Just days after Nellie George, a resident of the Beaufort Hotel, spoke to media about the deplorable conditions she and her fellow tenants were living in, she sought the help of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council’s Quu’asa Program.
George was looking for help to find temporary accommodations on Jan. 11. George told Ha-Shilth-Sa she had heard on the street that people who didn’t appreciate her public comments were looking for her. She said she felt afraid for her safety.
Whether the threat was real or cruel rumour, George cried and trembled in fear, afraid to go back to her room and worried for herkitten, wanting to get itsafely out of her suite.
Quu’asa staff are gathering information from a handful of Beaufort Hotel tenants about this concern, and other complaints they have about the rooms that they rent. Quu’asa will bring their concerns to the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council executive, said Quu’asa coordinator, Charlotte Rampanen.
The Beaufort Hotel is located just blocks from City Hall and the provincial law courts, but it’s a rough and tumble area known for drugs, prostitution and more than occasional street violence. On Jan. 9, a man was stabbed on the hotel steps.
The Beaufort suites were oncehighly sought-after, but as Port Alberni’s economic wheels slowed to a near halt,the Beaufort Hoteland Convention Centre fell ontohard times and into an appalling state of disrepair.
The original hotel, located on the corner of 3rd Avenue and Angus Street, was built in 1914, and was once the finest place to stay in the valley with its electric lights, private heating and baths.
Nearly 100 years later the original hotel is gone. All that’s left is the Convention Centre that was built behind the hotel in the early 1980s. It too offers electric lights and in-suite restrooms, but free heat is a thing of the past.The in-suite heating units haven’t worked since April 2010.
The day that George, a grandmother in her 40s, approached Ha-Shilth-Sa to do a story about conditions at the hotel,another resident, Eric Amos, was interviewed by the Alberni Valley Times. He told the newspaper that during the recent winter cold snap he shivered under four blankets. Until the Times story, he used two hot plates to heathis room.He’s since been loaned a space heater.
Building manager Aaron Mair told the Times the hotel heaters weredisconnected because they were a safety hazard, with “sparks flying out of them.”
“It's nothing new,” Mair said. “I've spoken to people who've lived here for years, and you've always had to provide your own heater," he said. "We're providing a good deal: get your own heater and we provide the power."
The reality is, however, the tenants of the Beaufort are of limited means. Many have done without heat because they can’t afford, or find, used space heaters. George says one man sits bundled up in clothes and blankets because his room is so cold you can see his breath.
Information Officer Julie of the Residential Tenancy Branch declined to give her last name, but said heat is considered an essential service.
“Breakdown of the heating system can happen to anyone and if that happens the landlord is required to get it fixed in a reasonable amount of time and the tenant is required to buy space heaters and have their rent adjusted (for the heat deficiency).
George’s “good deal”costs $650 a month. The rent for the two-room suite is paid by the Ministry of Social Services.In early January sheinvited Ha-Shilth-Sa to survey hersuite.
The facility doesn’t look too bad on the outside; nothing a good cleaning, spackle and a coat of paint can’t fix, but once through the glass doors in the foyer one is hitby the bitter cold. Port Albernihas seen sub-zero temperatures for more than two weeks.
A board coversa wall-sized hole where once a sheet of glass served as the front of a beer and wine store. Jagged pieces of glass remain scattered over the floor on the inside of the building.
Immediately to the left is the small elevator, the yellow paint on the wall next to it is almost all peeled away.
Georgemakes her way up the stairwell; the elevator has been broken for years. The dimly-lit halls echo footsteps as people walk the concrete floors. The carpets were all ripped up, never to be replaced.
She points out that the building is secure with a locked main entrance, but the intercom doesn’t work. Visitors have to yell up to the tenants’ windows from the street. Then the tenant must go downstairs to let them in.
George says she andMairhave had their differences in the past. She got along with him in the beginning, she said, even doing some driving for him when he needed to move some of his vehicles. But in the past few months she’s had many run-ins with him and was recently served an eviction notice following a noisyincidenton New Year’s night.
George says she was going to move anyway, but before she goes, she wantedto make sure the friends she’s made at the hotel are safe and treated well.
George filed a complaint with the Residential Tenancy Branch on Jan. 4 and says four or five other tenants filed complaints the following day. The Residential Tenancy Branch will conduct an investigation into thosecomplaints. It’s their job to enforce the provincial Residential Tenancy Act, safeguarding the rights of both landlords and tenants.
Ather room George slides her key into the lock and pushes the door open. It takes a little effort because a blanket is blocking the other side, partly to keep some heat in the room and partly to make sure nobody has entered her suite while she was away. If the blanket is pushed back, says George, she will know someone opened her door while she was gone.
George’s room is dark; its once eggshell walls are painted a grey-blue shade with lilac trim. An area rug provides some warmth over the concrete floor.
The former hotel suites are simply bedrooms with television sets and private rest rooms. None havekitchenettes. George’s room appears to have once been two hotel rooms with an adjoining door. She said it used to be the manager’s suite.
The first room serves as her living area. Cabinets and storage bins line a wall and block the door to the restroom. George said it’s never worked so she blocks the door to keep her guests from going in there. An area rug is flanked by three sofas which point to a small television set perched on an old tower speaker.
There’s a large space heater pointed toward a sofa.
“I sleep on this couch or that one and I point the heater to whichever couch I’m going to sleep on,” she explained.
Just inside the doorway to the second room is a functioning restroom and small vanity area that now serves as her kitchen. The three foot-long counter space has on it a hot plate, a coffee maker and some cooking utensils. The heater and television must be turned off when cooking because the circuit breakers can’t handle the additional load of cooking appliances. George says it’s not unusual to have to go to the hallway breaker box two or three times a day to turn the switch back on. Dishes are washed in the bathroom sink.
George has a bed in the second room,but doesn’t use it. Not since she discovered bed bugs. She says the manager doesn’t want her to remove the mattress set because he doesn’t want to risk spreading the infestation by dragging the mattress through the hallways. It’s something that we wanted to ask Mair about, but he did not respond to Ha-Shilth-Sa’s requests for an interview.
In her fight to help improve conditions at the Beaufort, George has been talking to various advocates and authorities. She goes to support centers each day to make her phone calls and she’s telling people what she and her fellow tenants are living like.
Port Alberni Fire Prevention Officer Randy Thoen said the Beaufort Convention Centre, along with a handful of other low income rooming houses, are at the top of their list when it comes to fire safety concerns and the work at Beaufort is ongoing.
“It’s better than it has been,” said Thoen, “They have a sprinkler system and a fire alarm and the building has a fairly well-compartmentalized construction,” he explained.
While he is concerned about the lack of heat and the number of electrical appliances running, he points to the tenants and their visitors who cause problems with some of their lifestyle choices for the poor condition of the building.
“It’s easier to get cooperation and compliance with the people owning the building rather than going in there and swinging a big bat,” he said, adding the tenants may be worse off with nowhere to go if the building was closed.
Building owner Paul Saroya tore down the older hotel and pub in September 2009 to the delight of area business owners. The liquor license was transferred to the adjacent Convention Centre and the pub ran out of a space on the first floor until October 2010.
When the pub downstairs was still open the patrons often went upstairs looking for parties.
“Since the pub closed after Halloween, the place has gotten much quieter,” said George.
In 2008, Saroya announced big plans for the Beaufort Convention Centre, which included the addition of four floors, which would increase the number of rooms from 20 to about 60. According to news reports, he had hoped to develop a condominium and hotel, attracting seniors and a hotel chain to run the place.
But more than two years later there is no evidence of renovations at the Beaufort.
Saroya was in Nanaimo news a few years back for non-compliance with work orders made by the City of Nanaimo for a troublesome property he owned in that city.
The Beaufort Hotel was a topic of discussion at Port Alberni City Council on Jan. 10. Mayor Ken McRae said the owner is committed to improving the property, but his attention is on a large project in Nanaimo. The mayor promised however to tell Saroya that council is losing patience with him.