Rooming house fire highlights safety concerns

Expert says that bringing Toronto's housing stock up to code should be a priority
Monday, March 24, 2014
By Erin Ruddy

The importance of fire safety is once again being highlighted in the aftermath of the tragic March 20 rooming house fire in Toronto’s Kensington Market that left two dead.

Tragedies such as these are a painful reminder of the seriousness of having emergency safety procedures in place. From alarm systems and smoke detectors, to fire doors and fire escapes, adhering to the minimum safety standards is not just an owner’s responsibility, it is the law.

However, not all buildings meet these minimum standards. This is especially a concern in illegal rooming houses peppered throughout Toronto, like the one in Kensington Market.

By definition, a rooming house is any residence that is shared by three or more unrelated persons without exclusive use of sanitary and kitchen facilities, and operated by the landlord for the purpose of financial gain. In order for an owner to legally use their property as a rooming house within the City of Toronto, the building must be zoned as such.

But many rooming houses do not meet this requirement, and they subsequently fly under the radar of building inspectors. Today, an estimated 300 rooming houses are known to be operating legally in the City of Toronto, with possibly thousands more operating illegally within every neighbourhood.

Michael Shapcott, director of affordable housing and social innovation at the Wellesley Institute, is all too aware of this troubling fact. Shapcott, who is recognized as one of the nation’s leading community-based housing and homelessness experts, has worked extensively in Toronto and throughout Canada.

“People typically don’t live in rooming houses because they want to,” he says. “They live in them because they have to. They are the struggling students crammed into run-down homes on the fringes of campuses. They are the newcomers to Canada looking for employment or saving up for a down payment. Rooming houses are transitory places — no one plans to be there for the long haul.”

According to Shapcott,the city’s housing market can be divided into four major segments. The largest group is home ownership, followed by rental housing. The bottom two segments include government-subsidized housing (which accounts for slightly more than 5 per cent of the market) and then illegal, unlicensed operations. Though there is no way to know for certain how many unlicensed rooming houses exist, he says that the waiting list for subsidized housing provides a good indication.

“In the city of Toronto, there are currently 168,000 individuals on the subsidized housing waiting list,” he reports. “That’s about 90,000 families, which is a staggering number.” Even more staggering is the fact that those families may wait up to six years to finally receive housing.

Shapcott says that anecdotally, rooming houses cost tenants about $400–$500 per month, which is cheaper than non-subsidized market prices, but still not exactly a steal. He also points out that, generally speaking, the landlords running these places are not “bad guys out to ruin lives.” Rather, many just do not have the income stream or access to capital to make the necessary upgrades that would bring their buildings up to code.

Learning out of tragedy

Shapcott references a fatal fire that took place in December 1989 at the Rupert Hotel at Queen and Parliament Streets. The three-alarm blaze left 10 residents dead. Out of the tragedy, a new and innovative project was launched called the Rupert Pilot Project.

Co-ordinated by a community-based group, the project used provincial and municipal funds to renovate more than 500 units within 24 rundown, privately owned and non-profit rooming houses across the city. However, the project stopped in 1993 when the provincial government refused to renew funding.

“It’s impossible to stop fires from happening, but we can prevent people from dying,” Shapcott says. “Cheap floor and wall coverings combined with cheap furniture, when ignited, create a toxic plume. In the end it is not the flames that kill, but the smoke. By simply adding alarm systems, fire doors and fire exits, residents gain a precious few minutes to escape from a burning building and most fire tragedies could be prevented.”

Shapcott says that while there is an understandable emphasis on creating new housing supply, it is important not to forget the quality of existing housing. Upgrading the current stock of older buildings and bringing them up to safety standards should also be a priority. “It’s the responsibility of the industry, the landlords and property owners, to ensure premises are up to code,” he says. “That way, tragedies won’t happen.”

Erin Ruddy is the editor of Canadian Apartment Magazine. 

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