London Free Press: City hall blasted for secrecy over probe into near-deadly student house fire

Posted February 15, 2022

Tenants’ rights groups in London are blasting city hall for saying it won’t make public the results of an investigation into a near-deadly fire at a crowded student bungalow in the city’s northeast.

“I think it is shameful, frankly,” said Jordan Smith, a local leader of ACORN Canada. “We can’t get anything done if we can’t have basic accountability.”

“It’s an embarrassment,” Smith added.

The city has said it launched an investigation into possible bylaw violations in the fallout of the Feb. 1 fire that heavily damaged the house at 1281 Hillcrest Ave. that a provincial fire investigator said was cut up into eight bedrooms and had 14 beds.

Twelve people, many of them international students from India, escaped the early-morning blaze on their own.

Three other tenants, all young women who were trapped in the house during the fire, with no way out, were rescued by two men from down the street — recognized last week by the city for their heroic actions — who pulled the Fanshawe College students to safety through a small basement window.

The Free Press asked about details of the city investigation in an email to Orest Katolyk, the city’s chief bylaw officer. But a city spokesperson replied, saying no information would be made public about the case.

Pressed to clarify whether the no-information stance would extend to any decision, or not, to lay charges or levy fines after the investigation is completed, or why complaints from at least one Hillcrest neighbour about overcrowding at the house did not trigger an investigation, the spokesperson confirmed no information would be made public at any point.

“There will be no further information provided about the property, for reasons of privacy and fairness of process. That includes information related to any resolution as well as any internal processes,” the email from Patti McKague said.

It’s an unusual stance for city hall, which in the past has shared at least broad details of bylaw violations and fines, including during the annual student Fake Homecoming bashes near Western University.

The city’s response Monday left some observers calling for more openness about this case and London’s bylaw enforcement system.

“It’s not a very transparent (system) at all,” said Jacqueline Thompson, executive director of LifeSpin, an agency that advocates for low-income people.

Thompson said her agency has in the past reported issues about several properties to city hall, but getting information about what steps city staff took was a frustrating process.

“This seems to be an ongoing issue. We have no idea why they are being so secretive, and it’s not helpful when you try to get action on properties that aren’t safe. It compounds the problem.

“It’s very frightening that people have this concept that the city is acting on the behalf of the community to enforce bylaws, and it all falls on deaf ears,” Thompson said.

Smith said the city has “some answering to do” about its response to complaints about overcrowding at the Hillcrest Avenue house.

City officials initially said a fire department report mentioning the large number of people living at the house was the first time occupancy issues had been flagged.

But one neighbour told The Free Press he’d already complained about the number of residents at the house, backing up his claims with time-stamped emails sent to city hall as recently as last year.

Smith said it’s fortunate no one died in the fire.

“If we don’t have systems in place to prevent these kinds of abuses from happening systemically, it’s going to happen again and there’s going to be a tragedy,” he said.

Jeremy Roberts of the London Tenants’ Association said city staff should be more transparent. For example, if information can’t be shared because it might affect a city investigation into a property, then officials should explain why releasing those details might hurt the probe, he said.

“I don’t think that that should be a blanket that they can use to just not comment, because they owe it to the people of the city,” he said.

Mayor Ed Holder said the public should know about any breach of city rules or Ontario laws in the near-fatal Hillcrest fire.

“I think that should be extremely public,” he said.

“It would feel reasonable that should a conviction be registered and the individuals found in violation, that that should be a public process, I think for the safety and well-being of all Londoners who are tenants.”

But when told of city hall’s refusal to provide that information in the Hillcrest case, even when the investigation is done, Holder said he couldn’t comment.

“I think the city does a pretty good job of accountability, as a broad comment. I don’t have the specifics on this, I’m not going to lambaste staff or criticize a process when I don’t know what that process is,” he said, citing rules that create a firewall to prevent any political tinkering with bylaw investigations or penalties.

Holder said city hall has issued 167 fines to landlords who failed to license their rental units since April 2021, when city council approved new rules to slap financial penalties on those who violate its property standards and other housing-related bylaws. Fines start at $400 and escalate for repeated offences.

Houses rented out to tenants, such as 1281 Hillcrest Ave., must be licensed under city hall rules. Apartments and townhouses do not require the same licences.

Holder also recognized the public calls for transparency from city hall.

“Is it worthy of review? Absolutely. Not by council members, but I think what this has brought to the fore, this process, amongst others, is going to be reviewed to ensure accuracy, accountability,” he said.

Asked if he would push for that internal review, Holder said “I’m already asking for information, that’s all I can say.”

An inactive listing for the Hillcrest house advertised rooms for rent for $500 each or $300 per person for shared rooms.

The city’s landlord licence registry shows the property is not licensed.

Landlord Qasim Qasim of Toronto has not responded to repeated Free Press requests for comment.

 

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Article by Jonathan Juha and Megan Stacey for the London Free Press

 

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