Tenants of the rundown Coachman Apartments complex in Terrace, most of whom evacuated after freezing temperatures caused water pipes to burst throughout the building in December, are now being told it’s unsafe to live in the building.
BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) air quality testing found widespread, high concentrations of a variety of mould, including species that can cause both superficial and more dangerous infections, especially among people with health issues.
Based on a report commissioned by BC Housing, the BCCDC could not support the return of residents to the apartments. The building is “inappropriate for permanent, long-term housing in its current state,” according to a synopsis provided to The Terrace Standard by the B.C. housing ministry.
Most tenants chose to leave on the advice of city officials and the fire department Dec. 26, and are being housed in local hotels, funded by the provincial BC Housing agency until March 19.
Others stayed behind, not wanting to leave their homes despite broken fire alarms and no running water, and have been advised of the air quality test results, according to the housing ministry. BC Housing established a 24/7 security and fire watch to ensure residents who have chosen to remain in the building are kept safe.
The Ksan Society non-profit social service agency in Terrace is taking the lead on finding new housing for those tenants. Despite safety concerns expressed by the BCCDC, the city has not made the evacuation of the building mandatory.
Terrace Mayor Sean Bujtas told The Terrace Standard that he doesn’t want to force people to do anything they don’t want to do “but there’s a point where people are being told that this is not a place that you want to live right now.”
“We could probably revoke occupancy, but that would mean that the building would have to be boarded up. I don’t want to do that because then the tenants can’t access their apartments,” he said, adding that he’s working to have hotel stays extended for as long as it takes to find new homes. But that could take some time amid a lack of affordable housing in Terrace.
A housing ministry spokesperson told The Terrace Standard that only four families out of about 57 evacuees have so far found new homes.
“I’ll continue to work with BC Housing and do my best to try to continue to extend that,” Bujtas said.
“Hopefully they’re paying for fewer and fewer people to be in hotels because as they find places for people to live we’re not going to need hotels for those folks.”
The assessment also noted that the mould will continue to spread until the source of dampness is controlled and the interior is thoroughly dried, according to information provided by the housing ministry.
Existing mould cannot be effectively removed or treated until the dampness is remedied.
Making any repairs to the building is complicated by the death of the building’s landlord, Irving Kirsch, and the so-far unsettled situation with his estate.
“The executor has not yet been fully named. It’s not within (the province’s) powers to go in and fix the property and put a lien on the building. We’ve looked into that as well and we’re not in that position either,” Bujtas said.
“Even if we were, we would have to serve the estate first and we don’t have an estate to serve. We’ve gotten to the point now where we’ve told people that it’s in their best interests to seek a new place to live.
“I don’t see the building being habitable for quite a while.”
The offices of B.C. Premier David Eby and Minister of Housing Ravi Kahlon both confirmed discussions with Bujtas about the crisis at Coachman Apartments.
But the mayor expressed some frustration with the pace of things, saying he’s been treated like “a ministerial hot potato” by the province.
“I talked to one minister and then I was told to go back. I talked to [Minister of Housing Ravi Kahlon] and then I was told they’d get back to me. Then I was told to talk to Emergency Management BC which, of course, I’d already been talking to.
“I talked to the premier directly on this issue. I asked if we could sit down and meet and he didn’t have time, but he phoned me. And we talked for about 10 minutes about this issue and what we were doing.
“At that point in time, I felt like there was a little bit of a plan, that there might have been a possibility that the city could get in there, but they can’t. We just don’t have the authority and, quite frankly, we just don’t have the capacity.”
A housing ministry spokesperson said BC Housing will “continue to work with its partners to explore alternative long-term housing solutions in Terrace,” promising an update once more information is available.
“We know there is tremendous need for affordable housing in Terrace and across the province, which is why the Ministry of Housing is working with partners to address critical gaps across the housing continuum,” the ministry added.
Bujtas added that he wishes the province could take more decisive action, fearing an increase in the already high rate of homelessness in Terrace.
“From my point of view, housing is really a provincial issue. I got involved because I run the risk of having 60 new homeless people in our community and we can’t have that,” said Bujtas.
“I’m not going to let that happen regardless of if it’s our responsibility or not.
“For myself, I just don’t understand why, in a situation like this, the province can’t just roll in, tell somebody like BC Housing to fix the problem and put a lien on the property. But, according to them, they cannot.”
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