A Hamilton landlord fought a fire department order to install proper 'life safety" fire protections in his student house for three years while continuing to rent it out.

The owner of the house rented to multiple students near McMaster University pleaded guilty in provincial offences court last week and was fined after failing to provide proper fire-safety measures for tenants.

But the fine and plea came three years after the fire department first inspected and ordered him to install several "life safety" features required by provincial law.

It illustrates the vulnerability tenants are in even if problems with their living situation do catch the attention of fire or bylaw enforcement: Any required fixes to make their home safe may take years to implement.

In the last year, the owner, Gregory Kong, has applied for a building permit as he actively tries to convert the 1,100-square foot house on Westwood Avenue from a "single-family" to a "two-family" residence. CBC News is attempting to make contact with the owner. 

In the meantime, the house has been occupied as a "multi-unit residential" building.

When the orders were first written after a complaint, in October 2014, there were nine students living in the house, Chief Fire Prevention Officer Bob Simpson told CBC News.

There are currently five students living in the house, he said.

While the fire code doesn't address how many people can legally live in a "single-family" residence, it does stipulate measures like heavy doors, walls, exits and fire extinguishers. Fire separations are meant to contain a fire to allow people in the house enough time to safely exit.

Those – along with adding a second exit from the basement level – were among the fixes that the owner was ordered to make. It's not clear if the orders have been complied with yet.

Some of the fixes would require a building permit, Simpson said.

Owner fined $5,000

After the initial orders in October 2014, the owner appealed to the Ontario Fire Marshal, which upheld the fire department's orders.

Then he appealed to the Fire Safety Commission, which also upheld the fire department's orders. Finally, the charges made their way to provincial court, where Kong finally pleaded guilty last week.

He was fined $5,000 for the infractions.

Simpson acknowledged the enforcement process in this case went on "a little longer than normal" while the owner exercised his appeal rights.

He said if the inspector had found issues suggesting an "immediate threat to life" there would be other mechanisms the department could invoke.

'Fire safety is one of the primary reasons why we need landlord licencing'

Earlier this year, CBC News found that another "single-family" home one street over had 12 bedrooms but was not subject to safety or fire inspections.

Such houses are proliferating amid a student housing crunch around Westdale and Ainslie Wood. They are part of a rental market where tenants, often hard-pressed to find affordable places to live, can be vulnerable.

191 Grenfell fire aftermath

A fire killed three people last year in a Hamilton house that would have been subject to yearly fire inspections if it had been zoned properly and licensed as a lodging home (Dave Beatty/CBC)

A fire killed three people last summer in a Hamilton house that would have been subject to yearly fire inspections if it had been zoned properly and licensed as a lodging home.

The city is up against some major challenges as it tries to enforce its bylaws and keep tenants safe in houses, including provincial human rights law that prevents the city from discriminating about what a "family" is in its zoning.

That creates a significant loophole for large numbers of students or others to live in a "single-family dwelling" as opposed to a "lodging house."

Westdale house hallway bedrooms

Inside a 12-bedroom house CBC News visited earlier this year, the main floor holds seven individually locked bedrooms. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Councillors Aidan Johnson and Terry Whitehead – both representing wards with large student tenant populations – have proposed a mandatory landlord licencing pilot project for their wards.

Funding for it will be up for debate in the new year, Johnson said.

He declined to comment on the Westwood house and how long enforcement took.

"I do know that fire safety is one of the primary reasons why we need landlord licencing in Hamilton," he said.