Manitoba

Cockroaches, a sinking floor and raw sewage: What $600 a month gets tenants at 1 Winnipeg rooming house

The caretaker of an illegal Winnipeg rooming house is blowing the whistle on the building’s owner, who he says refuses to pay for badly needed repairs to the deteriorating, cockroach-infested North End home.

Building's owner says he takes care of house, lets some tenants stay for free as gesture of kindness

Jeff Sobkowicz is the caretaker of a rooming house operating illegally on Burrows Avenue. He's blowing the whistle on the building's owner, who he says refuses to pay to have needed repairs made to the North End home. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Jeff Sobkowicz is sounding the alarm on his landlord — an unusual move considering that person is someone he regards as a friend.

Sobkowicz is the caretaker at 454 Burrows Ave. in Winnipeg — a five-bedroom former triplex that's been turned into an illegal rooming house where eight people now live.

The building has a myriad of problems — everything from mould to cockroaches to raw sewage leaking, and then freezing on a living room floor, said Sobkowicz, who has lived at the North End rooming house for two years.

"We stepped on it and then it was ice," he said.

The front door at 454 Burrows is missing. Blankets are used in lieu of a door. (Gary Solilak/CBC )

"It was sickening, and what was more sickening was [the owner] didn't care about it."

The rooming house looks like it's in a state of construction. Blankets are used in place of the front door, the heat doesn't work properly and the floor is sinking near the kitchen. Tenants say black mould in the house makes it hard to breathe.

"The air quality is terrible," said Sobkowicz, who pays $400 for his room — he gets a $200 discount for acting as the house's caretaker.

And then there are the needles left behind from injection drug users. Sobkowicz unscrewed an air duct in the building's basement when giving CBC News a tour to illustrate the problem — when he tilted the duct, several needles fell out.

See what drug users drop in their vents:

These needles were inside the basement duct vent Jeff Sobkowicz unscrewed and dumped out. He says drug users inject in their rooms and discard their needles by dropping them in the heating vent, which goes to the basement. 0:47

They are from drug users who inject and then drop the needles in the vent in their room, he said.

On top of all that, Sobkowicz said the building is also a fire hazard.

"There's no fire extinguishers, there's no fire alarms, there's no smoke detectors — nothing in a rooming house, and that's illegal and I know it is."

Mallory Hood's issue with the home, where she's rented a $600 room for the past six months, is the bugs.

"They're everywhere," she said before showing CBC a video of cockroaches in her kitchen. "Having cockroaches inside the house is just unhealthy."

Mallory Hood pays $600 a month for a room at the house. She says she will be moving somewhere else in the near future after living here for about six months. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Hood, who has kids, has a message for the building's owner.

"It's just not healthy living like this."

'I was there.… Everything is good': owner

Building owner Misah Daba said he checks on the rooming house every three days and dismissed the issues tenants brought up.

He said while fire extinguishers have been stolen, he has installed security cameras inside the building and said he gave Hood's boyfriend $250 to deal with the cockroach issue.

He said the rooming house has proper heat.

"If you go inside the building, heat is good. I was there.… Everything is good," he said.

The hallway by the front door of the rooming house. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The City of Winnipeg confirmed to CBC that the address is not registered as a legal rooming house.

When CBC asked Daba about that, he said he has tenants who don't pay any rent in the house.

"I have three people living free. It's not about money. I'm a refugee guy. I'm telling you, three people live in that building free. They don't pay."

Jeff Sobkowicz pays $400 a month to live in this room. He says a few days ago, raw sewage leaked into the room and froze over. His rent is $600 but he gets a $200 discount for being the building's caretaker. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Daba said Sobkowicz asked for $100 for repairs and when he refused to pay up, Sobkowicz contacted CBC.

Rooming houses 'need to be done right'

Sobkowicz said while Daba has been good to him over the years, he can no longer live in the building's current conditions and needs the owner to pay up to have much-needed repairs done.

"You know what, I love the guy. He's a good friend of mine. He's always been there for me. But this is the one thing that he needs to realize — if he's gonna have these places, they need to be done right," he said.

"I'm speaking out on him on behalf of everybody in his houses."

Stephanie Laquette lives two doors down with her kids and said the rooming house has attracted a whole host of problems in the last four months.

Stephanie Laquette says police and emergency personnel are often at the rooming house two doors down from her place. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"There's been a lot of cops, ambulances. People are getting sprayed, maced," she said.

"There's just always issues with the drinking, the meth, and then the violence."

Illegal rooming houses go unreported: councillor

Waverley West Coun. Janice Lukes, who has made cracking down on illegal rooming houses in Winnipeg one of her priorities, said the house on Burrows illustrates Winnipeg's affordable housing shortage.

She said the problem with illegal rooming houses — which aren't inspected because they're not registered — is that no one at the city knows about them unless they are reported.

"A lot of times the tenants will not report it because they need a place to live. Of course, the landlord's not going to report it. So the only people that really report it are either the neighbours or maybe a tenant where the conditions become unbearable."

She didn't have an estimate of how many illegal rooming houses are operating in Winnipeg, but said in the Fort Richmond area alone, she thought there were over 100 at one point. Many have been shut down now.

"It's deplorable."

Lukes said calling the Canada Revenue Agency about an illegal rooming house has been an effective tactic for getting them shut down, because landlords in the city are not always reporting the rental income.

"It's not fun having the Canada Revenue Agency on you," she said.

454 Burrows is not registered with the City of Winnipeg as a rooming house. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Mynarski Coun. Ross Eadie, whose ward includes the Burrows Avenue rooming house, didn't name Daba, but said the city has had issues with other properties the owner of 454 Burrows had purchased.

"There are landlords out there who shouldn't be involved in the business at all because they just, they're a total failure. Almost all their rentals are failures."

He said the city needs more power to go after landlords who don't keep their properties in proper shape.

The floor near the rooming house's main floor kitchen is sinking. When a reporter stepped on this section that part of floor started to sink in. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"We need to do more. We're way out there ahead of a lot of other cities on vacant and derelict buildings, but there's more we can do … under [the] neighbourhood liveability [bylaw]. We just need to have a little bit more power to force the issue."

The City of Winnipeg's website that tracks illegal rooming house complaints shows 93 investigations driven by complaints in 2018, while another 175 investigations were launched through "proactive enforcement," which includes things like internal referrals.

A city spokesperson said there are many potential consequences for owners of illegal rooming houses.

"It depends on the specific case as to how bylaw enforcement or fire prevention would proceed with a property that isn't in compliance," the spokesperson said.

"Violations would typically result in a violation notice with a compliance deadline. Failure to comply may result in an order being assessed, and if necessary could proceed to resulting charges."

Winnipeg rooming house caretaker speaks out on safety issues. 3:02

About the Author

​Austin Grabish started reporting when he was young, landing his first byline when he was just 18. He joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

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