The interior of Penticton’s infamous Highland Motel appears to live up to the notoriety from the exterior.
The building — now tagged with spraypaint, boarded up and blocked off with a barricade at its driveway — was, less than a month ago, the home to over a dozen of Penticton’s most vulnerable people.
But the motel was recently sold, and residents were given until June 30 to move out so the new owners could tear down the structure to put up townhomes. On moving day, a fire, deemed suspicious by authorities, tore through the building, making the displacement of the motel’s residents all the more notable and dramatic.
One non-profit operator explained those most downtrodden in society often face greater difficulties asking landlords to conduct repairs, call exterminators or deal with rot.
“If you move into a new place and that’s been your experience and something starts to not function, anymore, they need to be encouraged to say something so that something can be done to repair it, so it doesn’t get out of control,” said South Okanagan Similkameen Brain Injury Society executive director Linda Sankey.
“A landlord has an obligation if you include something in the rent, that they must maintain it during the time of the tenancy.”
An environmental study conducted by Chase Valley confirms what those on the outside might already suspect. Mould, rodent feces, lead and asbestos all contaminate the building, according to the report, provided to the Western News by the property’s new owners.
At the head of the new land title for 1140 Burnaby Ave. is Azura Management (Kelowna) Corp., one of two companies behind Sendero Canyon.
“It’s astounding what people were living in,” Azura president Ewen Stewart said of the Highland. “The thing’s pretty ugly inside. Let’s put it this way: unfit for human habitation. The guy I sent over there is afraid to go in.”
The report from Chase Valley Environmental also spoke to the severe condition of the building, noting hazardous materials of nearly every category present in the structure to some degree.
“There was an extraordinary amount of rodent excrement present and the smell of rodent urine was overwhelming in some rooms,” Chase Valley inspector Kate McInnes wrote in the report.
Sankey said staff at SOSBIS dealing with residents of the Highland weren’t able to go into some of the suites, because of concerns for their safety.
“One suite I went into, the mould crawled up from the height of the floor to probably the three-and-a-half or four-foot mark,” she said. “It just was never remediated, ever, and people continued to live in it like that, even all these years later.”
On the land title obtained by the Western News, the Highland motel’s property is valued at $1.05 million. Stewart confirmed that was what he paid for the spot.
According to B.C. Assessment, the value comes, unsurprisingly, almost entirely from the land the motel sits on, a prime piece of real estate minutes from downtown and the waterfront.
Stewart said he’s planning to buy the neighbouring property, an R.V. park the current owner has operated for nearly 50 years — currently listed on B.C. Assessment at a value of $2.1 million — once the current camping season runs up.
“I’m trying to nuke (the Highland) as quickly as possible, since it’s a total hazard position,” he said.
City planner Blake Laven said he hasn’t seen a demo permit application come in, but said he has been working with Stewart in the process.
Stewart said he expected to have bids on the environmental abatement contract at the Highland by the end of last week, but Laven wouldn’t speculate on how long it would take from there to tear the building down.
The abatement process will need to safely remove, most notably, asbestos found in two rooms and lead paint found in two rooms.
Stewart plans to consolidate the properties and build rows of high-end townhomes — 35 units up for ownership — to add some densification in the area surrounding Penticton’s downtown core.
“The downtown, the way the city is envisioning it and increasing the density downtown, I think that’s a good thing,” he said, noting this will be Azura’s second project in Penticton, following Sendero Canyon.
But while Stewart jumps through a few extra hoops to ensure hazardous materials are removed safely, those who lived in the building are facing the most difficulties moving forward.
In a market with a narrow scope of rentals, even for those who can afford market value, it’s a struggle to find stable housing for the low-income residents — a recent report to council noted a deficiency of 230 affordable rental units in Penticton.
“It was a real tough time in the summer, because in the tourist season, there’s almost nothing to rent that usually would meet the need to fill that temporary gap,” Sankey said.
Beyond a near-zero vacancy rate, Sankey said those who are in a position of needing low-income housing frequently lack the proper documents to fill out forms, or sometimes the organizational skills to obtain proper housing.
“The process here can be fairly lengthy, depending on which step they need to have help with at the beginning, so that they have all the foundation below them so they can apply for housing,” she said. “Sometimes it includes some education to that person, as well, about what their rights and responsibilities as a tenant are.”
All of those displaced from the Highland have found at least short-term housing, according to Sankey, though that includes many being put up in a non-permanent shelter, such as Compass House.
The low vacancy rate in Penticton has also meant some have had to move to smaller communities around Penticton to find housing.
“Having to leave the city limits to find housing is a reality for a lot of people that are trying to be living in Penticton, whether you’re from the Highland or somewhere else,” Sankey said.
But those coming from the Highland have a unique struggle when it comes to putting a roof over their heads: the reputation of the name “Highland Motel” will often precede them if they include it in their applications for rentals.
“A lot of landlords were going, ‘oh, if you’ve come from the Highland, well, we don’t even want to even entertain a conversation with you. People were hanging up on them,” she added. “Just trying to find a new strategy to even begin a conversation, not to hide it, but just to allow a conversation to begin before they were hung up on.”