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UPDATED: Developer hopes to welcome tenants back when Cowichan apartment building defects fixed

Municipality points the finger at developer’s engineers
The parkade at the Magdalena apartments has been closed for a month due to structural damage and tarps have been put up. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)

Residents of a WestUrban Properties apartment building in North Cowichan have been left scrambling to find new places to live in a region with no vacancies after being advised they’ll likely be getting eviction notices from the building’s managers come December.

The Magdalena building on Crosland Place was constructed over a nine-month period and completed in 2019. The five-storey building has multiple structural deficiencies and other work that needs remediation in order for it to be safe long-term, and residents must move out while the work is being done, according to information sent to tenants by the building’s owners.

An information packet sent out to the residents said, “Due to the sheer extent of the remediation work and the length of time that it is estimated to take to complete (at least six months), it will not be possible to maintain a safe living environment in the building while the work is being carried out.”

Residents have recieved notitifation WestUrban is applying to obtain permission to have the property vacated for the repairs. A pre-hearing conference has been set for Nov. 21. That hearing will include the tenants, WestUrban and the Residential Tenancy Branch, which will make the decision as to whether the request to evict all tenants is legitimate.

If so, the residents will then be asked to vacate the property within four months, though they may cancel their leases at any time before then without penalty. They will also be given one month’s rent and the return of their damage deposits for their troubles.

Building resident Paige Allen said she’s in a better position than many of her neighbours but wants to speak out on their behalf.

“I’m moving next month, we bought a house. We’re lucky,” she said. “But there’s a lot of people here that aren’t going to be in a good situation. They’re displacing so many people and it’s a pet friendly building, too, so so many people have dogs and cats.”

Allen said in the time she’s been a tenant there have been multiple floods.

“The building has had many defects,” she went on. “Our one neighbour had nine floods in two months in her house.”

Allen explained that during last summer’s heat wave, it got so hot that the fire alarms kept sounding because steam would build up in the venting system and be unable to escape.

She said she’s lost track of how many emergency water shut offs there’ve been due to flooding.

“We just keep water in our fridge now,” she admitted. “One of the neighbours had water leaking out of their electrical panel. It’s a bit of an unbearable situation.”

Allen said it wasn’t until the parkade was closed last month to shore up the support beams that residents began to understand the gravity of the situation.

“That’s when we started to realize that the structural problems with the building are a lot bigger than we thought they were,” she said.

“A lot of our neighbours have had more issues than us,” she noted of her particular unit. “There’s a lot of talk about lawsuits. I think a bunch of people are going to be banding together.”

“How did this building pass inspection?” she wondered.

North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring said the municipality uses the Professional Reliance Model when it comes to such developments.

“From our perspective as a municipality, on projects this major we get schedule letters from the qualified professionals — the architects and engineers,” Siebring said. “They put their seal on it that this building meets the B.C. Building Codes and our municipal codes.”

Siebring noted that with smaller construction projects the municipality has its own building inspectors but the work needs to be outsourced for large projects like apartments “otherwise we’d have to hire more building inspectors and taxes would increase.”

“We recognize there can be complications with that but equally in 99 per cent of cases we use it in, it hasn’t been an issue,” he said. “It’s the standard way things are done.”

Municipal inspectors do a visual and a walk through but Siebring admits it’s difficult to spot flaws with a visual.

“From our perspective it’s obviously a design flaw,” he said, pointing the finger at the project’s engineers.

In a statement sent to the Citizen, WestUrban said: “As with the construction of any new building, the developer relies on the expertise of the structural engineer of record who is responsible for the quality and integrity of the structural design of the building. The engineer of record’s work is required to be peer reviewed and approved by another engineer prior to any building work taking place. Both sets of engineers are professionals approved by B.C.’s regulatory body for building engineers, Engineers and Geoscientists BC. Like all developers, we rely on the approval process set up by this body and provincial legislation to ensure that buildings are adequately designed.”

Siebring said the building hosts 64 units and 48 of those are occupied.

He said that when the municipal leaders first heard about the issue, their inclination was to go to the Ministry of Housing and ask if there was any way the tenants could remain in place while the remediation took place.

“The deeper you dig into it the more stuff you find out and you can’t live in there when the work is being done,” he said. “We want to do whatever we can to make sure the residents there are looked after and that they get some type of accommodation. Our responsibility at this point is to make sure that while the building continues to be occupied, that there’s not a threat to life and limb or not any kind of a dangerous situation there.”

Meanwhile, North Cowichan staff are writing letters, to be signed by Siebring, to the Cowichan Housing Association, the Ministry of Housing and others saying while there wasn’t a fire and the building did not burn down, this still qualifies as emergent.

“We have zero rental vacancy in the Cowichan Valley and we need some help from [those] agencies so that we can get some accommodation somehow, some way for these people.

Siebring also said they’re reaching out to WestUrban to see if the company can do anything more for the building’s residents, such as help with moving expenses or to ensure rent hikes don’t occur when the building is reoccupied.

“We’re saying ‘we understand it’s going to cost you a fair amount of money to fix this but at the same time is there a way to avoid egregious rent increases?’”

WestUrban hopes the tenants will return.

“While we have explored all options for completing these remediation works with tenants in place, we understand from external consultants that due to the invasive nature of the work to be done, it is not possible to do this work while the building is occupied,” the company said. “We hope to be able to welcome tenants back to the building once the remediation works have been completed and will follow the guidelines set out by the Residential Tenancy Branch in this regard.”

All residents of the 63-unit Magdalena apartments have been given notice the building managers plan to seek authorization to vacate the damaged five-storey structure for remediation. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)

Sarah Simpson

About the Author: Sarah Simpson

I started my time with Black Press Media as an intern, before joining the Citizen in the summer of 2004.
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