Prince Rupert apartment fire victims still looking for housing as temporary shelter comes to an end

Advocates say affordable housing in the city needs to be addressed by all levels of government.

After a few years living in Vancouver, Rhonda Bolton returned to Prince Rupert, B.C., to help take care of her sister Irma Bolton who lived in Angus Apartments.

Before leaving, she lived with a tenant for six years but is currently staying with friends.

Along with her brother Robin Russ, who are both members of the Tsimshian Nation, they helped take care of Irma, an elder who needed a wheelchair for mobility.

On Dec. 28, Rhonda was visiting when they heard the fire alarm. They thought it was a false alarm as it had been pulled multiple times before.

They knew it was a real emergency when they heard someone banging on the door to get out of the building.

“We got her out threw a blanket over her head because of all the smoke we couldn’t see in the hall,” said Rhonda. ”We had to run by the actual fire because that was right in the front, and we bit past it, so we had run by the fire, and when we stepped on the top step, all the windows and everything blew out.”

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Siblings Rhonda Bolton and Robin Russ had family displaced by Angus Apartment fire on Dec. 28, 2021. Photo: Lee Wilson/APTN.

Sixteen people in the apartment were displaced by the fire.

The Prince Rupert Fire Department said the cause but says it is still undetermined.

A month before the fire, the BC Residential Tenancy Branch filed a penalty against the building owners for compliance failures on safety repairs.

“In reviewing the photographic evidence, I note that the Property appears to be a two-story building in serious disrepair,” the 12-page provincial report says in part.

“The photographs show extremely weathered siding with several missing tiles/pieces exposing the insulation behind; broken windows on every floor of the building, some that have been boarded up with plywood and some that are open to the elements; electrical wires from the main stack strewn across exterior walls and into windows, presumably into suites; and broken and partially collapsed front steps exposing the wooden supports underneath.”

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Inside Angus Apartment before fire show spray painted walls and damaged floors before fire. Photo courtesy: Roberta Brown.

Numerous complaints are listed in the penalty against owners Pierre Wong and Hu Phan Wong.

Photos shared with APTN News before the fire from inside the apartment, the walls were covered with spray paint, and the building appeared in poor condition.

The penalty document against owners says the City of Prince Rupert contacted the Residential Tenancy Branch in May 2021 with concerns.

“Currently, there is no front door on the property and several of the windows have plywood covering them even with them being occupied be [sic] residents,” the document states.

Pierre Wong, an owner of Angus Apartments, provided a statement to APTN News stating there is a power imbalance with the Residential Tenancy Branch.

“The tenants have all the power; the landlord has no power,” he said. “I installed sprinkler systems, repaired doors and windows for them to be broken again by tenants and people allowed into the building. I have no way to recover the costs even when tenants stop paying.”

In an interview with APTN, Paul Lagace, a legal advocate from Prince Rupert Unemployed Action Centre, pushed back against the owner’s claims.

He said he represented tenants against the owner.

“The condition was unliveable; the problem was it was one of the only affordable places,” he said. “I had a couple of hearings recently against the landlord and a half of the electrical outlets weren’t working. We were concerned about a fire in these units.’

Wong says he’s waiting on a response from an insurance company to decide his next steps with the apartment building.

Danielle Gentile, a Nisga’a woman who lives in Prince Rupert, wanted to help displaced fire victims as her family was displaced when they lived in Kitimat a few years ago.

Along with other community members, she decided to collect donations, and the Highliner Plaza and Hotel offered space.

“I started a fundraiser, and many members in the community stepped up and started donating money, we did a clothing drive, and the Highliner was very helpful as they provided a donation room,” said Gentile.

Emergency Services BC, Canadian Red Cross and BC Ministry of Social Services all contributed to help the fire victims stay in a hotel.

For nearly a month, Gentile has advocated and tried to help find new rentals without success.

She built a bond with fire victim and elder Irma Bolton, who she described as kind-hearted and strong-willed.

Irma passed away last week.

“Irma and I grew very close, and her health was diminishing before the fire happened; however, the stress of the fire and being displaced, I’m sure, had a great effect, and we lost Irma yesterday morning,” said Gentile.

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Danielle Gentile, a Prince Rupert resident advocating for displaced fire victims. Photo: Lee Wilson/APTN.

On Jan. 28, the temporary housing at the hotel comes to an end and most of the residents have not found new rentals.

Rhonda Bolton and Robin Russ say they see rentals but are refused because they are on social assistance.

“I’ve been here for three years trying to get a place, and we can’t get a place because we don’t have a full-time job and we’re just on social assistance or whatever, it’s real hard to even hear anything, “ says Bolton.

Legal advocate Paul Lagace says there is a housing problem in Prince Rupert with less than 1 per cent vacancy.

He says the housing situation has grown worse in the last two years.

“Not only is there nothing affordable, but there is also nothing available,” he said. “I have of people with good job offers can’t even find housing here, so that’s across the board for anyone.”

Lagace commended the B.C. Government for creating housing for some of the most vulnerable, but he says the housing market with speculators and investors flipping houses is a problem.

“What I see is people buying up houses, and I am seeing those same houses go fifty to a hundred percent more in the last two years,” he says. “They are booting the tenants out because they been there for a number of years and are only paying eight hundred to a thousand a month, I am going to pretend I’m moving in and I’m going to throw you out and double the rent.”

He sees an unaffordable rental market for most of the north coast of British Columbia.

APTN contacted the City of Prince Rupert about the displaced residents, but they did not respond to our emails.

North Coast MLA Jennier Rice’s office did not provide a statement before this story was published.

Danielle Gentile is raising concerns over Prince Rupert’s lack of affordable housing; she thinks more needs to be done.

“We need more community involvement at all levels from provincial, federal, community members to show up at council meetings, she said. “We really need strong voices for this matter as nothing will get done if no one says anything.”

According to Gentile, displaced fire victims are being directed to a BC government program that can provide funding to relocate to another city.

Bolton and Russ plan to remain and stay in Prince Rupert with family and friends and keep looking for a home.

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