Winnipeg leads Canadian western cities in rooming house fire fatalities

Since January, five people have died in rooming house fires in Winnipeg — that's more than Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon, combined.

'You shouldn't have multiple fire deaths, no other city has that," says firefighters union

Rebecca Goulet has 14 days to move out of her unit in this Point Douglas rooming house, after city officials deemed it illegal. Goulet didn't realize it was illegal and has two weeks to vacate the basement suite she is currently renting. (CBC)

Since January, five people have died in rooming house fires in Winnipeg — that's more than Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon combined.

Out of all of those Canadian cities only one death occurred in a rooming house this year in Edmonton.

Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, says part of the problem in Winnipeg is that annual fire inspections are not required for rooming houses and there are not enough inspectors to take on that workload anyway or even to begin to deal with the number of illegal rooming houses cropping up.

"The consequence is death," Forrest told CBC News Tuesday. "We already have [five rooming house] deaths in this city — this doesn't happen any more in this day and age with our fire prevention, with our building codes, you shouldn't have multiple fire deaths ... you shouldn't have those numbers, no other city has that." 

Illegal rooming houses add to the problem

The number of Winnipeg homes that have quietly and illegally been converted to rooming houses, is posing another risk to both tenants and firefighters, Forrest said.
The landlord of the Barber Street building where Goulet lives, Yukai Gan, denied it's a rooming house but gave CBC a tour, during which at least 12 suites were evident, with six tenants. (CBC)

Addresses of 17 more suspected illegal rooming houses across the city are currently at risk of being shut down, Forrest said, but he estimates there are up to 100 un-licensed rooming houses in the Point Douglas neighbourhood alone.

Homes are only investigated when the city receives a tip or complaint so it's difficult to track these homes that often pose more risk, Forrest said.

"They're doing it illegally so they're going to be using sub-standard material. There is not going to be fire guards and those things literally go up like Roman candles."

Tenant didn't know rooming house was illegal

Rebecca Goulet didn't realize the basement suite she is currently renting at a rooming house in Point Douglas was illegal until city inspectors showed up this week.

The 31-year-old is pregnant and moved in May, after months of being homeless. Now she and her boyfriend have 14 days to leave.

"Oh that's immense pressure because I mean just finding this place was a blessing on its own," she said. "Being at the Salvation Army for six months, you don't want to have to think about going back there again, you're supposed to be moving forward."
The building's landlord, Yukai Gan, wouldn't say whether he plans to register the home on Barber Street as a rooming house or shut it down completely but tenants have two weeks to leave. (CBC)

Goulet would like to see all rooming houses subject to yearly fire inspections to prevent more deaths but she does not want illegal ones shut down.

"People living here really do need a place to live," she said. "If they are going to be cracking down on a lot of unregistered rooming homes maybe that's something they could look at for all the unregistered room homes, is not just saying you've got to be out of there in 10 days. It's kind of a hard blow to hear."

CBC News spoke to Goulet's landlord who denied the home on Barber Street was a rooming house. He did give CBC a tour - on condition no photographs were taken - of the two-storey home which had at least 12 suites and six tenants. He said he bought the home a year ago and said it was already configured with multiple suites. He did not say if he plans to register the home as a rooming house or shut it down completely.

Since January, two other illegal rooming houses were shut down near the University of Manitoba — one on Thatcher Avenue and another on Cornell Street, Forrest said.

The city gives owners the option to correct building code violations but Councillor Ross Eadie said the upgrades are costly for landlords with already low rental rates.

Rooming house tip line suggested

Earlier this month, city councillors Ross Eadie (Mynarski) and Janice Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Norbert) laid the ground work to ensure bylaw officers visit rooming houses more often. 

Council's community services committee voted to give city bylaw officers three months to figure out how to reallocate their resources in a manner that ensures rooming houses are inspected at least once a year.

Forrest is calling on the city to hire two more inspectors devoted solely to inspecting rooming houses. He would also like the city to set up an anonymous tip line for people to report suspected rooming houses. 

Eadie told CBC News Wednesday he agrees more inspectors are needed, and he liked the idea of a tip line.

"It's going to mean committing more resources," Eadie said, adding rooming house fires are a complex problem, and inspections alone will not save lives.

"There's many, many social issues that get down to why we have fires at these rooming houses," he said. "This is about people not just buildings."​

A city spokesperson confirmed Wednesday, Winnipeg has 645 licensed rooming houses, and 176 with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities requiring mandatory annual inspections.