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The London Free Press: Lives in limbo: Tenants’ two-year wait to return home after fire - ACORN Canada

The London Free Press: Lives in limbo: Tenants’ two-year wait to return home after fire

Posted March 1, 2024

Tenants displaced by a March 2022 Tillsonburg apartment fire are still waiting to go home. Mostly seniors used to rent-controlled units, they’ve struggled for affordable alternatives in the fast-growing town and some fear they’ll be priced out of going back. The landlord’s rep says they want them back and are working as fast as they can amid supply issues. LFP’s Brian Williams reports.

Madeline Willaeys still vividly recalls her first night after the fire, alone in a motel room.

“I can remember laying down in (the) bed and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t have a home anymore,’ and I started to cry,” said the 90-year-old.

“I was all by myself.”

Willaeys was among dozens of residents, nearly all senior citizens, displaced after a fire blamed on careless smoking broke out in their Tillsonburg apartment building in March 2022.

The scenes that played out early that morning at 195 Lisgar Ave. were dramatic.

Flames shot out of an upper-floor window. Smoke billowed from the building and filled hallways, clouding exits. Tenants, some still asleep, were roused by people banging on doors to alert them to the fire.

It was an emergency so serious, two people were hurt and about 17 were stranded on their balconies and rescued by firefighters.

Heavy water and smoke damage left the six-storey building needing major repairs. The 70 or so tenants, many of them pensioners, suddenly had to find other places to live. That’s tough enough for anyone in Tillsonburg, one of Canada’s fastest-growing smaller centres, but especially for tenants accustomed to rent-controlled prices – from $600 to $1,300 a month – in an older building.

“I don’t have a home anymore”  MADELINE WILLAEYS

Today, almost two years after the blaze, signs of the early-morning trouble on March 8, 2022, are long gone, including construction scaffolding that stood at the site – its parking lot fenced off – weeks ago.

The building stands empty, apparently still undergoing repairs.

It appears few tenants hold out hope of returning, but those who do wonder when that will happen.

“Maybe I’ll kick the bucket before I go back,” said Willaeys, a great-grandmother who lived at the building for 12 years, but has moved often since the fire.

“I’m holding my breath,” she said. “Now, I just want to go back there for a couple of years even, you know – like even just a little longer . . . because I liked it.”

Like a fire everyone thinks is out, but still has hot spots, a nagging worry smoulders among some of the tenants: first, of being forced out, as they have, then finding out later rents will be hiked.

Some question the slow progress of the work, fearing they’ll be priced out of ever going back. There’s even speculation the job is deliberately being dragged out, which the company denies.

“I’m thinking that (the landlord) is waiting for people to lose interest, die off or just forget all about it so that they can open it up and just have people pay the real rent – like high rent,” said Donna Kischak, 67, a displaced tenant whose husband died about a year after the fire.

“He just lost his will, you know. He was 88 and he had leg issues, but I think he just wanted to go home (to Lisgar Avenue),” said Kischak, who’s moved several times since the fire and now lives in Tillsonburg. She’s decided not to return to Lisgar Avenue.


In the classic clear-out-and-raise-rents scenario, the stuff of housing horror stories known as “renovictions,” tenants are formally evicted to make way for building upgrades or renovations and sometimes offered cash incentives by landlords to leave earlier.

Many move on, their units are declared vacant and, once that happens, the rent can be raised to what the market will bear – even in buildings whose rents are regulated by the province.

It’s all perfectly legal and can be lucrative for building owners in a hot housing climate like Ontario’s, where high demand and apartment shortages have created a landlord’s market in many areas.

What’s different in Tillsonburg is an accidental fire forced tenants out, and repairs were needed to make their building safe. But to some former residents left in limbo, it feels the same.

“If they were on the ball with everything, it (the repair work) would have been done already,” said Yvonne Steffler, 77. She lived in a two-bedroom unit at Lisgar for four years, paying rent she considered reasonable.

Steffler, who wants to return, said she understands the building needed to be repaired, but said she believes things are now “dragging” so long after the fire,

For 23 months now, she said, she’s been “living out of box” and sleeping on a couch at her sister’s home, her possessions in storage.

“It’s been hell,” she said.


The 1970s-era building is owned by Hofberg Holdings Ltd., and a representative insists the company is moving as quickly as it can on repairs and wants to bring the tenants back.

“We’re going as fast as we can on this. Trust me, we want to get people in as soon as possible,” Michael Schaufelberger, who identified himself as the building manager, said late last year.

“We’ll be bringing the tenants back in” once the work is done, he added.

Schaufelberger hasn’t been available for comment lately, and no one answered when The Free Press went to a London residential address given as the company’s office on one online registry.

But Schaufelberger, when asked, rejected suggestions by some tenants the work is being stalled to discourage their return. He said the building was heavily damaged and the job is taking longer than expected because of supply issues.

“I don’t have really anything to comment outside that the building’s under repair and as soon as the building is ready to be occupied, we’ll be bringing the tenants back in,” he said in December.

Several tenants said they’d heard asbestos was found in the decades-old building after the fire, though Schaufelberger did not mention that. Once widely used as an insulating material, asbestos is a carcinogen now banned in construction and its removal can be time-consuming.


Weeks after the fire, in April 2022, Schaufelberger met with displaced tenants at Tillsonburg’s Salvation Army Community Church where, according to residents who were there, they were told it could take up to a year and a half before they could return to their homes.

That 12- to 18-month time frame ran out last fall, but several residents say they later received a call from Schaufelberger telling them the latest date for when they can return is June or July this year, more than two years after the fire. That update came after The Free Press sought comment from Schaufelberger about residents’ concerns, including about communication with the company.

Schaufelberger said he’s “always been available” to tenants. “Anybody that had a concern or question that either called myself or the office, always got a response,” he said.

At the April 2022 meeting, Schaufelberger said rents wouldn’t increase after the work is done beyond the maximum 2.5 per cent allowed for rent-controlled buildings in Ontario, tenants said.

Landlords can apply to the province for above-guideline rent increases to offset major costs, including building repairs.

But when The London Free Press asked Schaufelberger whether the company intends to seek a higher increase, he asked, “Why would that be a concern of yours?”


“From what I can see, all the other inspections have been completed, so occupancy is the next inspection” GENO VANHAELEWYN, TILLSONBURG’S CHIEF BUILDING OFFICIAL

The town issued its first permits for the building repairs in August 2022, five months after the fire, and reissued them months later in December, said Geno Vanhaelewyn, Tillsonburg’s chief building official.

The key was to repair structural damage to the building, but plumbing and other safety elements figured into it, he said. Vanhaelewyn said his department is awaiting documents from other agencies, after which it will do an inspection before it can sign off on building occupancy.

“It’s in their court to now get to the occupancy phase stage,” he said. “From what I can see, all the other inspections have been completed, so occupancy is the next inspection.”

Tillsonburg’s deputy mayor said the town feels for the displaced tenants and did its best to help by processing and approving building permits as fast it could, but the rest is beyond its control.

“They (the company) had suggested it would be approximately 18 months (before residents could return), OK, and that time frame has expired,” said Dave Beres, who was at the April 2022 meeting with tenants.

“I would love to say that it’s my responsibility to get (tenants) in sooner rather than later, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s entirely up to the landlord.”


Jordan Smith, head of the London chapter of ACORN, a national tenants’ rights group, said the hallmarks of renovictions can include construction delays and poor communication with tenants displaced by such work.

In a hot housing market, landlords can be motivated to overhaul buildings to cash in, he said.

“The longer that you’ve been in your residence renting, the more likely you are to have a reasonable grandfathered rent, and the more reasonable your rent, the higher the incentive for your landlord to get you out and flip that,” he said.

Smith acknowledges the Tillsonburg situation doesn’t fit the classic profile of a renoviction, not with the fire that forced the residents out. Still, he questions the time it’s taking before residents who want to return can do so, saying the lag seems excessive.

“It’s a little bit mind-boggling,” he said. “Like, right off the bat, just looking at those numbers, how does it take, really take, 23 months to do these repairs?”


A bustling town of 19,000 in Southwestern Ontario’s former tobacco belt, Tillsonburg was Canada’s third-fastest-growing small urban centre between 2016 and 2021, Statistics Canada reports. The town’s population grew by 17.3 per cent in that period, triple the Ontario rate.
The latest rental market survey for Tillsonburg, by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., showed an apartment vacancy rate of 2.2 per cent last October, half a point higher than the Ontario average, with an average rent of $1,049, up four per cent from the previous year.


“We got nothing. We couldn’t go to another building that charges $1,700 or $1,800 . . . (Returning) is the only choice we have.” MATT WEBER

Moving frequently since the fire, Bev Surette and her husband Art took a Cuban vacation in the middle of it, hoping for a relaxing getaway from their housing tumult.

“We didn’t enjoy it, because we (kept) thinking about the fire and what was going on,” said Bev, 71

“Yeah, we had no place to live,” Art, 75, agreed.

Skeptical of the repair delays, Bev said it feels like the company doesn’t want the residents to return. The couple now lives in Woodstock, but since the fire they’ve also lived in a motel, rental properties, including one in Nova Scotia, and with family in Ottawa.

Another displaced couple, Matt Weber, 69, and Pam Bannister, 71, say they’re itching to return to their affordable $792-a-month, two-bedroom apartment. They’ve been living with her daughter while they wait to return to their home.

“We got nothing. We couldn’t go to another building that charges $1,700 or $1,800 . . . (Returning) is the only choice we have,” Weber said.


Article by Brian Williams for The London Free Press