09/04/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 11/03/2013 05:12 EST

George Wolsey, Downtown Eastside Landlord, Sought Over Debts To Residents


VANCOUVER - An unprecedented 10 civil arrest warrants have been issued for a "notorious landlord" in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a move a local legal advocacy group said could reverberate nationally.

Warrants for George Wolsey were issued Tuesday in B.C. provincial court after he failed to appear to address the-more-than $18,000 he owes to 10 former tenants for squalid living conditions in a single-room-occupancy hotel he used to own in the Downtown Eastside.

Once the warrants are served, Wolsey has seven days to turn himself in or risk apprehension by the sheriffs.

Doug King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, an organization that advocates on behalf of some of Vancouver's poorest residents, said the case "definitely has national connections."

"It's a bit of a wake-up call, not only to Mr. Wolsey, but I think to all landlords," said King, stressing landlord-tenant disputes are not detached from the civil court system or even criminal proceedings.

King said arrest warrants may be effective tools for tenants who are forced to live in deplorable conditions.

Housing was once a federal issue, he added, and the federal government was very active in making sure there was an adequate number of social housing units, but the situation has never been the same since the responsibility was downloaded onto the provinces.

King said provincial and municipal governments have been unable to address housing issues adequately, resulting in conflicts like the one between Wolsey and his former tenants.

However, Pivot lawyer D.J. Larkin said the civil warrants are only valid for one year, and Wolsey could avoid prosecution if sheriffs fail to arrest him within that time.

"We're certainly hoping they do," she said, noting the number of warrants should make pursuing Wolsey a priority.

Wolsey's former residents complained earlier this year they endured infestations of cockroaches and bed bugs and faced serious risk to their health and safety while living in one of his hotels.

B.C.'s Residential Tenancy Branch agreed with the tenants, and in an order this spring awarded them more than $18,000.

One former tenant not involved in the action, Stephen Freman, said Wolsey is "heartless" and abused his authority as a landlord.

In 2011, the City of Vancouver ordered Wolsey to make repairs and renovations to his building after inspectors found his hotel violated 24 building bylaws and 141 maintenance standards bylaws, including evidence of "pest infestation" in multiple units.

Last year, Wolsey sold the two hotels he owned in the Downtown Eastside, and King said their new managers are taking steps to address building deficiencies.

But the dispute over Wolsey's treatment of tenants continues.

King said the current battle with Wolsey has been ongoing for more than five years, requiring a lot of resources and collaboration.

"I can't see it being done by people without help," he said. "If you're just talking about a regular apartment building, to get 20 people together as a group to do an action against a landlord and to follow it through like the way that these tenants have ... there's no way," he said.

"This is an area where the city and province both need to be giving help to tenants because they can't do it themselves."

Ontario-based lawyer Karen Andrews said the issue of landlords neglecting their responsibilities is also pervasive in her province.

Andrews works for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, and noted a 2011 study by the United Way that found high-poverty neighbourhoods in Toronto have more than quadrupled in number over the last thirty years, from 30 in 1981 to 136 in 2006.

Many of those neighbourhoods' tenants, the report found, are dealing with worsening housing conditions.

Andrews said those marginalized groups generally lack the necessary tools to deal with negligent landlords.

Yet Andrews questioned the effectiveness of warrants.

"Throwing a landlord in jail ... do we think that it has a deterring effect? Or do we think that other landlords would pay attention to this? I don't know," she said.

Andrews said while the optics of warrants may be good, it may be more critical for tenants to feel the dispute-resolution process will help them if they face problems.

"I think tenants need to know that building inspectors will take that seriously, that adjudicators ... will take that seriously, that judges in the courts will take that seriously," she said. "That's what they need to have confidence in."

Back in Vancouver, King said Pivot will continue to pursue the Downtown Eastside's "slumlords," and warrants may be a tool to add to their arsenal.

For now, King said the group will make the public aware about Wolsey's warrants, and it has begun to plaster "wanted" posters bearing his image around the neighbourhood.

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