'I simply want to go home': Tenants to launch legal action following James Bay apartment fire

A group of low-income tenants are trying to take legal action to return to their homes, after they were forced to evacuate their James Bay apartment building due to a deadly fire.

The group of seven are all still displaced – living in a car, with family, at a hotel, or in other arrangements – as the habitability of their former home comes into question.

"I simply want to go home," said Village Green Apartments tenant Paul Anderson on Wednesday.

He’s been living at 118 Menzies St. for the last 17 years.

"This past month has created a lot of anxiety," said another tenant, Jason Rempel.

As of Wednesday, the Victoria Fire Department hasn't publically detailed how many of the 36 units in the building were damaged by the Oct. 25 fire.

A Victoria charity that provides free legal advocacy for people facing tenancy issues is helping the displaced group. A lawyer with Together Against Poverty is taking the matter to the Residential Tenancy Branch as the group seeks dispute resolution.

"While the fire did cause some serious damage to parts of the building, a report from the city conducted by a city building inspector and a fire captain has shown that multiple of the apartments – including all of those of the tenants with me right now – are completely undamaged," said the group’s lawyer, Leila Geggie Hurst.

CTV News is working to access a copy of that report. The acting fire chief with Victoria Fire says it’s not the place of the fire department to determine whether people can move back in.

SAFETY STILL A CONCERN SAYS LANDLORD

The tenants' landlord, Pacific Cove Properties, says it’s acting on the advice of its restoration contractor who has also reportedly talked with the fire department, engineers, and a registered architect and determined that the building is not habitable.

"There are a number of factors that prevent the building from being safe to occupy," said Lee Rennison of Pacific Cove Properties in a statement Wednesday.

The list includes structural damage to the roof, a fire wall being destroyed, no functioning fire alarm system currently in the building, and visible mold in the common areas.

"Because of the extensive damage and structural issues, we anticipate the restoration work will take more than 10 months to complete," said Rennison.

CALLS FOR THIRD PARTY REVIEW

Together Against Poverty says decisions on habitability should be made by a neutral third party.

"We cannot have landlords making the determination about the habitability of the building," said Geggie Hurst. "There are huge financial incentives for a landlord to move tenants out and move new tenants in."

She’s advocating for the creation of an independent body – through the province's Residential Tenancy Branch – to help prevent situations like this.

"People need to know in the event of a disaster that someone can come into their building and make a neutral determination of the safety of the building so they can move forward with confidence at finding the best housing situation for them," she said.

All of the tenants who spoke with CTV News on Wednesday detailed their struggle to find a new, affordable place to live.

Among other allegations, the tenants' lawyer says some of them signed mutual agreements to end their tenancies under fraudulent misrepresentation and duress and that their signatures should be deemed invalid.

Pacific Cove says it offered each resident the return of their damage deposit, prorated rent and information on other potential options in the region.

"Furthermore, we intend to offer the affected residents a right of first refusal and a continuation of their tenancies at current rents on the repaired suites when the building is safe to occupy," said the company.