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Squatters at Risk in Vancouver Apartment Building Gutted by Fire, Say Neighbours

Boarded up but accessible, the city says it’s the owner’s responsibility to secure the building.

Jen St. Denis 22 Sep 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

Former tenants and neighbours of a Vancouver apartment building damaged by fire July 27 fear another blaze as people break into the building and live there.

They say the three-storey building at 414 E. 10th Ave. in Mount Pleasant is no longer properly secured. On Sept. 13 Vancouver Fire Rescue Services responded to another fire caused by squatters. The relatively minor fire was quickly put out by firefighters, according to VFRS.

James Wanless, a Mount Pleasant resident who lives about a block away, said he frequently sees people accessing the building and has also spotted the glow of fires inside.

The building has been deemed unsafe to occupy by the city’s chief building official, Saul Schwebs. While some suites were relatively untouched by the July 27 fire, the third floor sustained heavy damage, including the partial collapse of the roof.

“My biggest concern is, if the building’s not secured and people are walking in and hanging out, somebody could get killed,” Wanless said.

“As long as it stands, it needs to be secured so homeless folks aren’t getting hurt.”

Ethan Vlietstra, a former tenant of the building, has been staying with a friend across the alley from 414 E. 10th Ave. and has also seen people coming and going.

“There is a fence that was put up, but no one is watching or maintaining the structural integrity of the fence and the building is regularly getting broken into,” he told The Tyee.

Vlietstra also sent The Tyee video taken on Monday that shows several large gaps in the blue construction fencing that surrounds the building, including one section where the fence has been pushed over.

The City of Vancouver says the owners, Fu Ren and his wife Feng Yang, are responsible for securing the building.

Initially security guards were posted at the building, but Wanless and Vilestra say those guards were only in place for around a month after the fire.

“The City stepped in to provide some assistance in setting up initial security protocols following the first fire as the owners did not, however responsibility is fully with the building owner,” city communications staffer Johann Chang said in an emailed statement.

Ren and Yang are facing 20 fire safety bylaw charges stemming from an inspection of the apartment building on Nov. 17, 2022. Their next court appearance is scheduled for Nov. 20.

The July 27 fire is not the first time an apartment owned by Ren and Yang has burned. A building the couple owned at 3526 Smith Ave. in Burnaby had a serious fire in 2009 that killed one tenant and injured three others. The building had another fire in 2013, and was torn down soon after. Today the property is still a vacant lot.

A Vancouver Fire Rescue Services investigation found the July 27 fire was caused when a tenant with hoarding issues left a candle unattended. Ren previously told The Tyee that the 2009 fire was caused when someone left a lit cigarette on a sofa in the lobby. He said the fire department’s response to the 2013 fire was also too slow and that incident was “outside the control of the owner.”

Ren did not reply to a request for comment for this story, but he has previously told The Tyee that he has evidence to fight the bylaw violation charges.

The July 27 fire left 70 tenants homeless, and many of those tenants are still struggling to find a new rental in Vancouver’s expensive and competitive rental market. Three tenants had to be rescued by firefighters from their balconies as the fire raged, including a woman who was seven months pregnant.

Although the building was poorly maintained, it provided affordable housing for Mount Pleasant residents who now may be pushed out of the neighbourhood. Wanless said he’d like to see the City of Vancouver buy the lot to ensure that whatever gets built on the site in the future provides affordable rental housing.

Ken Gemmill, an assistant fire chief with Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, said the building’s entrances are boarded up with “dozens of sheets of plywood,” but determined people are still able to get in.

The fire department is aware the building is particularly vulnerable to fire and has been currently talking with the city about the long-term plan for the building, Gemmill said.  [Tyee]

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