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CBC Hamilton: Hamilton tenants went 12 weeks without running water. Internal city emails reveal what went wrong - ACORN Canada

CBC Hamilton: Hamilton tenants went 12 weeks without running water. Internal city emails reveal what went wrong

Posted August 11, 2023

When Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath turned on the local six o’clock news in late December, she says she was shocked and outraged by what she saw.

Tenants at a downtown apartment building had been without running water for two days after pipes froze and burst. The landlord had yet to make any repairs.

Within minutes of the CHCH news segment airing, the mayor sent an email to top staff, including city manager Janette Smith who oversees all divisions.

“This is unacceptable … a black eye for the city,” the mayor wrote Dec. 30. “We look terrible and uncaring here…are we? I am not.”

Despite the new mayor urging swift action, and Smith acknowledging in a subsequent email it was an “untenable situation,” the water shutdown at 1083 Main St. E. dragged on well beyond a couple of days.

It lasted nearly three months.

CBC Hamilton obtained the mayor’s email, and dozens of others sent by senior staff and elected officials this winter, through a freedom of information request (FOI), to uncover how tenants could be left without a vital service for so long.

The records reveal Hamilton’s response was hindered by delays, red tape and actions questioned by council members — from a building inspection done without the inspector entering the building to the city relying on what one councillor called a “Mickey Mouse” report prepared by an unregistered plumber and delays caused by staff on holidays and city hall weddings.

“We have all the ability in the world to make sure people have access to their basic services,” Horwath said in an interview with CBC Hamilton last week.

“And the fact that was not taken seriously and it went through all kinds of processes and procedures that didn’t actually solve the problem, it was extremely frustrating. I’m outraged with the city’s response.”

From Dec. 28 to March 24, nine tenants relied on a few 22-L bags of water delivered by the city every other day, limiting their showers, toilet flushes, cleaning and cooking. Nearly all live with disabilities and receive social assistance.

The city spent $22,000 on the water and, following legal advice, has decided not to try to recover this cost from the landlord, it said in a statement.

Tenant David Galvin said in an interview that landlord Dylan Suitor’s handling of the situation wasn’t surprising.

Suitor, who hasn’t respond to multiple requests from CBC Hamilton for comment, is currently trying to evict Galvin and the other tenants to renovate their units. Their cases are currently before the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB).

It was the way the city responded that was infuriating, said Galvin, who is member of the tenant advocacy group ACORN.

“What’s upsetting is the people that vulnerable tenants are supposed to be able to turn to for help in situations like this — bylaw, property standards and public health — just turned their backs on us completely,” said Galvin.

“That’s what’s truly hurtful.”

Monica Ciriello, who oversees licensing and bylaw services, told CBC Hamilton that behind the scenes, staff were grappling with a complex situation that spanned many departments. She said the city’s response was also complicated by the fact LTB eviction hearings for some tenants were coming up and the city didn’t want to interfere with that process.

“I believe the city did everything within its power to support the tenants while also recognizing the landlord’s rights,” Ciriello said.

Based on interviews and comments from elected officials, including Horwath, city staff and tenants, and files obtained through the FOI request and staff reports, CBC Hamilton has pieced together how this response spanned 86 days, or 12 weeks.

Week 1: Apartment goes dry

Pipes at 1083 Main St. E., an apartment building across from Gage Park, froze and burst on Dec. 28, after the city says they were exposed to cold temperatures during renovations. The property manager shut off the water to prevent further damage.

A bylaw officer attended the building around 6 p.m. In a video recorded by Galvin and seen by CBC Hamilton, the officer stood in his apartment and called the property manager. The officer is heard saying “so nothing has been confirmed about getting a contractor.”

“I may have to write this up,” the officer says, “The tenants have no water and they’re wondering what’s happening.”

Two days later, on Dec. 30, Horwath learned of the situation from media reports. She emailed senior staff to demand action.

The next day, a building inspector planned to go to the property with public health and bylaw to ensure the building was safe, according to inspection notes.

However, both bylaw and public health cancelled so he went alone.

The building inspector could not get inside despite making several calls to the property manager. The “building appears to be secure with no apparent unsafe conditions observed,” he wrote in his notes.

When later asked by CBC Hamilton if it is standard practice to assess a building’s safety without going inside, the city’s building inspection manager Bob Nuttall said in an email it “depends on the circumstances.”

He said that before the inspection, his department had already determined the water shutoff did not create unsafe conditions under the Ontario Building Code, which sets standards for structural sufficiency, fire protection, health and safety, or plumbing and mechanical systems.

Week 2: ‘You can’t dilly dally’

There was discussion among staff, including housing director Michelle Baird in an email to the mayor, for bylaw officers to respond to the water shut off as a vital services complaint.

Hamilton’s vital services bylaw empowers the city to act swiftly when landlords fail to provide tenants with access to fuel, electricity, gas or running water.

It’s an emergency measure, where the city can immediately hire contractors to make the repairs and then recover the costs by registering a lien against the property, according to the bylaw. The city can also fine the landlord up to $5,000 for each day the vital service is not provided.

Horwath said the city needed to figure out “the most effective, most swift response we can possibly get.”

“When it’s literally people’s access to something this fundamental, then you find a solution that is going to find the best results … there’s no dilly dallying,” she said in the recent interview.

The city didn’t use this bylaw.

Instead, nine days after the vital service was shut off, it issued an order under its property standards bylaw — a process that took much longer to play out.

Ciriello said the vital services bylaw does not apply if “extensive repairs” need to be done.

As for why it took until Jan. 5 to order the repairs, Ciriello said blamed the holiday season.

“We were on shutdown and a skeleton crew,” she said. “We simply did not have the staff to issue the order.”

Week 3: Rationing water for baths, toilet flushing

On Jan. 12, the landlord appealed the order, requesting more time to complete the work. That meant the appeal would need to be heard at a future property standards committee meeting to decide if and when the city could enforce the order.

In the meantime, tenants continued to live without running water.

Concerned the landlord was not providing adequate water, the city delivered jugs. Tenants hulled them up the stairs to their units and rationed it out for sponge baths, the occasional flush of the toilet and a little cleaning.

Galvin said the stress left him “emotionally and physically debilitated.”

Another tenant Chris Martinez said he felt on edge, like his home wasn’t safe anymore. “I’ve lost a lot of faith in humanity,” he previously told CBC Hamilton.

Week 4: Three weddings, four more days

After media coverage of the ongoing shut off, Ciriello emailed legislative clerk Lisa Kelsey on Jan. 27 to move up the property standards committee meeting.

Kelsey said she had give the landlord 21 days notice, so the soonest would be Feb. 17. However, she was unavailable that day as she was helping run three weddings at City Hall.

They agree for the committee to meet on Feb. 21 instead.

Week 8: A ‘Mickey Mouse’ plumber report

At the meeting, the landlord’s paralegal Angela Smith and city prosecutor Sheena Watts agreed the order should not be enforced for at least another month.

Their agreed statement of facts said so much work needed be to be done to fix the pipes, the tenants would have to vacate their units. They noted the tenants could be evicted in March after an LTB hearing, which would allow the landlord to proceed with the work.

The city’s stance was based on an undated “plumber’s report” submitted by the landlord. It says “extensive and catastrophic damage” had occurred to all plumbing supply lines and throughout all floors and sections of the building.

The property standards committee, composed of five members of the public, voted to allow the extension for at least another 45 days.

ACORN members were “absolutely in disbelief” with the outcome of the meeting, the group said in a statement. “We know the tenants in the building felt equally in the dark.”

They weren’t the only ones.

At a council meeting, councillors appeared visibly frustrated and shocked the city is continuing to allow the water shut off.

Coun. Nrinder Nann described it as unprecedented and “absolutely unacceptable.”

Council voted for staff to do a review of its bylaws including vital services and property standards to ensure this type of service cutoff never happens to tenants again. Staff said they’d report back later in the year.

Behind the scenes, Coun. John-Paul Danko, who is also an engineer, sent a searing email to Jason Thorne, general manager of planning, questioning the authenticity of the plumber’s report.

“Surely the city challenged the validity of this report?” Danko wrote. “There were four cold days at the end of December and in that time every single pipe in every unoccupied area of all three 4 storey apartment buildings froze and burst…!?”

Thorne responded to say he forwarded Danko’s concerns to the city’s prosecutor, Watts, who is also bylaw’s project and policy analyst.

In a recent interview with CBC Hamilton, Danko described it as a “Mickey Mouse” report that appeared to be written by “some guy” hired by the landlord to tell the city whatever it needed to hear to not enforce the order. He was also frustrated to learn of these details so long after the water was shut off.

“We could’ve sent an inspector to the site or we could have verified things and been more proactive,” Danko said.

When asked about these discrepancies, Ciriello told CBC Hamilton it’s not the city’s standard practice to get a second opinion or verify claims.

“Maybe that’s something we have to look at doing,” she said.

Week 10: The LTB hearing

In an email, Nann asked Thorne why the plumber’s report was prepared by someone who is not registered to work as a plumber in Ontario, according to the province’s skilled trades register.

Thorne forwarded her concerns to the city’s prosecutor.

Then ACORN submitted to the city a letter from registered plumber Ronald Nazark, following his inspection of the building. He said he did not find extensive damage, especially in the tenants’ units, as described in the landlord’s report.

He said last week that he never heard back from anyone at the city.

On March 9, at an LTB hearing for a couple of the tenants, the landlord was forced to withdraw his eviction application.

The adjudicator said Suitor was in serious breach of his responsibility under the Residential Tenancies Act for not ensuring the units had running water, which was grounds for his application to be dismissed.

Week 12: Water is restored

A team of three plumbers hired by the landlord begin to repair the pipes, according to Galvin.

Within a matter of days, and with tenants still living there, the water was restored.

For Galvin and the other tenants, they’re still waiting for hearings and decisions from the LTB about whether or not they’ll be evicted. Meanwhile dozens of vacant units are being renovated with fresh coats of paint, new floors and windows.

He hasn’t gotten over how, as he puts it, the city “bought into all those stories” from the landlord and is calling for top staff members to resign.

“Personally, I think this is a sign these departments are inherently biased against vulnerable tenants and in favour of wealthy landlords,” Galvin said. “That’s not going to change until we replace some of [those] people.”

Staff to present review of bylaws

Next week, staff are expected to present the results of a review of the city’s bylaws to determine how they can be tweaked to better help tenants who do not have access to a vital service, as well as a proposal to stop renovictions, said Ciriello.

Horwath said the city’s response has to be better and council has to push for that to happen.

“We need to be serious about being a lot more firm in making sure people’s needs are met,” Horwath said. “We have an obligation and a responsibility and we cannot shirk that or walk away for that. It’s just wrong.”

The mayor added that Smith, the current city manager, is retiring in October, presenting an opportunity to hire a replacement that will steer Hamilton in a new direction, Horwath said.

Article authored by Samantha Beattie for CBC Hamilton