Fatal east side fire raises questions on City enforcement

GlobalTV’s top story focuses on the east side home where three died

Only two days before Christmas eve three men living in a flop house at Pandora and Renfrew in east Vancouver died as a result of a fire. Houses like these exist all over the city, and they usually are rented out by someone who refuses to invest anything into home repairs. Additions are made to the homes – often covered decks like the one we see in the video story above – that are not to building codes, where people bunk up and the landlord collects rent despite miserable conditions.

There are many aspects of this tragic story which raise questions about the City of Vancouver’s role in enforcing by-laws on problem properties. There are also questions such as: is an overriding political imperative to keep people off the street [see: boasts about reducing 'street homeless'] causing life and safety violations to go unenforced in Vancouver buildings? This and other questions should be asked of Mayor Gregor Robertson, but he just announced that he’s offline on vacation until January.

There are also aspects of this story that raise eyebrows, such as the swiftness of the conclusion on the cause of the fire. Within 12 hours of the fire VFD reps were signaling that it was an old string of Christmas lights that caught fire. There are lots of old strings of lights hung around town right now, and thankfully they’re not resulting in fires. Was enough time given to city fire workers to exhaustively investigate the reason why this fire started, or was this rushed out for media consumption?

The Mayor and City Manager fired Vancouver’s Chief Electrical Inspector earlier this year, and to our knowledge the City has not replaced Ark Tsisserev with a qualified replacement yet. Was life and safety at risk on this property and would have a qualified electrical inspector been able to shut this property down?

Why is Deputy City Manager in front of the cameras and not a political represenative of the city? Perhaps it’s because when you have a city councillor, such as Kerry Jang’s awkward performance on CKNW this morning (mp3 clip), you get Vision revealing concerns about the loss of housing are on par with concerns about enforcing by-laws. Kudos to morning host Jill Bennett for asking the tough questions.

This home had been visited 21 times by emergency services personnel since early 2009. I’ve lived next to houses with problem tenants, and it’s not fun. How could it have remained such a serious problem for so long? Coun. Jang claims that "action was imminent" by council to shut down this house. Where is the proof that this action was indeed about to take place, such as staff reports?

The City of Vancouver has an award-winning resource called NIST Teams whose purpose is to manage these kinds of problems. They are described on the City website as follows:

What Kinds of problems do teams deal with?

Teams tackle issues that cut across organizational lines. Issues that require an integrated approach such as garbage, noise complaints, illegal activities, traffic issues and problem properties (such as drug houses or poorly managed properties) tend to involve more than one department or agency. NISTs can deal with them more effectively because they can marshal the efforts of experts who are empowered to act quickly and collaboratively. In the past, neighbourhoods became frustrated when agencies failed to coordinate their activities. Complaints about problem properties, to use one example, might bring a series of visits from Police, Fire & Rescue Services, Health or Permits & Licenses workers. However, until the formation of NIST, there was no way for these agencies to coordinate their response, so the problem, and neighbourhood aggravation, was often needlessly prolonged."

So what happened to Vancouver’s NIST team approach to dealing with this problem property? We understand that over the past two budgets NIST teams have been all but wiped out. A skeletal form of the program is now lumped into Community Services managed by Brenda Prosken.

If the Mayor and this council are so concerned about the lack of housing, why aren’t they using the empty space the City owns at the Olympic Village as interim housing space? Those millions could have been used to buy up tons more housing around town, but they wanted their symbolic foothold on Southeast False Creek. Some good those empty housing units are doing us.

In another cruel irony of this story, apparently the brother of Curtis Brick lived in the Pandora Street house, but to our knowledge Brick’s sibling was not injured. Curtis Brick died in 2009 of heat exposure and dehydration in a popular Vancouver park while the public looked on.

We’ve already heard from several Vancouver media who are not buying the spin so far from City Hall. Perhaps Mayor Robertson could keep his cell phone on while he sits by the pool this winter, and be prepared to answer some tough questions.

- post by Mike

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