The Wintergreen Apartment property, known locally as “The Ghetto”, has, for now, closed its doors as a rental building for vulnerable people. Property owner Randy Brown is complying with city orders and has moved out of all of the dozen or so travel trailers in late November.
The travel trailers were placed on the vacant lot after one of the two apartment buildings burnt down in July 2013. The lone remaining apartment building also had a fire in May 2023, which killed one tenant and forced its closure earlier this year. The building was not insured at the time of the fire.
Before that fire, one of the illegal rental trailers burnt down in November 2022. Thanks to the efforts of the Port Alberni Fire Department, the blaze was contained to a single trailer.
According to Mike Fox, the City of Port Alberni’s chief executive officer, the Wintergreen Apartment property can’t be occupied until a Fire Order on it is met.
“The owner has complied with the removal of the trailers as of today,” he wrote in an email to Ha-Shilth-Sa.
In order to remove the trailers, all tenants had to be evicted. Brown complied to his agreement with the city to have the trailers removed once the neighboring Tiny Home Village opened, a housing project run by the Port Alberni Friendship Center.
Brown estimates that about 75 per cent of his former tenants have moved next door to Wałyaqił Tiny Home Village. While praising the Port Alberni Friendship Center staff for the work they’re doing with his former tenants, Brown says there are a few that refuse to go there.
“Some say that chain link fence is like being chained up in jail and there’s too many rules,” Brown noted.
But he added that his former tenants that now live next door are looking much better.
“We are very excited and pleased to welcome our guests into our Wałyaqił Tiny Home Village,” said Port Alberni Friendship Center Executive Director Cyndi Stevens. “We have seen such amazing progress for many in just the few short weeks and know this is because they are in a safer environment with their basic needs being met now. Our counsellor visits daily and our support staff are there 24/7 to ensure the safety of our precious guests.”
Brown has been renting low barrier units in Port Alberni for many years. He has said that he houses people who otherwise would be out in the cold.
In the past they had more barriers to emergency shelter than they do today. He said he is pleased with how vulnerable people are being treated at subsidized housing spaces in the city currently.
“The shelter is doing a good job with the Friendship Center looking after it. They’re not as strict (as the previous managers),” he said of the community’s facility on Eighth Avenue. “Even up town at the Bread of Life, there’s more beds than there used to be.”
With more relaxed rules at these local shelters, vulnerable people are finding a little more stability, said Brown.
“They used to kick them out at 9 a.m. then they’d have to come back by 5 p.m. to try get back into a bed,” he said.
Last year, Brown said he himself opened a shelter in one of his Third Avenue properties to give vulnerable people a warm place to stay. But now that rules have changed in other shelters, he finds he doesn’t have to do it this year.
“Things are looking pretty good. The Salvation Army has volunteers there that step up when funding runs out,” he noted.
As for his Fourth Avenue property, Brown says the trailers are in bad shape, but he will try to save them.
“I could have moved them to Josephine Street, but the city and the people don’t want that. I took them to my other properties that are not inhabited,” he shared.
According to Brown, his trailers are a mess.
“A lot of the tenants are hoarders,” he said, adding that there was a lot of trash to be cleared before the trailers were moved.
With the trailers at other properties Brown owns, he plans to clean them up one by one to sell or give away.
Regarding the Wintergreen Apartment building and the next-door vacant property, Brown hopes to salvage the structure, which he says has seven units and is worth about $500,000. He estimates that it will take about $200,000 to repair and upgrade the building. He hopes to find a partner who can help pay for the cost of repairs so that he can rent it out.
The fatal fire in May 2023 severely damaged one unit and got into the trusses above the suite, according to Brown.
“But the other units have little to no damage,” he said. “I need to build a temporary roof and have an architect design everything.”
Brown says he hopes to meet with BC Housing or find a partner willing to help fix up the burnt building so that it could be rented to vulnerable people.
Besides the cost of repairs, Brown is still facing $130,000 in fines and judgements for renting out illegal trailers on his property.
“I was hoping they’ll (the City of Port Alberni) forget about it, but the mayor wants the money,” said Brown.
Mike Fox says that the city continues to work with Brown to ensure this and other properties are not in contravention of municipal bylaws.
“The city is committed to working with people and social organizations to find suitable housing,” said Fox. “Any outstanding fines are required to be paid to the city regardless of the situation or individual. The city has not intervened in the sale of houses or properties.”
Brown does not want to pay fines to the city and offered to donate the sum to a local charity. According to Brown, the Salvation Army have said they’ve provided 200,000 meals this year. Rather than pay his outstanding fines to the city, Brown proposed that he donate it to the Salvation Army.
But his offer was turned down.
“I got a solid no,” he said.
Brown said he was given until Dec. 8 to have the Fourth Avenue property vacated and cleared. That is when bylaw officers will come for an inspection. He anticipated that the clean-up would be done by Nov. 24.
If he passes inspection, Brown may be able to move forward with repairs to the Wintergreen Apartment building.
At Wałyaqił Tiny Home Village, Stevens says the PAFC is looking forward to finding funding to expand the facility. In its second phase of construction the village would see another 10 sleeping pods added.
“We see this project as more than just providing a safe home, but building a community where people can be supported in their wellness journey and be able to reconnect with family,” said Stevens.