Cockroach award ‘one-sided diatribe’

288 Earl St. is rented out by Golden Cockroach Award recipient Phil Lam.
288 Earl St. is rented out by Golden Cockroach Award recipient Phil Lam.

The recipient of the first-ever AMS Golden Cockroach Award has accused the AMS of presenting a “one-sided diatribe” to media about his landlord practices.

Kingston landlord Phil Lam, who was awarded the gold cockroach-shaped trophy at a ceremony Feb. 9 but did not attend to receive it, has responded to what he called a “derogatory” prize with a lengthy letter sent to the AMS and other media sources, including the Journal and the Kingston Whig-Standard.

The Golden Cockroach was awarded to the landlords the AMS deems the worst in student housing for the first time this year.

Lam refused to answer questions in person, but sent an e-mail to the Journal in response to questions.

His initial letter accuses the AMS of not allowing Lam an opportunity to respond to allegations of bad landlord practices.

“It is easy to take cheap shots at someone who is not given the opportunity to respond,” Lam wrote. “A student government, who prides itself on presumably being fair, should be ashamed of the actions it took against myself.  It takes little courage to cast aspersions against a person based on anonymous complaints.”

AMS President Ethan Rabidoux rejected the suggestion that the Golden Cockroach was conducted unfairly.

“[Lam] was invited to come and speak. That’s the most important point I have to keep reiterating here,” he said. “We did not ambush these guys.”

Lam told the Journal he thinks receiving the award will negatively affect his work as a landlord.

“I would expect persons reading about it would certainly have second thoughts about renting from me, if their decision is based solely on what I consider libelous actions of the AMS and those reporting those actions,” he said.

Lam told the Journal he has consulted two lawyers specializing in libel and slander actions.

“Each have advised me that I would readily succeed in a lawsuit under the Libel and Slander Act in Ontario,” he said. “I have not yet determined whether I will proceed with legal action.”

Rabidoux said letters informing landlords that they had won the Golden Cockroach and Key to the Ghetto awards were dropped off at their homes 48 hours before the Golden Cockroach ceremony was to take place, but neither Lam nor Peter Holmes, another landlord who received the Golden Cockroach award, responded.

“We told them, ‘This is when it’s happening,’ we dropped letters off at their homes,” he said. “With the press there, they had the opportunity to come and speak and to address it and they chose not to.”

The AMS didn’t contact any of the winners by phone, as they felt the letter was sufficient, Rabidoux said.

Lam’s letter focused on his property at 288 Earl St., which received publicity during the Golden Cockroach ceremony. It pointed out that some of the house’s tenants had been living there for several years.

“If the house was of such poor quality one, of course, has to ask why they continue to live there,” he wrote.

Rabidoux said he found this comment particularly discouraging.

“[That] is the absolute wrong logic, and that’s the exact logic we’re trying to break with the Golden Cockroach [award].”

Rabidoux said there is a common misconception among students that there is a housing shortage, which causes some students to feel pressured into signing leases they otherwise might not.

Charlene Barter, ArtSci ’06 and resident of 288 Earl St., said she and one of her three housemates have been living there for two years, while their other two housemates moved in this past September. She said she has remained there because of the property’s convenient location close to campus, and because she and her housemates had hoped that, after bringing up some complaints to the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal, there would be fewer problems with their house. Lam wrote that he has been before the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal in response to the complaints made by the tenants of 288 Earl St., where they made “numerous lurid allegations” regarding the conditions of the property.

Barter said these concerns included a leaky sewer pipe, leaks and mould in the basement, a bathtub that was slanted so the water didn’t drain, and a window problem.

“There was basically a hole in the back of our house, which had plastic covering it,” she said. “We had a problem with squirrels as well.

“There were squirrels living in the back of our house, in the walls.”

Lam said each of the problems the tenants complained about was fixed within approximately one week of the complaint being registered.

He said the tenants also claimed over $7,700, of which they were awarded $380.

Barter said this money was claimed as a percentage of eight months’ rent as compensation for the period of time when these problems weren’t being addressed.

In his letter, Lam said he was not informed of two of the complaints mentioned in the Golden Cockroach ceremony—a silverfish infestation and wet insulation.

“None of that was ever a subject of complaint at any time before myself or the Housing Tribunal,” he said.

While Barter confirmed the silverfish problem was minor and that she and her housemates hadn’t mentioned it to Lam, she said they had brought the insulation to his attention almost a year and a half ago.

“That was initially addressed when we moved in, in September of last year, and it wasn’t removed until after [Lam] won the Golden Cockroach award,” she said. “As soon as he won the award, he came and did a bunch of stuff.”

In addition to cleaning the basement with bleach, Barter said, Lam also fixed the house’s fire alarms, which hadn’t been working properly.

Lam said the tenants at 288 Earl St. had complained about a lack of heat in the house. He said these problems occurred because the tenants were turning off the radiators during the day to save money, which disrupted their operation when they were turned back on.

“The reason for the lack of heat in the house was directly related to their inappropriate actions in turning off the furnace,” he wrote. “Once they followed my suggestion and turned the thermostat down to 15 degrees during the day so that the circulating pump continued working, those problems apparently went away.”

Barter confirmed that Lam had told them how to properly use the furnace, but that the heating problems persisted.

“When we first talked to Mr. Lam at the beginning of this year, he told us that that was the problem, that we’d been turning it on and off too much,” she said. “We stopped doing that and it was still a problem.” Lam’s letter dismissed one of the more sensational stories included in the Golden Cockroach Award ceremony, in which his tenants alleged that he planted a couch on their front porch, as “almost libelous.” 

“At no time did I move that couch or place that couch at 288 Earl St.,” he wrote to the Journal. “To suggest that I would deliberately put it on their property to cause trouble makes no sense. I have no idea where this couch came from, it turned up after Homecoming and at no time was I ever responsible for removing it.”

Lam told the Journal he has several other properties in Kingston, primarily rented to students. He said he feels property standards are always an issue, but that the actions of tenants maintaining the property should also be looked at.

Lam also noted in his letter that until last year, “almost all” his houses were registered with the Queen’s Housing Office and were subject to annual inspections to confirm compliance with the property standards, for which he would receive a certificate.

Lam told the Journal that while his properties are no longer part of the Queen’s Housing program, they still meet property standards bylaws.

“Presently the University and I have reached a mutual agreement that my properties are no longer registered with them,” he said. “This was done for a number of reasons but what is important is that all properties I own easily comply with the standard set out by the City of Kingston.”

Lam said that at the request of the tenants at 288 Earl St., an inspector from the City of Kingston made an inspection in 2005, granting a clearance certificate confirming the property met all property standards requirements.

David Wright, director of Queen’s Apartment and Housing Service, confirmed that Lam’s properties were part of the program for several years, but could not specify how many.

“The property is inspected [and] it’s the property that’s approved, not the landlord,” he said. “We could tell you the start and end dates and whether [a particular] address is in the program.”

Wright said Queen’s Housing performs annual inspections on properties whose landlords choose to be listed in the Queen’s Housing registry. The inspections are made according to the city’s minimum property standards.

Wright said the fact that a property is no longer part of the Queen’s Housing and Accommodation Listing Service could mean that it failed inspection, or that the landlord chose not to participate in the program. For this reason, Queen’s Housing has no record of which houses fail to meet the inspection criteria.

“The landlord may choose to have certain properties in the program and other properties may not be in the program for whatever reason,” he said. “The inspector is a private individual—he works for himself and we don’t have records of property that he’s inspected and not passed … the only way we would know is if he’s inspected and the landlord wants to bring it up to standards and/or it passed the first time.”

Rabidoux said the AMS believes that the standards of the Queen’s Housing and Accommodation Listing Service, which displays available Kingston accommodations, are too low, and that the fact that houses such as Lam’s pass inspection supports that belief.

“The standards right now are not high enough and that’s really bad,” he said. “It’s very, very clear from what we saw with the Student Property Assessment Team, if these houses are getting on the Queen’s housing list serve that’s a problem.”

Lam requested in his missive to the AMS that the letter be posted on the website next to the Golden Cockroach posting. Rabidoux said that the Golden Cockroach announcement is off the website, and that while the AMS executive had considered posting Lam’s letter on the website next to a response of their own, they decided against it.

“As far as his letter goes, we don’t take it too terribly seriously because he obviously does not get the award, he doesn’t get the premise behind it,” Rabidoux said.

“I encourage him to focus his energy on actually fixing up the houses rather than getting in a huff.”

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