North Point Douglas community activist Sel Burrows didn’t want to “confuse the issue” at the Standing Policy Committee on Protection, Community Services and Parks meeting on Monday, where administration would present a report on how to implement yearly inspections for rooming houses, and hear feedback on it.
An earlier study from June 2016, indicated 814 rooming houses (in various stages of licensing) exist in Winnipeg, of which more than 200 have shared kitchens and bathrooms.
Up until 1987, rooming houses were subject to a fire code that is “grandfathered” into today. Homes converted into rooming houses after 1987 must meet current codes, but many owners find this too expensive and instead convert their homes and operate illegally without a license.
So, Burrows was glad when Councillor Russ Wyatt brought up something that was absent from this most recent report’s pages – the way to deal with the unlicensed variety of Winnipeg’s rooming houses.
Back in April, Councillor Ross Eadie and Councillor Janice Lukes made the motion for the city to “undertake whatever it must do” to implement annual inspections of rooming houses for “livability” and fire code compliance.
But by July, tragedy struck again.
Two more Point Douglas rooming house deaths by fire (in a line of such deaths over recent years) brought Sel Burrows to speak at City Hall within days of the tragedy.
He detailed what was needed immediately to increase rooming house safety. He drew from a compilation of work by Point Douglas community members who had been toiling on it for awhile.
A motion was made for a plan to be in place within 90 working days.
Unveiled last week and open for feedback at Monday’s meeting, the report stated yearly inspections would now take place for licensed rooming houses with shared kitchens and bathrooms. Inspections would cover fire code and Neighbourhood Livability Bylaw compliance at the same time.
Livability issues involve dwelling maintenance and care. Lack of attention to them could make living within rooming houses a misery; broken door locks to one’s room, wind whistling through unrepaired windows, pest infestations, bathroom malfunctions, no summer screens…the list seems almost endless.
Other converted dwellings without shared areas would be inspected every 2.5 years.
Shared area rooming houses require more frequent inspection since, for example, hot plates are often used in residents’ rooms for increased privacy, or where shared kitchens are in disrepair, are filthy, or the house is simply over capacity for residents.
(Unlicensed rooming houses are fairly numerous and serve Winnipeg’s poor. They are not known to authorities because they could never pass code to achieve a “converted dwelling residence” license. They are, therefore, illegal, unregistered, and usually hold what fire fighters call a high level of “life risk”).
As well, the report includes a way to provide the city with anonymous reports on unlicensed rooming houses – or any other rooming house issue.
The 311 system – the city’s telephone and email communications hot line – will now be an effective, anonymous way to tip off the city to rooming house problems. 311 staff are now trained to take such complaints and forward them on.
Burrows knows that vulnerable residents will not call 311, and recently the Point Douglas community has developed their own “home grown” screening process for rooming house complaints, in the form of an easy-to-read pamphlet slipped under resident’s doors. It holds contact information of trusted Point Douglas connections and it is a know-your-rights brochure regarding rooming houses. He said complaints have already come in.
At the heart of the city’s new inspection plan is the cooperation of the civic Bylaw Enforcement Department and the Fire Protection Branch. Both departments authored the report and its pages describe an “interdepartmental relationship” formalized through a “Memorandum of Collaboration”.
No such breadth of inspections existed before. The plan was developed at no cost and none is expected for its implementation.
Rooming house clients themselves are part of the plan, and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority is also involved. Public health nurses and home care workers who visit clients in rooming houses will work to establish a relationship of trust with rooming house occupants, many of whom, Burrows says, feel, for many reasons, too disempowered to voice any concerns.
A relationship of trust and support can facilitate understanding of tenant rights and help build self esteem and assertiveness. Workers are also now trained to report livability bylaw infractions.
“This is the second most vulnerable population in the community,” said Burrows. “We worked at length to get the WRHA on board.”
The Point Douglas group has now turned their attention to include social workers in dealing with the rooming house issue in the same way. Social workers are sometimes the only reliable contact for residents.
Janice Lukes, Councillor for South Winnipeg – St. Norbert, has heard many complaints of poor living situations from students living in rooming houses around the University of Manitoba. Lukes said the neighbourhood has a “massive amount” of such residences.
“It’s a hard problem to correct with the system that we have,” she said as a delegate to the meeting.
The report describes how unlicensed rooming houses with shared accommodations are dealt with by the city:
“…it (the city) will investigate and either take enforcement steps to bring the property into compliance or to have the property owner cease its operations. Increasingly the Public Service’s approach is to order the property owner to cease operations in the short term until the required zoning, building code, and licensing requirements are met. Complaints are likely to increase due to the screening process established through 311”.
In another part of the report:
“Fire Prevention currently responds to complaints of illegally converted houses and subsequent to an inspection, the illegally occupied rooms are vacated and the owners are informed that they must apply for permits at Planning, Property, & Development to legally convert the home and must meet current building code requirements and zoning requirements. Typically owners do not apply for permits to convert their homes and often they resume the operation of the illegal CRD shared when they feel the Fire Prevention Branch is no longer monitoring their activities”.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of upgrades are likely required to make a single family home a compliant rooming house, commented Eadie.
Concluding her remarks in delegation, Lukes thanked Burrows for his great amount of work, and said he was “someone to look up to.”
In turn, Burrows lauded those authoring the report for developing a plan with such creativity and efficient resource use. He said it was hopeful to hear a councillor from another area of the city (Janice Lukes) take interest in the rooming house issue.
As a former senior bureaucrat for the province, the strengths and weaknesses of a government bureaucratic system are things Sel Burrows knows only too well.
“The issue of having good quality existing housing is for systems to work creatively, efficiently and effectively. There is no excuse for in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada to have substandard housing,” said Burrows. “There is no need for a massive increase in expenditures.”
But he also hoped the city will develop detailed annual reports that would capture data reflecting the effort’s effectiveness. It could also point the way to fill in any missing pieces.
Absent from the report was how to respond to non-licensed rooming houses. This was the thing that Sel thought would “confuse the issue” and break from the meeting’s agenda.
Russ Wyatt raised the issue instead.
“I am happy you asked that,” said Burrows. He explained because Point Douglas residents know where rooming houses are in their community but can’t tell if they are licensed or not, Burrows asked the city for a list of licensed rooming houses in Point Douglas for comparison.
The city did not provide the information and Burrows instead was given the number of licensed rooming houses in the area: 217. Burrows said the city refused on the basis that it constituted personal information of the home addresses of individual citizens.
Burrows, who is specifically seeking the status of the facilities as licensed or not, then filed a FIPPA (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act) request for the information, and was turned down. He said he will appeal the FIPPA decision.
Councillor Eadie questioned Burrows about just how close the cold, hard pavement was for evicted residents when the inspector comes around.
“What we have discovered was that the city has a much better process for finding housing for those people who are being evicted for various reasons…than I knew,” said Burrows. “With help from the community to identify problem areas, there is room for expansion of these services.”
He also said it is his understanding there is opportunity and time given for compliance, allowing a time line for finding alternate housing for residents if necessary.
Burrows said some unlicensed rooming houses were horrible, while others were not.
“We in the community have 10 times the capacity of paid staff to identify the unlicensed rooming houses and work with the system to get them licensed,” he said. “The (Point Douglas) community wants to work with the city.”
Councillor John Orlikow described the situation for many who are living in unlicensed rooming houses as one of “no way out”, and said he looks forward to working on the unlicensed rooming house issue.
“I cannot stress enough,” said Burrows, “the positiveness of civil servants working with community…when there is a partnership like that, really good things happen for people.”
Burrows concluded with the advice of recommending a way to collaborate among departments and provided a view of the role of authority among a situation that involves risk to life.
“When you have a system where systems all work all together informally as possible, using the criminal code – the sledgehammer – as little as possible, then stuff happens,” concluded Burrows.