Apartment fire victims struggle to resettle
Residents of 200 Wellesley St. E. say TCHC staff distracted by spending scandal
Tenants of 200 Wellesley St. E. say a recent spending scandal is distracting Toronto's public housing agency from helping them resettle after a devastating fire.
A seven-alarm fire gutted several floors of the highrise back in September. The building is operated by Toronto's Community Housing Corporation.
Many of the building's 1,200 residents struggle with mental health issues and other problems.
Lilly Vlajkobic, a resident of the building, returned to her unit recently after spending four months in a hotel after the fire struck. She admits she's a hoarder and much of her apartment's floor space is covered in waist-high piles of clutter.
"It's putting me in a heavy depression," Vlajkobic told CBC News. "I don't even feel like living like this."
Vlajkobic, who is on disability, said she needs help getting her apartment cleaned and organized. Her unit still lacks basic furniture, such as a kitchen table and bookshelves. But Vlajkobic said she's not getting enough help from Toronto Community Housing Corporation.
"[TCHC staff] use [money] on their manicure, their pedicure," said Vlajkobic.
TCHC has been rocked in recent weeks by a well-publicized spending scandal. A city auditor's report uncovered thousands in inappropriate employee spending and millions more spent on contracts without proper tendering.
The scandal prompted Mayor Rob Ford to initiate a house-cleaning of the 13-member TCHC board. Some board members quit, the rest were forced out by a council motion passed last week.
Some residents were offered compensation but as CBC reported in November, many felt the amount offered — in some cases a few thousand dollars — was not enough to cover expenses.
The issue of hoarding among residents is key for 200 Wellesley St. E. It is believed the fire started in a cluttered apartment overfilled with junk.
In the weeks after the fire, inspectors insisted the building's units be kept clean and inspected regularly.
TCHC spokesperson Jeff Ferrier said adjusters are meeting with residents to discuss compensation and help them get resettled in their units. He also said TCHC staff have taken steps to ensure units are kept clean.
"We're hopeful this will provide some comfort and support to the tenants who've been displaced and inconvenienced by this fire," said Ferrier.
Class-action lawsuit underway
Lawyer Brian Shell represents a group of tenants at 200 Wellesley St. E. and is organizing a class-action lawsuit against Toronto Community Housing. Shell said his firm has so far signed up 145 residents for the suit, which has yet to be certified by the courts.
Shell accused TCHC managers of offering residents "low-ball" compensation packages.
"TCHC is taking advantage of vulnerable people and they should know better than to do that," said Shell.
Tenant representative Cliff Martin said regardless of the lawsuit's outcome, many of the building's residents need more help to re-settle and organize their units. "They are sitting in the middle of their apartments surrounded by boxes, depressed," said Martin.
Still, Martin is hopeful the new TCHC board, which has yet to be established, can help the organization meet its mandate of helping the city's most vulnerable get affordable housing.
"They have to change their way of operating," said Martin. "I know that it will be a different organization."