get meds for depression and possibly consider other resources to allow my family to go on without me.

"I hate this. When can it be over?"

Owners are facing another financial blow in an ongoing legal dispute over the 214-unit building in the Abasand neighbourhood.   

After months of delays and millions of dollars in special assessment fees, owners were informed in a notice last week they will now be asked to cover an additional $3.7-million assessment.

Each property owner is being asked to pay between $16,500 and $19,500.

They have been given two weeks to come up with the money.

Homeowners have been forced to continue paying their mortgages, condo fees and property taxes on a building not yet constructed, or risk foreclosure and bankruptcy. Owners have complained that their condo fees have tripled to $800 per month.

In March, each resident was asked to pay a special assessment of about $30,000. The Red Cross established a special fund to assist owners affected by that assessment. Few qualified and there is no sign assistance will be provided this time.

In June, owners were collectively charged $20,000 for an information meeting with the condo board.

In the meantime, many have maxed out credit cards, drained their bank accounts and filed for bankruptcy.

In an interview with CBC News on Wednesday, Premier Rachel Notley said the province is looking into the matter and "scrambling" over the last few days to put additional mental health supports in place for owners in need. 

Notley said her heart goes out to the owners but she's not sure if her government will intervene. 

"There is no question that the urgency of that call has gone up, with people talking about the severe mental health effects the stress of it all is creating," Notley said. "We are looking into if there is anything we can do.

"The difficulty is that this is now before the courts. It's a legal dispute between the contractor and the condo owner, so there is only so much we can do." 

The legal dispute began August 2017, when the original developer, Viceroy Construction, was removed from the project.

The board told owners that for the rebuild to proceed they must borrow $6 million for repairs, and owners would be asked to shoulder any costs not covered by insurance.

This is how the Hillview Park condo site looked in March 2017. (David Thurton/ CBC)

The developer and building management are now facing off in a multi-million dollar lawsuit. Viceroy claims wrongful termination and breach of its $63.9-million contract.

Building management is counter-suing for $9.3 million, alleging the construction company was negligent in ensuring work was free from defects, was completed on time and that subcontractors were paid on deadline.

None of the allegations made by Viceroy or Hillview have been proven in court.

This has been an upsetting journey for everybody.- Melissa Martin

Owner Melissa Martin, who was elected to the condo board last month, said the special assessments are being used to cover construction costs.

The latest fees will be used to repair "over-dug" foundations on some of the buildings, Martin said.  

"Unfortunately, insurance only pays for work once. It's not an insurable cost to cover these mistakes," she said.

"I honestly don't know why the problems weren't discovered all at once. This has been an upsetting journey for everybody."

Martin said knowing that some of her fellow owners are talking about suicide makes her sick to her stomach. She's urging her neighbours to get help.

"These are my neighbours, these are my friends, these are people that I know ... a condo isn't worth it. Life is precious."

Today, two and half years after the wildfire, the building remains a construction site.

The board initially planned to do a phased re-entry and planned to have the last homeowner in by mid-February 2018.

No matter who we turn to, they just keep turning their backs on us.- Sheila Champion

Condo owner Sheila Champion is begging for government intervention. She faces bankruptcy, with mortgage payments on a condo that hasn't been rebuilt, but knows others are in worse shape.

"People can't even go to work because they're so sick and full of dread all the time," Champion said in an interview Wednesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. 
Sheila Champion and her husband say they can’t afford to live in Fort McMurray anymore. (Submitted)

"While I may be out here being the noisiest person, I'm fighting so hard because those people keep messaging me.

"The condo act has nothing in place to stop these board members from doing anything. They can do whatever they want, they can hit you with assessment after assessment, and if you don't pay they can put a lien on your property and force you into foreclosure."

Owners say they need government intervention but Champion thinks their calls for a government investigation, financial relief and legislative reform have fallen on deaf ears.

"No matter who we turn to, they just keep turning their backs on us," Champion said.

'My hands are tied' 

Between the cost of the unbuilt condo and their current home, Melissa Mercer said, she and her husband are using 80 per cent of their total income to cover housing costs.

She said they are struggling to keep their heads above water.

"We have great jobs, we have no consumer debt and the only thing that is crippling us is this house," Mercer said. "My hands are tied. It doesn't matter how much I work, they're just going to take it from me.

"They're just going to bankrupt everybody."

She's considering filing for bankruptcy and has been in contact with a lawyer. She has money saved for her children's education but refuses to cash it.

 Tany Yao, the UCP MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, said the debacle is "unacceptable."

"I don't pretend to have the answer for this," Yao said. "This [board] needs to demonstrate some transparency and accountability and have some upfront discussions with all the unit owners.

"This has been a few years, this is enough. This is why we create legislation is for the one rotten egg."  

'Falling through the cracks' 

Liberal MLA David Swann said the ongoing legal dispute was the result of a natural disaster, and the province should feel compelled to help.

He called on the government to provide owners with financial assistance on a case-by-case basis. Free legal counsel should also be provided to owners, he said.

"Legal actions like this can go on forever," Swann said. "I don't have confidence that this has become a high enough priority for the government to intervene in a significant way.

"They now are faced with quite a number of people who are going to be falling through the cracks if they don't get the support they need."

With files from Madeleine Cummings.