Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rooming-house fire kills elderly man

No one's addressing crisis, activists say

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The death of an elderly St. Boniface man in the city's latest rooming house fire was met mostly with silence from the province and the city Wednesday.

That's despite repeated pleas from inner-city activists to deal with what they call a full-blown crisis and despite pledges by both levels of government to take action on rooming houses.

In the last three years, at least nine Winnipeg rooming-house fires have left dozens homeless, killed six people and injured many more. Fire safety is just one element of a complex and growing problem affecting roughly 6,000 of the city's poorest and hardest-to-house.

Rooming houses typically elude nearly every health and safety regulation, housing-improvement program and social service offered by the city and province. No one knows exactly how many rooming houses there are in the inner city because no government agency counts and tracks them. Conditions in most rooming houses are deplorable and prone to conflict, with as many as 10 people paying $350 a month to share a single bathroom. Landlords tend to be absent and the number of rooming houses is declining -- by 20 per cent in the Spence neighbourhood alone -- as owners take advantage of gentrification to flip properties, shrinking the number of already-scarce affordable units and putting vulnerable people on the street.

A fire in a basement suite of a rooming house claimed the life of the man early Wednesday morning.

Emergency personnel were called to the scene in the 300 block of Enfield Crescent near Marion Street at about 5 a.m., where they discovered a fire in the St. Boniface-area complex.

It's believed the fire started in the basement suite where the man lived. He was rushed to hospital in critical condition and later succumbed to his injuries.

Witnesses say the man was trapped as the fire spread throughout the suite.

"I woke up and smelled the smoke; the fire alarm went off for about two to three seconds. The only reason I woke up because I could smell it," said resident Tim Macklin.

There were no other injuries.

Eight people lived in the two-storey, five-suite rooming house. Fire crews and the arson strike force continue to investigate. The cause of the fire is unknown.

Last fall, city fire inspectors resumed house-by-house inspections after a two-year hiatus due to staffing shortages and other inspection priorities. The city said Wednesday 649 "converted dwellings" were assigned for inspection in September, and about a third have already been visited by fire-prevention experts.

It's not clear how many of those buildings were traditional rooming houses -- converted homes where renters share kitchen and bathroom facilities.

Only about 200 rooming houses are licensed by the city, far from the estimated 1,000 operating mostly in Winnipeg's core. Most of the "converted dwellings" fire inspectors visited are more like duplexes or homes converted into bachelor apartments instead of traditional rooming houses.

In an email, a city spokeswoman said rooming houses are "actively being addressed" by the fire department, property staff and bylaw enforcement.

"These departments work together on an ongoing basis to ensure an integrated approach with respect to the safety of these dwellings," said the spokeswoman, who could offer no additional details.

Meanwhile, the Manitoba government, which set up an cross-departmental committee last year to tackle rooming houses, had little to report.

"We have a lens on rooming houses more than we've had in a number of years," said then-housing minister Kerri Irvin-Ross last summer following a series of stories by the Free Press. "They are very much on our radar."

On Wednesday, the province was unable to say what the internal committee has accomplished in the last 10 months or what initiatives the NDP government is considering to improve conditions in rooming houses.

That lack of government action on rooming houses has prompted a batch of inner-city organizations to form their own task force.

Groups like the West Broadway Community Organization, the Spence Neighbourhood Association, Resource Assistance for Youth and others are working on creating their own committee that will hopefully include staff from the province and city in order to create momentum. The groups may ask Housing Minister Peter Bjornson and city Coun. Jenny Gerbasi to serve as co-chairs.


-- with files from Adam Wazny

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 17, 2014 A8

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