River’s Edge: ‘Nightmare’ BC Housing-led renovation leaves residents exasperated

River's Edge Apartment residents complain of miscommunication, lack of accountability, drug use and dealing, broken facilities, unaddressed complaints, and an untenable living situation on housing renovation project in Farwell.

River's Edge Apartments resident Brenda Leah and former resident Carlos Zelaya, who moved out of the building, citing mental and physical health issues he says were brought on by renovation work in the building. Other residents agreed to interviews but declined to have their photos taken, citing concerns about repercussions. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

The River’s Edge Apartments, a dilapidated, 44-unit Farwell rental building characterized by its crumbling ’70s-era cedar-shingled, faux-Mansard roof, straddles Front Street and the bank of the Columbia River, overlooking the BC Hydro wing dam that slows riverbank erosion downstream near the heritage Mountain View building.

The apartment building has seen better days. In recent years, the absentee owner lost control of the building, and a bank ended up in control before it was bought for $5 million by BC Housing in June of 2019, part of a $12-million deal that saw the provincial housing authority purchase River’s Edge and the Columbia Gardens apartments, another dilapidated and troubled apartment complex.

BC Housing announces purchase of Columbia Gardens, Rivers Edge for reno into rental housing

BC Housing announced plans to renovate the buildings and develop a partnership with a local housing provider to manage them. Plans for the latter has yet to reach fruition, and the former was the start of an ongoing nightmare for some residents in the complex, which has been under renovation since last fall.

Everyone agrees the building needs work. It’s rife with black mold. The roof is rotting, leaking, and has never been properly renovated. The vintage cedar shingles on the facade are rotten, warped, sun-bleached, and swollen. The interiors of the units are ancient, and residents say there are many deficiencies. Everything is dated by decades. Cabinet doors fall off regularly. One resident showed me a picture of a small waterfall of water coming into his apartment through a hole in the ceiling.

River’s Edge Apartments resident Brenda Beeching was the first to contact me about what for her has been a disastrous renovation project in her building.

Her first email to me, sent on May 26, was the first of just under 50 emails she has forwarded, many of them from past correspondence with the company currently managing the building, Revelstoke Property Services (RPS), as well as with BC Housing representatives. I received well over 100 emails from other residents, many of them similar correspondence chains. The emails are a window into their nightmare.

It’s hard to know where to start.

In one illuminating email thread, a resident complains about the smell of crack cocaine and meth smoke in the building. There are complaints to the management company, the RCMP, Crimestoppers, anyone who would listen and possibly do something about it.

“There was drug deals taking place in the underground garage,” Beeching said. “They’re not even shy about it.”

Locks are broken and exterior doors are left open, sometimes wedged open so that drug buyers can walk up a set of side stairs and get to the dealers’ apartments. One resident noticed what looked like a buyer evading an RCMP cruiser that was tailing his vehicle by swerving off the street into the underground parkade. Residents told me the drug dealing and activity goes on without much discretion, a concern for everyone, especially residents with small children.

One of the exits was blocked by a big pile of snow for more than 10 days in the winter after city snow removal crews pushed the pile on a path leading out. Again, it took multiple emails before the issue was resolved.

The residents complained about rats and mice taking up residence in the parkade and building due to the garage door in the parkade being broken and left wide open for many months, despite many emails and requests to fix it.

The buzzer at the front door was broken before BC Housing bought the building in June of 2019, causing big headaches and security concerns for residents. It hasn’t been fixed yet.

Lights in the building burn out and are not replaced, again setting off back-and-forth email chains.

Residents complain that workers on site have ignored the COVID-19 safety precautions, and forwarded me a picture of a hand washing station made inoperable because plywood and tools were piled onto it.

This station was in the same state when I visited, many days after this photo was taken. Photo: contributed

The exterior renovations meant scaffolding has been placed around the building and residents can no longer use their balconies, and some must keep their curtains closed all day due to privacy concerns.

The washers and dryers one one of the three floors were broken for ages, and it took many complaints to get them fixed.

They say the cleanliness is terrible, with carpets and common areas not cleaned for over a week or more, and the situation got worse during the peak ski season, when cleaners are in short supply due to increased demand at high end vacation rentals. The pictures are gross. A ceiling lamp half-full of dead bugs. Cardboard duck-taped to the hallway floor was left there for weeks to accumulate dirt and dust, and even liquid dripping from toilets as they are removed from units under renovation.

The emails show many complaints about cleanliness; responses say cleaning frequency will increase, but the residents say the words in the correspondence don’t match actions in the building, leaving them frustrated.

Dead insects cast shade in a ceiling light. Photo: contributed

From Beeching’s perspective, the emails paint a woeful tale of neglect, miscommunication, missed opportunities, all contributing to an untenable living situation that has pushed some residents over the edge. And that was ongoing before COVID-19 struck, forcing residents to endure a chaotic living situation they say piled additional danger onto the ongoing indignities.

Asbestos remediation was performed in some of the units under renovation, and residents say they were not informed it was happening.

After reviewing the nearly 200 emails from residents, I made an appointment to meet Beeching at River’s Edge on June 2. When I arrived early, I took a quick poke around.

Beeching had sent me a photo of the hand-washing station, which had lumber and other construction equipment piled against it, so as to make it not usable. When I arrived, it was in the same state. The garage door was stuck open, a situation that’s been the same for months.

Residents say cardboard was placed in the elevator and hallways during construction, and was left for weeks, gathering dirt and grime. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

When our noon appointment arrived, four residents were waiting to talk with me out front.

Emotions were running high, their anger and frustration palpable.

They complain that many emails to BC Housing have not been returned, showing me the correspondence. They complain of distant bureaucrats at BC Housing, who have no connection to what’s been happening on the ground, not returning emails. They suspect that their communications to the property management company are not being relayed to BC Housing. They feel like BC Housing’s actions are effectively pushing them out of the building, floating a conspiracy theory that BC Housing wants to rid themselves of legacy tenants in order to boost their social housing numbers.

“Do you know what it feels like,” Beeching said. “They want us to get the eff out.”

One resident who couldn’t handle the disruption and moved out, Carlos Zelaya, a wildfire fighter, said it was too much for his mental health. He complained of ongoing strife with construction workers, who were living in the unit underneath him. He said one night he was taking a bath when someone put power grinder to something in the ceiling in the unit below, causing a deafening sound. He also meditates and chants, and said he heard the construction workers below mocking him by repeating the chants back loudly. It went on over months. The RCMP got involved in the situation, a sign of how far things had deteriorated.

“They were literally mocking me,” Zelaya said. “I was in tears — I’m not going to lie. Nobody’s looking out for us. They’re saying we’re all liars, making it up.”

Resident Brenda Beeching said she was not informed of asbestos remediation happening in the building, causing concerns for her health. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

I asked the residents, point blank, if anyone had told them what would happen to them after the renovations are over, such as would they be given a renovated apartment, or be allowed to stay. How much will rent be? In unison, they all answered “no” immediately — despite a renovation project ongoing since 2019. A few moments later, a fifth resident came by to join in, and I asked the same question. Same answer.

Beeching said she was exasperated by what she felt was indifference to conditions the residents, so she decided to reach out to the media, despite fears they could be blacklisted from future rental opportunities due to limited competition in the Revelstoke property management sector.

While details of many of the complaints of events that have transpired over several months are hard to nail down definitively, it’s safe to say residents are wildly unhappy with how they have been treated through the renovation project, and the promise of a newly renovated building isn’t recompense for them since they are not clear they have a future at the building.

Revelstoke Property Services

Revelstoke Property Services manager Nico Leenders admits there have been problems with the renovation project.

“We’re human and mistakes have been made and they get addressed as fast as they can,” Leenders said. “The pandemic threw a wrench in everything.”

In this story from March, residents complain of an insensitive letter from Revelstoke Property Services demanding rent, despite the COVID-19 crisis.

Revelstoke renters face uncertainty as rent payment looms

Leenders said he was in a difficult position because confidentiality rules mean he can’t discuss specific issues that would identify residents.

He said there had been difficulty sourcing contractors to perform many of the tasks, and noted many of the issues had been ongoing since before BC Housing took over the building.

The email chains do show RPS responding to many of the concerns, albeit the residents say many of them were not addressed fast enough. They say the paper trail doesn’t reflect reality on the ground.

“Tenants have been frustrated for the timeline, and that’s understandable,” Leenders said.

The broken washers and dryers on one floor have been replaced with new ones, and Leenders noted the end goal is to renovate the interior and exterior of the building to make it habitable again, including remediating the mold issues, replacing the failed roof, renovating units, and replacing and updating the exterior.

Some residents did tell me they hadn’t had problems with the contractors on site.

He noted that RPS had responded to correspondence and was working on many of the issues, but faced legal issues that precluded immediate resolutions, such as complaints about drug dealing, and crack, meth and cigarette smoking in the building, which require a high burden of proof in order to evict.

He said there had been no increase in rent and that rental rates would remain the same for units that are not being renovated, but if residents opted to move into a new unit, they’d have to renegotiate their contract, which could lead to increases in rent.

He also noted that many of the complaints didn’t follow standard tenancy complaint processes, making it difficult to resolve the issue, and that some residents had overwhelmed the property management company with correspondence, calling it an all-take and no-give situation.

BC Housing spokesperson defends organization’s actions

There are no BC Housing reps on the ground in Revelstoke, and I was asked to email questions. I asked what they’d heard about the situation on the ground and what they’d done about it.

The response from BC Housing communications staff member Samantha Cacnio noted the end goal, which is to renovate River’s Edge and Columbia Gardens to preserve and upgrade the total 117 units in the two separate complexes, preserving affordable rental housing. The plan, she said, was to find a non-profit housing provider to take over and manage the buildings once the project is complete.

An image of an emailed BC Housing reply to Revelstoke Mountaineer questions about problems with the ongoing renovations at River’s Edge Apartments.

“BC Housing assures residents that it is committed to preserving and providing safe and affordable housing in Revelstoke. Residents will not be evicted from their homes as a result of this purchase and renovations,” she wrote.

She said that BC Housing is doing many things, such as fixing interior and exterior, remediating mold, removing asbestos according to applicable rules.

“The contractors have also followed provincial construction safety guidelines to prevent spread of COVID-19 during construction for all the work inside the building,” she wrote. “They installed hand washing stations and made hand sanitizers available in all common areas such as hallways and elevators.” (From what I witnessed, and what residents told me, this point is surely debatable.)

Cacnio also mentioned BC Housing has received a prolific number of complaints from one resident, saying BC Housing had offered to meet with the resident, who refused.

In response to complaints about cleanliness, BC Housing responded by increasing cleaning from five days a week to seven, twice a day. (Something residents disputed — residents  say they have been told cleaning frequency would be increasing, but hadn’t seen evidence words from BC Housing corresponded with actions on the ground.)

Cacnio said BC Housing had responded to noise complaints by changing the morning construction start time from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m.

“We have also obtained clearance letters from consultants on all areas where we did hazmat remediation,” Cacnio wrote. “BC Housing has not received any WorkSafe BC violations or work stop orders. Both contractors that BC Housing hired, Home & House Construction and Neilsen Roofing, are experienced professionals who are responsive to resident concerns throughout the process.”

As noted above, while some residents complained about conflict with workers on site, others said they hadn’t had problems.

Cacnio also said residents will not be required to move once renovations are complete, “and their rent will not be affected.”

She said lack of access to balconies and exterior of the building are an unfortunate necessity during the project, which includes replacing the damaged balconies and siding.

“The same resident also voiced concerns about not having access to their balcony due to construction and renovations,” Cacnio said. “We understand that this is a difficult situation for residents, especially during this challenging time when people are spending majority of their time at home. BC Housing is working with RPS to see how we may accommodate them during the construction period and will issue a letter to all residents on construction timelines and cleaning protocols.”

She also noted BC Housing’s ongoing plans to develop more affordable housing at the Mount Begbie School site. A second online meeting is planned for June 10.

City of Revelstoke

The Mountaineer did not contact municipal leaders for the purposes of this story, since the city is not directly involved in the project, but does have a role in approving renovations as it would any other construction project.

The City of Revelstoke sent out a media release on May 27, touting its approval of a development permit for the building, an obvious attempt to frame it as a city success on housing — after all, the city doesn’t send out media releases about other projects that get development approvals.

An image of exterior renovation renderings of the River’s Edge Apartments. Photo: from City of Revelstoke files

It noted that some of the units were uninhabited and unrentable due to disrepair. The media release noted a 2018 housing study called for 424 new subsidized and rental units, and in the next sentence notes the two BC Housing projects total, “117 rental units for middle-income individuals and families,” (albeit they were existing rental units being renovated, some uninhabitable due to disrepair).

There was no reference to the ongoing problems residents have experienced.

Update:

Since the Mountaineer started reporting on the issues, residents have reported sudden improvements in some of the longstanding issues in the past few days. We’ll follow up with another story early this week and will place a link to it here when that story is published. We’ll also check in with residents in two weeks, to see if other issues have been resolved.

Correction: In an earlier version, resident Brenda Beeching’s last name was listed incorrectly as “Leah.” The errors have been corrected.

Aaron Orlando is a Revelstoke-based journalist who serves as creative director of revelstokemountaineer.com and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's been on the news beat in Revelstoke for the past 14 years, serving in senior editorial roles. If you have aaron@revelstokemountaineer.com or call/text him at 250-814-8710.