“It’s ongoing,” said City Councillor Ross Eadie, in regards to how to make rooming houses safe.
Eadie, along with Councillor Janice Lukes, in an April council meeting made a notice of motion to the Protection, Community Services, and Parks Committee to “undertake whatever it must do” to implement annual inspections in rooming houses for “liveability” and fire code compliance. It passed at this committee level on Monday with Coun. Eadie insisting on getting results from city staff in no longer than 90 days.
“It’s ongoing” is an understatement. Nearly a century ago, in January 1919, the rooming house situation and its remedies were eerily similar to those of today. That year, a housing survey in the area north of the CPR rail lines and east of Main Street (where rooming houses were common) took place. It read:
“It should be definitely understood, however…that it will be necessary to provide a sufficient staff of inspectors whose exclusive duty it will be to supervise housing conditions. It is quite out of the question to deal with this problem in an effective manner unless such a staff is available.
“….We have, moreover, been dealing with housing mostly on complaints only, and this gives just cause for charges of discrimination in the operations of the Department. An ideal system would provide for an inspection of every dwelling in the City at least once in each year; in fact this is the only way in which we can be perfectly aware of the conditions obtaining as regards housing.”
Today, the United Firefighters of Winnipeg has called for more inspectors to exclusively deal with rooming houses. Rooming houses in Winnipeg are supposed to be inspected every year for fire code enforcement but several are not. There are far too many registered rooming houses to inspect with present resources, and the number of unregistered rooming houses is simply unknown and as such are not up for inspection.
In most sad and tragic fashion, Winnipeggers recently learned that all rooming houses are not inspected annually. The Austin Street house that went up in flames July 7 was last fully inspected in 2013 and a follow up visit took place months later.
The fire claimed the lives of 51 year old Brenda Campbell and 61 year old John McKinnon Bendon and injured two others. Firefighters have been voicing the risks of not doing annual inspections, and the situation was known to authorities.
In 1919, a complaint-only system dealt with issues of rooming house cleanliness, occupancy, and upkeep (such as working plumbing, proper locks, intact windows, etc.). Today these issues fall under the Neighbourhood Livability By-Law.
Winnipeg has the same complaint-only system today, which was reinstated by city hall in 2012. The change coincided with an increase in provincially mandated fire inspections, which meant many rooming house assessments simply fell off the table. Priority was given to high risk businesses, nursing homes, daycares and the like. These circumstances were not good for inner city rooming house tenants, for a number of reasons.
A complaint-only system simply does not work for many inner city rooming house tenants, who are often vulnerable persons with illnesses, addictions and mental health concerns. These tenants do not know, or are distrustful of the rights they have, and feel powerless and fearful as a result. For them, the complaint system is seen as useless or not to be trusted. They fear eviction to the street if they were to “start any trouble” with the landlord.
Sel Burrows, chair of the Point Douglas Residents Committee, who appeared before the Protection, Community Services and Parks Committee, said a complaint-only system was fine for areas such as River Heights or Wolseley where people feel their voices are heard. He said it just doesn’t work for many rooming house situations he knows about.
“You as councillors and the larger city council needs to care enough about their quality of life for there to be annual inspections”, said Burrows, his concern apparent.
The recent publicized deaths of Campbell and Bendon seemed to cast a pall over the Community Services, Safety and Protection meeting. Gone were the usual standing committee wise cracks and jovial good morning greetings.
In view of the tragedies, in a recent Winnipeg Sun article, Alex Forest, president of the United Firefighters of Winnipeg, said given the amount of life risk in rooming houses, “you could argue those buildings should be inspected twice a year.”
As in 1919, the Protection, Community Services and Parks Committee is seeking a way to enforce humane living conditions in rooming houses through an annual livability inspection. Effectively, for many rooming houses, no such enforcement exists with tenants who dare not complain in the complaint-only system.
For councillors and many in the observation gallery who likely held no clue to the living circumstances of many Winnipeg rooming house tenants, Burrows explained their realities. He asked the group why, on page 8 of the Livability Bylaw, the text reads that rooming house toilets were required to have toilet seats.
“We need a bylaw saying that because quite often it doesn’t happen,” he said.
“The quality of life that exists in North Point Douglas rooming houses is acceptable, but I would like it to be much better,” Burrows said. “But there are many issues that need to be improved.”
He cited the realities of broken locks on bathroom doors (especially in the context of vulnerable female tenants) or the lack of triple pane windows in the depths of a Winnipeg winter and the necessity of intact screens in summer to prevent the entry of disease carrying mosquitoes at some rooming houses.
Like the 1919 housing report that was championed by Dr. A.J. Douglas, today Burrows says the Regional Health Authority endorses an annual Neighbourhood Livability bylaw inspection.
Right now, explained Burrows, 10 people are allowed to use a common bathroom in a rooming house – a number Burrows would like to see lowered – but said this was something he could live with as long as bathrooms were kept sanitary.
Rooming houses require easily cleanable flooring, and kitchen counters. Their surfaces must be without cuts that can harbour dirt and germs. Issues of privacy and safety must be addressed with working locks on doors, bathrooms locks, working windows and lighting.
Many rooming houses were built long ago, with “cozy” floor plans that included smaller, connected rooms and hallways. They were once single family dwellings now converted into a labyrinth of rooms or apartments. Firefighters often come to a burning rooming house structure that is a warren of tightly grouped, irregularly connected rooms with narrow halls and inconvenient exits. Fire easily entraps residents.
The owner’s son of the Austin Street rooming house said the unit was in compliance with all bylaws, but Burrows said the required notice of maximum occupancy was not displayed. Just how many people live in rooming houses, licensed and not, is an issue of great concern and one that impacts greatly on quality of life and safety in rooming houses.
Burrows is a central player in a years long community development initiative in Point Douglas. Community-directed revitalization there has made great strides in crime reduction and community safety, health care access and monitoring, education issues, day care availability, general citizen community involvement and the development of various community organizations, shopping facilities, art projects, and more.
Many initiatives involve work that is traditionally in the realm of civic responsibility, and their work has reduced responses from civic services.
For example, the “Powerline” receives many calls of community concern. In turn, a volunteer group, based on many years of networking with local authorities, service organizations, groups, and policy makers – have developed their own effective ways of dealing with long standing problems in their area. Point Douglas saves the City of Winnipeg many dollars with their own service deliveries as well as resulting problem reduction.
But with rooming houses, said Burrows, the Point Douglas community on their own can deal with issues and behaviours demonstrated outside of a rooming house; what they lack is a way of getting inside.
“This is the most important issue in Point Douglas that we cannot do ourselves…we are asking for your help,” stated Burrows, with an intense directive clarity.
For a moment the council chamber fell silent.
It was Councillor Russ Wyatt whose words broke the strange spell. In a question that would respectfully ensure all would hear the gravity and importance of Burrow’s request, Wyatt simply asked: “Repeat that?”
As the meeting passed into the afternoon, Coun. Eadie asked Winston Yee, the city’s manager of bylaw enforcement, many questions about pulling together efforts of various city departments into one workable method that would see the implementation of annual fire and liveability inspections.
Eadie was adamant. Ninety days was the limit for staff to come back with a plan – even sooner if possible, he said. The committee and administration were to do “whatever it must,” according to the language of the referred council motion, to help save lives of the vulnerable citizenry of Winnipeg and ensure the comfort that all deserve.