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By Michael Boriero - Local Journalism Initiative

The Régie du bâtiment du Québec (RBQ) has ordered the tenants of the Albert Hotel in Sherbrooke to evacuate following an investigation that uncovered dangerous living conditions.

RBQ Spokesperson Sylvain Lamothe told The Record that this file has been active for a while. The property owner, Lionel Cuggia, was asked to address the inadequacies in the building in the fall of 2020. Lamothe said Cuggia demanded several extensions due to the pandemic.

The RBQ had no issues granting Cuggia’s requests, Lamothe continued, but it was later deemed that the property owner never took advantage of the extensions to actually fix the building, which has since been labeled unfit and dangerous for tenants living there.

“Despite all of this, when we returned for a visit, not only had nothing changed, but there were additional elements that had deteriorated, so when we got to the end of 2021 we went for a visit and at that moment we decided to send out the order for evacuation,” said Lamothe.

According to Catherine Boileau, Sherbrooke’s city councillor for Brompton and president of the Commission de la sécurité et du développement social, the hotel has been under constant police and firefighter surveillance since Cuggia purchased the property a couple years ago.

“The windows are broken, the doors have been removed, it’s really dangerous for the tenants. There isn’t any heating or electricity. The fire prevention services consider this to be very dangerous to tenants because there’s a greater risk for a fire to break out,” she said.

Boileau has been keeping an eye on the Albert Hotel file as part of her role with the city’s commission, which studies issues relating to the civil security of people and property. The Service de protection contre les incendies de Sherbrooke (SPCIS) asked for the investigation.

The city is now working alongside local community organizations to find affordable housing options for the tenants living in the Albert Hotel, who will eventually be forced to leave the building. As of right now, though, the tenants are still there with no set date for evacuation.

“There is no date for the evacuation because […] the tenants should have already evacuated if the property owner had respected the order sent to him back on April 20. In the order, he had five days to inform the tenants and restrict access to the building,” Lamothe explained.

Boileau promised that the city and its partners will not let anyone fall through the cracks. The Albert Hotel, while marred in controversy, shootings, murder, and drug trafficking, provides 25 residents with a place to call home. The housing shortage may pose a problem, she noted.

The tenants currently living at the hotel pay $250 per month in rent for a small room, making it one of the more affordable housing options downtown. But no one should be forced to live in a dilapidated building because of their financial situation, Boileau noted, and it falls on Cuggia.

“The problem at the moment is the property owner. He’s the one that hasn’t replaced the smoke detectors. He’s the one that doesn’t maintain the building, doesn’t put on the heating, doesn’t turn on the electricity, doesn’t repair the windows, and removes the doors,” she said.

When The Record spoke to Cuggia on Wednesday, he had just heard back from his fire alarm specialist, who supposedly informed him that everything will be in order soon. He added that all of his tenants are aware of the situation and on board to keep the building up to code.

“This time, really, I’ve never seen the walls staying fixed like this, the alarm system was reconnected and everything is almost perfect. It works, and actually it was activated a few days ago by mistake and the firemen showed up in a few minutes,” said Cuggia.

According to Cuggia, it has been a constant headache since he took over the Albert Hotel. He told The Record that even when he would re-install the smoke detectors or fix the walls, for example, the very next day he would find holes in the walls again and broken detectors.

Cuggia said that everything the RBQ has asked for is completely reasonable, and his tenants have promised to stop vandalizing the property. However, he found the week-long evacuation notice to be an impossible feat. Cuggia believes that the RBQ knew it would be impossible.

“I’m getting flack for not kicking out whores and crackheads. I mean what are we supposed to do? This building, from a heartless real estate point of view, getting rid of all of the current tenants would create value, but I just don’t have the heart to do that,” said Cuggia.

Pin-Solitaire city councillor Hélène Dauphinais told The Record that she only found out about the situation at the Albert Hotel on Sunday when she read about it in French media. While she understands the RBQ’s judgment call, she is worried about the tenant’s being forced out.

“It’s certain that if it closes and these people find that they're being expelled from their housing, well it will put over 20 people on the street without a lot of financial support for re-housing. And we know in Sherbrooke that the vacancy rate is under one per cent,” Dauphinais said.

According to Dauphinais, the RBQ has taken the file to the Superior Court of Quebec due to Cuggia’s refusal to evacuate his tenants. She added that the Office municipal d'habitation de Sherbrooke (OMHS) could be a useful resource for everyone affected by the closure.

However, she also noted that while the OMHS has many affordable rooms available for rent, the organization, which offers housing for low- and moderate-income individuals, couples and families, struggles to find tenants. She has asked the OMHS to look into the situation.

“I know that at the OMH there are about 100 vacant rooms. I spoke to the council last week and I asked to make a report as to why there are 100 vacant rooms, that’s an occupation rate of six per cent at the OMH. It’s not normal,” Dauphinais told The Record on Tuesday.

Lamothe confirmed that the RBQ has filed an injunction with the Superior Court of Quebec to force Cuggia to follow the directives ordered in April. If it is granted then the property owner will have no choice but to follow the RBQ’s ruling, otherwise he could be facing prison time.

The affordable housing crisis in Sherbrooke, and across the province, is not lost on Lamothe, either. He understands there are hurdles in the way for many of the tenants, however, he is also steadfast in supporting the RBQ’s decision. This is just an exceptional case, he continued.

“We’re conscious of the entire situation. We know it’s not ideal, but it remains unacceptable because unfortunately we’re in the presence of a property owner who doesn’t want to assume his responsibilities and definitely doesn’t want to collaborate with us,” said Lamothe.

If the injunction is granted, Cuggia said he will have no other choice but to kick his tenants out of the building. However, he hopes the RBQ will be reasonable and that they’ll send inspectors to see all of the work done in the past few weeks, otherwise the tenants will be on the street.

“At this point, my conscience will be pretty clear because I did everything I could to try to keep the building in operation and keep those tenants there because I know most of them are going to end up homeless and I don’t want that,” Cuggia said, adding that sanity must prevail.

François Lemieux, a coordinator at the Chaudronnée de l’Estrie and member of the Table itinérance de Sherbrooke, said that the bigger problem is both Sherbrooke and Quebec have a massive hole to fill when it comes to affordable and social housing options for Quebecers.

He added that politicians at all levels often wait until the very last minute, when the situation is at its most dire, to finally intervene and take action. Lemieux noted that even if Cuggia is ordered to renovate the property, it won’t be done in a week, it’ll likely take months.

The tenants will be forced onto the streets, he continued, adding that as ridiculous as it sounds, places like the Albert Hotel fill a critical role for the city’s most vulnerable population. And if the city doesn’t want it, then they need to create better options, Lemieux added.

“We still don’t know what will happen to them. Unfortunately, there aren’t many housing options as affordable as the Albert Hotel. We know it’s not necessarily in great condition. The hygiene and security aren’t acceptable, but at least they have a roof over their heads,” he said.

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