This week, the Portland Tenants Union obtained a major – but temporary – victory in securing the immediate repair of the elevator in their building: the Portland Hotel at 20 West Hastings Street, owned and operated by PHS Community Services Society (PHS).
After nine months of intermittent function, the elevator at the Portland Hotel broke down completely on September 9th, 2022 and remained out of order until February 7th, 2023. As a result of PHS’ failure to repair the elevator, many of the building’s disabled residents were unable to leave their floors for months at a time. Others were forced to crawl up and down the stairs each day to meet their basic needs. Residents in wheelchairs often had to sleep in the lobby, and some were forced to relieve themselves in the building’s back courtyard due to the lack of accessible bathrooms on the ground floor. Several residents died during the elevator outage; the surviving tenants of the Portland Hotel have associated these tragic fatalities with the undue hardship their friends and neighbours endured as a result of the outage.
On February 6th, members of the Portland Tenants Union organized a march to PHS headquarters, where they delivered a letter signed by more than 80% of the building’s tenants demanding that elevator service be restored. The elevator was temporarily fixed on February 7th as a result of the work and organizing of the Portland Tenants Union.
Despite the repair, PHS stated that they expect the existing elevator to fail again in the near future. The Portland Tenants Union demands that a new elevator be installed immediately. The Union also demands compensation for all tenants due to the loss of reasonable enjoyment of their units as a result of the prolonged elevator outage.
The Portland Tenants Union has additional demands for their landlord, PHS: the landlord must formally recognize the union, properly clean and upkeep the stairs, install accessible bathrooms on the ground floor and port-a-potties in the courtyard, and improve fire safety (namely the sprinkler system, which is cited by the City of Vancouver as being in violation of the Fire By-law). Finally, PHS must provide extra staffing for the duration of any future elevator outage.
A recent statement made by PHS Director of Housing Tanya Fader contradicting the residents’ experience of unsanitary stairwells reflects how out of touch the landlord is with the realities of life at the Portland Hotel. Although there may be managerial directives to clean the staircase daily, the added burden on staff as a result of the elevator outage is such that it is impossible to maintain the cleanliness of the floors and stairwell. Fader is correct to highlight how hard staff work to support tenants, but neglects to mention that the PHS has refused to increase the number of staff on site despite the massive increase in workload incurred by the elevator outage.
The fight is far from over. This interim victory is a testament to the power of tenant action and organizing. The Portland Tenants Union will not stop in pressuring its landlord until all its demands are met.
Broken elevators and dangerous, substandard living conditions are sadly not unique to the Portland Hotel. Life-threatening violations of tenant and human rights are rampant across supportive housing buildings operated jointly by non-profit corporations and BC Housing. Downtown Eastside residents will continue to fight for the rights of tenants in supportive housing and will not rest until all tenants are able to live in safe and dignified homes.
At the time of this writing, the Portland Tenants Union is organizing tenants in the Portland Hotel. The Our Homes Can’t Wait Coalition and the Vancouver Tenants Union are providing organizational and administrative support to the PTU in the fight for city-wide tenant power.