What can you do if you feel your housing is unsafe or you're nervous about your fire escape?

For tenants living in crowded houses or circumstances that make them feel nervous or unsafe, there are some ways to improve safety, and get help.

Live in a 12-bedroom house? Or one with 10 or 14? Here is where to turn to get help

Tenant advocates encourage tenants to know their rights and fight for them with their landlords, but warn tenants may risk some of the stability of their housing situation. (CBC)

Tenants living in crowded houses or circumstances that make them feel nervous or unsafe should know their rights and fight for them, say tenant advocates.

But those advocates who say there are ways to improve safety and fight back also say tenants daring to speak out about unsafe conditions can open themselves to harassment from their landlord. And they may be putting their own housing stability at risk.

CBC News is digging into crowding and safety issues in homes after an investigation into a 12-bedroom house near McMaster University last week. That story revealed problems with the city of Hamilton's reactive-only enforcement approach that leave tenants vulnerable.

  • Do you live in a house with many bedrooms? Have safety concerns? Tell us your story: kelly.bennett@cbc.ca

'International students are probably in the weakest position'

A Chinese student who used to live in that house said he felt misled by his landlord, who advertised the room in Chinese.

Chris Woodall, a paralegal who serves as an advocate for tenants at Landlord-Tenant Board hearings in Niagara, said he often hears similar complaints from international students.

"International students are probably in the weakest position," Woodall said.

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. (Dave Beatty/CBC)
Many have a language barrier, or don't realize the Ontario-wide protections for tenants extend to even non-citizens.

They might believe they have to pay a whole year's rent upfront, as the tenant who told us about his 12-bedroom house did. Or they might think they don't have any recourse if the house isn't being maintained.

"Because of that they will be told all kinds of stories by their landlords that aren't true," he said.

Call for free tenant advice, and keep a paper trail 

Tenant advocates like Woodall and lawyer Ali Naraghi at the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic say there are a few things tenants in houses with many bedrooms should know, and consider doing.

For starters, Naraghi said, call for advice before signing a lease. The Hamilton Community Legal Clinic (905-527-4572) gives free advice to tenants. The clinic also links to a FAQ about housing law in Ontario.

The tenant advocates say to make sure tenants keep records of every complaint they make to their landlords. If you send a text, take a screenshot. If you send an email, keep track of it. These may come in useful if you ever need to take your complaint to the Landlord-Tenant Board.

How will you get out in case of a fire?

Next, examine a house for its safety and your own fire escape route.

Bob Simpson is chief fire prevention officer for Hamilton Fire Department. He said tenants of, or visitors to, houses they think might have fire safety risks can call and speak with an inspector. The number to call is 905-546-2424 x 1380.

"We have great interest in providing fire safety for people across the city," he said.

An inspector will hear details on fire code infractions or potential infractions, and will decide whether to pay an onsite visit.

Inside a house near McMaster, the main floor holds seven individually locked bedrooms. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Concerns could be:

- "I'm renting a room in this house and I do not see any smoke alarms."

- "I rent a room in the basement and I only have one exit. Is this safe?"

It can't just be, "There's a group of students living in x house," Simpson said.

"That does not create inherent fire risk," he said.

Unlike the city's bylaw enforcement, the fire inspectors can't be turned away at the house. But they have to have someone bring it to their attention to trigger the follow-up. They won't tell your landlord or anyone else in the house that you're the one who called.

"Our policy is that we do not release complainants' information at all, or even if the call came from inside the house," he said.

The fire inspector may gather information to determine whether the house is being improperly rented as a "single-family dwelling" as opposed to a "lodging home," which comes with more stringent checks and inspections.

There are a few factors that go into that analysis, but a group of tenants can be considered a "family" depending on the way that they work out their lease details and living arrangements with their landlord.

Are there too many bedrooms in this house?

If the house is improperly classified, that may be grounds for a zoning violation with the city's bylaw enforcement.

"As soon as you walk into a house that has 12 bedrooms in a basement, that should be a red flag," Naraghi said.

Naraghi, from the Hamilton legal clinic, said a city of Hamilton bylaw requires bedrooms to be at least 1.8 metres wide and at least 5.6 square metres for a single person.

If yours isn't?

"The best thing to do in these types of situations is to contact the bylaw enforcement immediately to do an inspection," Naraghi said.

The city offers an online bylaw complaint form.

Naraghi did warn that if the bylaw officer discovers violations he or she might shut the house down.

He acknowledges that comes with its own issues.

"They may shut it down altogether, which then forces the landlord to sort of intimidate and harass people to get them out and comply — it's like a new can of worms," he said.

But, Naraghi said, getting confirmation of a violation from the city might help the tenant negotiate with the landlord to get compensated for the housing.

Do you live in a house with many bedrooms? Have safety concerns? Tell us your story: kelly.bennett@cbc.ca