Vancouver’s Sahota family, led by Gurdyar and Pal, have rightly earned a reputation as the city’s most notorious slumlords; they exhibit a propensity for acquiring chunks of real estate likely now worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but they are disinclined to maintain any of it.
While amongst their chronically neglected holdings you will find the Cobalt, the Regent and the Astoria hotels on the Downtown Eastside, their current transgression has to do with the widely publicized Balmoral Hotel.
It is in such a state of disrepair that structural engineers declared it is on the verge of collapse. The weight added to the structure by simply filling the bathtubs in the literally rotting bathrooms would be calamitous. The city has ordered the 150 or so tenants, who are mostly of marginal means, to vacate by June 12.
I was first drawn to the Sahotas and their egregious management practices a decade ago. It was 2007 when the roof of their Pandora apartments in East Vancouver collapsed due to water damage. The city inspectors also discovered electrical faults and rodent infestations among other infractions.
Back then I thought it would be interesting to compare that state of the Sahotas’ commercial holdings with their home on the fringes of Shaughnessy on Angus Drive. What I discovered in my cursory inspection of the exterior was a property as much a blight on that neighbourhood as their buildings were elsewhere in the city.
I returned to Angus Drive once again Tuesday morning. Among the neighbouring fastidious facades, I found: trash in boxes and bags lining the front stairs — a theme that appeared to be carried out into one of the lower floor rooms — lawns were unkempt and littered with trash, chest-high weeds grew in the backyard camouflaging more junk, a rotting back fence was made up in part of a peeling wooden door and… well, you get the idea.
They are authors of residential disaster wherever they set foot.
And what have our city’s leaders done about this, years after the Pandora’s roof collapse? It would seem the Sahotas are proving as recalcitrant as ever.
As for the city, let me back up a bit.
In the fall of 2008, a civic election year in Vancouver and a year after the Pandora roof collapse, online journal the Tyee published a special report titled “A City Soft on Slumlords.” It would detail the Sahotas, their holdings and their extreme reluctance to respond to city notices of bylaw infractions.
David Eby, then a young lawyer with Pivot Legal Society who would go on to be a provincial MLA and the NDP’s effective housing critic, was then armed with a Pivot report called “Cracks in the Foundation.”
It led him to conclude the city appeared to be backing away from enforcing what is known as the Minimum Standards of Maintenance bylaw. The bylaw allows the city to carry out repairs and bill the violating building’s owners.
The city argued pursuing scofflaws that way would end them up in court and it would likely be lengthy, costly and ultimately fail. That was a position taken by then-NPA mayoral candidate Peter Ladner.
But Eby told the Tyee there was no reason not to be more aggressive. The only court case where the city was taken to court occurred in 1990, and the city won.
Vision’s mayoral candidate up for his first time at bat was Gregor Robertson. He said, “the bylaw can be enforced more vigorously and there’s potential for it to be meaningful.”
Incidentally, a few months earlier it was reported that one visit to the Balmoral resulted in 78 bylaw violations.
While city staff now say it spends inordinate amounts of time cajoling the Sahotas into compliance — all on Robertson’s watch — simply looking at the results of what has actually been accomplished at the Balmoral would prove that strategy to be an utter failure.
The city may find appropriate housing for the 150 tenants displaced by that failure on the city’s part, but that means 150 other folks in desperate need of housing will be pushed aside.
Nor is there any reason to believe the Sahotas will be more compliant in the future.