Manitoba

Rooming-house market made unsafe by profit-seeking operators, prof says

Safety in Winnipeg's unregistered rooming houses is under the microscope after two people died and others were injured in a fire last week.

'Imagine taking 10 people, packing them into a small house and charging $400 a month,' Jino Distasio says

A Winnipeg rooming house was engulfed in fire July 7; two people died. (Submitted by Joshua Peterson)

The owners of crowded, unregistered rooming houses are partly to blame for elevated safety risks that have cost tenants their lives in fires and other emergency situations, a University of Winnipeg professor says.

Jino Distasio, the director of the Institute of Urban Studies for the U of W, said unregistered rooming houses in the city present "huge safety and security risks."

Safety in Winnipeg's unregistered rooming houses is under the microscope after two people died and others were injured in a North Point Douglas fire last week.

Part of the problem with unlicensed rooming houses is many have not passed safety inspections — or been inspected at all for that matter, Distasio said.

There's also a knowledge gap that persists, which means regulators don't have a firm grasp on how many illegal houses are operating in the city, he added.

"Whether it's in the south near the University of Manitoba or, certainly more problematically, in the inner city of Winnipeg … we're packing people into 100-plus-year-old homes that just aren't up to standard," Distasio said.

Why is it happening?

Profiteers are often skirting the law to capitalize on a demand for low-income housing in places like the inner city, endangering their tenants in the process, Distasio said.
Jino Distasio is the director of the Institute of Urban Studies for the University of Winnipeg. (CBC)

"It happens because there's profit. Imagine taking 10 people, packing them into a small house and charging $400 a month. That's $4,000 into somebody's pocket operating a rooming house, and that's a mid-sized one," Distasio said.

What complicates matters further is that tenants living in rooming houses are often too scared to file safety complaints with regulatory officials, Distasio said. Because they fear they could be evicted, a lack of adequate emergency exits or a failure to meet occupancy standards often goes unreported, he explained.

Meeting minimum standards

In the fatal July 7 rooming house fire in North Point Douglas, some tenants scrambled out of windows and climbed down the building to escape the blaze.
A memorial adorns what is left of an Austin Street rooming house, where two people died in a fire last Thursday. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

"How do people get out if there's no fire escapes? How do you get out a 2½-storey window when there's nowhere to go?" Distasio said.

The licensing process gives building owners an opportunity to "meet minimum standards on a very marginal form of housing," Distasio said.

"When we don't even meet that threshold … that means we don't know the quality of that rooming house, we don't know if somebody can get out of a burning building," he said. "A lot of people end up living in fear." 

One way to get to the root of the problem, Distasio said, would be to execute an inspection of inner city hotspots known for rooming houses and close "scores of them." Such a sweep would reveal "hundreds and hundreds" of illegal rooming houses in the city, he said.

The challenge, then, would be to find appropriate, affordable places for people displaced in the process, Distasio said.

"The challenge for Winnipeggers is we really need to step up and understand where people are living in our city — especially living on the margins, living in poverty. [They] face very little choice," he said.

On Monday, councillors voted through a motion that will see more city bylaw officers visit rooming houses more often. Bylaw officers have been given three months to better understand how many rooming houses are operating and how to ensure each is inspected at least once a year.

With files from Bartley Kives

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