North

Future of Hay River highrise is Harry Satdeo's to determine

Harry Satdeo, owner of the Mackenzie Place apartment building in Hay River, N.W.T., hopes to have his building open for tenants in September, but it still needs some work.

Aging and fire damaged landmark building depends on owner Harry Satdeo for its future

Harry Satdeo in one of his Mackenzie Place apartments in Hay River. (Walter Strong/CBC)

The highrise in Hay River, N.W.T., is scarred at the 11th floor with burned-out windows and balcony. Black soot climbs the wall toward the floor above. It strikes the viewer as a scene from a war movie, or at least as evidence of recent  calamity.

Crumbling concrete balconies and other signs of age and neglect suggest the 17-storey, tanned-hide brown concrete apartment building is ready for a major facelift.

Whether the Mackenzie Place remains an aging, scarred building falling into greater disrepair, or becomes a building under renewal, falls to decisions Harry Satdeo will make.

The Mackenzie Place highrise in Hay River on Aug. 12, 2019, showing evidence of fire damage. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Satdeo, 70, has owned the building since 2002. He said he saved it from foreclosure. Taking over the mortgage on the 122-unit building made him one of the largest private landlords in the Northwest Territories, at least in terms of units available. 

Satdeo said he left Guyana, where he is from, for Canada with ten dollars in his pocket. But he didn't make it to Calgary with even that much — he bought ice cream for his then 2-year-old daughter in Trinidad during a layover.

Now retired from a 34-year career as a correctional officer in Alberta, Satdeo said he's always tried to run his business with one question in mind: "What would my mother want me to do?"

A crumbling concrete balcony at the Mackenzie Place highrise. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Perhaps Satdeo's mother was tolerant of slow decline: Satdeo's handling of the highrise has had its critics, including some tenants, the territorial government and fire marshal.

The blackened window frames are not thanks to a recent event. A fire in March on the 11th floor gutted a unit, while water damage from the ensuing effort to extinguish the blaze damaged at least 20 more.

At the time, Satdeo made it clear he didn't have the means to immediately do anything to get tenants back into the building. He had no insurance on the building, and recently settled more than $500,000 in back taxes owing to Revenue Canada.

"I haven't found financing. I have been using my credit cards," Satdeo said of the current renovations and repairs being done. "My son loaned me some money. We are in the process of canvassing for a loan."

An apartment unit in the Mackenzie Place highrise in Hay River shows its age. (Walter Strong/CBC)

On a tour of the building given by Satdeo, a CBC reporter saw signs of age without upkeep. Rugs are worn, paint is old, patched drywall appears painted over in some spots without the benefit of a proper sanding. Some balcony decks are crumbling. Twenty units have had their balconies essentially condemned and doors fastened shut to prevent access.

But some units, particularly on the upper floors, are in good shape and look ready for residents to move in.

Harry Satdeo in a unit of the Mackenzie Place in Hay River ready for tenants. (Walter Strong/CBC)

The worst of the units show signs of tenant abuse, with holes in the walls and kicked in doors. Satdeo said a criminal element had set up shop in some units, something he said won't happen again.

"We'll do a thorough screening," Satdeo said. "We don't want any drug dealers anymore. There was enough and for that I apologize to the community for having this place turn into a drug den.

"If the community will bear with us, they should see some changes."

Satdeo said the building is expensive to maintain, with monthly operating and maintenance costs consuming 65 per cent of rental revenue. He said heating bills exceed $40,000 a month during the winter.

Most units are furnished and rent for between $1,000 a month for a bachelor, to up to more than $2,000 for a four-bedroom suite. Satdeo said the building was at about 85 per cent occupancy before the fire.

He's at zero per cent occupancy now, and even if he's able to lease apartments by September as he plans, at least 40 units will remain unfit for a tenancy.

Some of the units Satdeo said are ready to be rented are in a rough state. One unit seemed in such state of patchy neglect that the reporter incorrectly assumed it would need at least a fresh coat of paint before anyone moved in, but was told: "this is OK, for now."

Harry Satdeo adjusts a blind in a unit of the Mackenzie Place. (Walter Strong/CBC)

Regardless, Satdeo is confident many will want to move in — including himself, on the 17th floor — if the territorial government OKs the building for occupancy. He hopes that might happen by Sept. 1.

As it stands, the building remains closed to occupancy on a public health order dated May 17.

"Re-occupancy can only occur after the Public Health Order is lifted," stated Andrea Nilson, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services in an email.

Satdeo must submit a revised building assessment and remediation plan to the health department for approval before the order can be lifted. He hopes to have that done before the end of next week.

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