Posted February 2, 2022
A neighbour who lives near a house in northeast London where 15 people escaped an early morning fire says he warned city hall several times about overcrowding there, contradicting official city statements there’d been no complaints.
“It’s just a dangerous situation. And the city keeps letting this happen, time and time again,” said the neighbour, who asked not to be identified but backed up his claims with dated and time-stamped emails to and from city hall.
With the house so crowded, the fire Tuesday could’ve easily ended in tragedy, an Ontario Fire Marshal investigator said Wednesday.
The single-family home at 1281 Hillcrest Ave. was divided into eight bedrooms and there were 14 beds in the house, Clive Hubbard said. City licensing rules limit the number of bedrooms for rent to five.
“If you have chopped up a house into a number of bedrooms when it’s not designed for that, without providing proper egress from those rooms . . . the potential to have somebody trapped in a corner of a basement with no way to get out . . . is tremendous and could be fatal,” he said.
The cause of the blaze had yet to be determined, but investigators said it originated in the house’s basement before it quickly “spread outwards from there,” Hubbard said.
“We were lucky in this case that the people that were at one point kind of trapped in the back corner of the basement were able to get out.”
One tenant described the frightening scene to The Free Press Wednesday, saying she awoke to “the smell of something burning” and the sound of a smoke alarm.
“When I opened the door of my room to see what was happening, I saw all the smoke in the living area,” she said.
She said she knocked on the door of the other rooms on the main floor of the house. But the smoke and fire spread so quickly – she estimates the house was engulfed in flames in less than 10 minutes – she didn’t have time to alert the people living in the basement rooms.
“If I had gone down, I don’t know if I’d have made it out alive,” she said. “I’m glad they are OK. If they hadn’t escaped, I would’ve lived with guilt my whole life.”
The fire began just before 3 a.m. Tuesday. The London fire department said it received several 911 calls with reports of flames coming from all sides of the bungalow in the neighbourhood west of Huron Street and Highbury Avenue.
Firefighters say they rescued three people and about 12 others escaped on their own, with three people taken to hospital with unknown injuries.
In the wake of the fire, tenants’ rights groups called on the city Wednesday to do a better job protecting residents and warned that similar situations exist across London.
“The number 1 gap is accountability,” said Jordan Smith, a London leader of tenant advocacy group ACORN Canada.
“There are bylaws in place to prevent this kind of thing from happening. But there’s a huge gap when it comes to enforcement. This is going to happen again unless action is taken, unless there’s accountability put in place.”
Many of the overcrowding cases tend to involve international students, who are seen as less likely to complain about their living conditions, said Kristina Pagniello, executive director of London’s Neighbourhood Legal Services.
“They are targeted more because they’re more vulnerable, less likely to know about their rights and less likely to enforce their rights,” she said.
“This often happens where a landlord rents to them specifically counting on that.”
Brandie McGee, with the London Tenants’ Association, said they’ve seen cases in which properties are “rented by the body, not by the space of the apartment” and students are being targeted as potential renters even before they arrive in Canada.
“I think the prevalence is underestimated because the (students) are not complaining or finding access to justice,” she said. “But based on what we’ve seen, it would be safe to assume there’s more of that going on that we don’t know about.”
An inactive listing for the Hillcrest house advertised rooms for rent for $500 each or $300 for shared rooms.
“Looking for Indian/pakistani females roommate for few large private rooms,” said the online listing that touted the house’s proximity to Fanshawe College and Walmart. “Smoking, alcohol and drugs not allowed,” it said.
The city’s landlord licensing registry shows that property is not licensed.
Property records show Qasim Qasim and Huma Ahmed bought the house in January 2021 for $565,000.
Qasim told The Free Press Wednesday he was too distraught to provide comment. Asked if he was licensed by the city to rent the house to so many people, he hung up.
In response to questions Tuesday, city bylaw chief Orest Katolyk told The London Free Press no complaints about the property had been filed with his office.
“Other than the referral made today by London fire as a result of the fire occurrence regarding the occupancy . . . there have been no community complaints made,” he said in an email.
All single-family homes used as rental properties must comply with the city’s rental licensing bylaw, Katolyk said Tuesday, noting there’s a five-bedroom zoning regulation for detached dwellings.
But on Wednesday, a neighbour provided The Free Press copies of emails he sent in 2017 and 2021 to city hall, as well as what appears to be official city responses to his complaints in 2021.
The property was briefly cleaned up each time, but the number of residents continued to break landlord licensing rules in the city, he said.
The neighbour said he received nothing from his first complaint in 2017, he said, and followed that up with another email:
“I have never received anything, not even an email regarding my concerns about 1281 Hillcrest Ave being illegally packed with students, this property was not purchased by many I heard from the basement being a fire trap yet Toronto landlords have MANY (unknown number) of foreign students living on mattresses in this house.”
After the house was sold in late 2020 or early 2021, problems returned, the neighbour said.
He sent The Free Press copies of an email he sent to both the licensing and enforcement departments of city hall in March 2021.
To email@example.com , the neighbour said he sent the following on March 13, 2021, at 2:01 p.m.
“This is an overcrowded illegal rental (they can’t possibly have a license), with at least 7 rooms rented out, garbage is constantly left at the curb, construction waste has been on the front lawn for months, cars park on lawn occasionally, litter from the multitudes of people coming and going is constant, camp fires are being lit in the back yard with no containment, mattresses outside is a constant, most days at least 10 different vehicles will come and go and that never changed during stay at home orders.”
According to the neighbour’s email records, he received this response to his complaint to enforcement, dated March 15, at 9:09 a.m.
“Hello. Thank you for contacting the Service London. Your complaint has been forwarded to the City of London’s Municipal Law Enforcement Services division for further review.” It was signed, by name, of a “Customer Relations Representative, Service London, City Manager’s Office, City of London.”
The neighbour also sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org on March 13 at 2:07 p.m.
“This property has been full of tenants exceeding 20 or more at times on a continually changing basis. It was just sold and listed 7 bedrooms rented. This to my knowledge exceeds the limits and I doubt they are licensed at all. Another complaint has been registered with the bylaw enforcement as well with multiple concerns.
In response, he received an automatic reply from the licensing department as soon as he sent the email.
It appears that email address is used for landlords seeking licensing. The automatic response cautioned that applications for licenses were accepted only by email because of COVID-19. It was signed, however, by the Development and Compliance Licensing office.
No one from the city contacted him about what was done to alleviate the problems in 2021, the neighbour said.
Contacted about the neighbours’ complaints Wednesday, Katolyk emailed The Free Press.
“Further to my response to yesterday, we do have a complaint on record from 2017. However, the property has since changed ownership so that complaint would not apply to the current owner,” Katolyk said.
“The complaints that we have on file for 2021 are related to the conditions on the property (such as debris and parking) and they have been investigated and closed. The only occupancy complaint we have received with the current owner is the referral from the London Fire Department earlier this week, and we are now in the early stages of investigating that.”
Meanwhile, several organizations in London are pushing for better licensing rules, more enforcement of existing rules, more frequent inspections – and not based solely on complaints – and protection for tenants who do complain.
“It’s really tough to complain for anybody, but especially if you’re new to this country, even if you’re new even to the area,” ACORN’s Smith said.
“It’s tough to raise your hand and say, ‘I got a problem here.’ And then it’s even worse when you do raise your hand and you realize it’s you’ve actually got a huge set of steps you got to go through to get them to take action.”
Some of the abuses foreign students face include being asked to pay a full year of rent in advance or landlords not doing the repairs the house needs, Pagniello of Neigbourhood Legal Services said.
In some cases, international students, who are already paying high prices for their education, may also see these types of living arrangements as a way to save money while in the city, she added.
“This is all against the backdrop of a massive shortage in affordable housing, so you get people agreeing to all sorts of things they shouldn’t have to and living in all sorts of ways they shouldn’t have to,” Pagniello said.
Article by Jonathan Juha and Randy Richmond for the London Free Press