Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Remember the Rupert Hotel Fire

(This blog piece has been slightly revised from the original which appeared at www.hamiltonjustice.ca on the anniversary of the Rupert Hotel Fire.)

The 26th anniversary of the Rupert Hotel fire that killed one woman and nine men in Toronto just passed (December 23rd.)

The Rupert was located at 182 Parliament Street close to Queen Street East. Once an upscale hotel, the Rupert, while licensed, was overcrowded and badly maintained. (A story by Chris Bateman from Spacing Toronto provides the gruesome details http://spacing.ca/toronto/2014/12/24/25-years-horror-rupert-hotel-fire/)

A plaque erected at the site notes that the fire "sparked action by municipal and provincial governments and community organizations to improve conditions in rooming houses."

It did, for a time. In the years following the tragedy, about 500 units of Toronto housing were created or upgraded to meet or exceed the already existing standards. Not long after the plaque was installed, though, the funding that supported the upgrades and advocacy ended.
Photo from Toronto Star Archives

What has happened since then?

Not enough.

The City of Toronto has been struggling for many, many years to put in place one comprehensive by-law and set of regulations to cover all rooming houses.  To say they are bogged down would be an understatement.

You’ll remember that Toronto amalgamated in 1998.  Yet, the zoning by-laws with respect to rooming houses have yet to be harmonized.
Each of the former Toronto municipalities has different things to say on rooming houses.  Toronto and Etobicoke (in some areas) allow them but they must be licensed.  They’re OK in the old Borough of York in some areas too.  But in North York, East York and Scarborough rooming houses are not permitted.  That means that those that exist in these areas are illegal and unregulated.

A consultation process took place in Toronto this year.  A report will be coming back to Council.  The report will, among other things, look at “opportunities to improve conditions in rooming houses:” History suggests that Council will have a tough time making decisions.

What about other initiatives?  Toronto’s poverty reductions strategy, for example, makes mention of rooming houses. It recommends that the city “continue efforts to consult and develop an effective policy framework and enforcement strategy with respect to rooming house.”  That action word “continue” does not offer encouragement that something concrete will be achieved in the near future.
Conditions remain unsafe.  Recently, a Toronto landlord was convicted of multiple fire code violations in the death of a woman in a rooming house fire from 2013.  A fire in an unlicensed house in the Spadina/Dundas area killed two and injured many others in March 2014.  Other Canadian cities face similar problems.

Health Issues

Safety is a certainly huge concern but there are long term health issues for those who live in rooming houses and other vulnerable housing situations as well.  Two years a study called Housing Vulnerability and Health: Canada’s Hidden Emergency was published. The study looked at the deaths of 15,000 people living in such housing.  The authors found that the average life span of these 15,000 people was “7-10 years shorter than the life span of the general Canadian population.” Women had about the same chance of living to the age of 75 as an average women in Guatemala, a country where many lack access to basic health care.

Action is needed. Municipalities don’t have the resources or the resolve to get results.  Senior levels of government must step to the plate.



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