'We should all be ashamed': Questions swirl around City Centre Inn and Suites shutdown

After the shut-down of the City Centre Inn and Suites in Saskatoon, which resulted in 120 to 150 people losing their home, the answer how the situation got this far still remains unclear.

Marcel Petit says community knew about problems at notorious motel

The City Centre Inn and Suites was closed down after the Saskatoon Fire Department recorded more than 60 health and safety violations. (Submitted by City of Saskatoon)

After the shut-down of the City Centre Inn and Suites in Saskatoon, which resulted in about 150 people losing their homes, the answer to how the situation got this far still remains unclear.

Marcel Petit, executive director of the Core Neighbourhood Youth Co-Op, said everybody knew the motel was a bad place but nobody was doing anything about it.

"We should all be ashamed about this because this is all of us letting it happen."

The property, formerly known as the Northwoods Inn and Suites, has been no stranger to authorities and was still able to remain open until last week.

According to the city, the Fire Department conducted 21 inspections since 2014 of the site on Idylwyld Drive North. Two property maintenance inspections took place in April and May 2020 because of complaints about garbage around the property, just three to four months prior to the motel's closure in July.

"There was no reason to enter into the property, and we were already taking COVID precautions," said Assistant Fire Chief Yvonne Raymer when asked about the inspections in spring.

"You have to have reasonable cause in order to meet that regulatory ceiling of when we can enter onto a property and why. We can't just repeatedly go in there just because we want to."

Smoke alarm concern started further investigations

According to Raymer it was not living conditions but a smoke alarm concern that eventually led the Fire Department to visit the place in July 2020. Then, the fire inspector realized there was much more going on.

"It needs to be the type of complaint that ... gives us just reason and reasonable cause to need to enter, such as a smoke alarm concern."

You have to have reasonable cause in order to meet that regulatory ceiling.- Assistant Fire Chief Yvonne Raymer

After being denied further entry by the property owner, the Fire Department came back for a formal refusal, informing the owner that they would obtain a warrant in order to check on conditions inside the rooms. The owner then agreed to further inspections. 

The Saskatoon Fire Department closed the motel last week after identifying more than 60 health and safety violations, including infestations of cockroaches and bedbugs in many of the suites, needles and trash lying around on the site, and broken windows.

Inspection in May 

When asked why the inspector missed the broken windows on the property during the inspection in May, Raymer said the inspection report from three months ago did not indicate broken windows.

"I'm not sure when the broken windows actually showed up on the property," said Raymer.

The Saskatoon Fire Department shut down the City Centre Inn and Suites, previously known as the Northwoods Inn & Suites, after identifying more than 60 health and safety violations during a recent inspection sparked by an anonymous complaint. (David Shield/CBC)

The visit in May was based on a neighbourhood complaint about the lack of garbage bins, garbage blowing around and worries about rats moving into the area. 

"So the inspection at that point was just to conduct within the parking lot area," said Reymer.

"But if we don't have any cause to enter into the property, if we have a cause to enter onto the property, we always have to sort of maintain on the onside of the law to ensure that we're not going beyond the bounds of our authority."

Fire Department action is complaint driven

Raymer said the Fire Department relies on residents or people from the neighbourhood to inform them about concerns.

We have more buildings, frankly, than fire inspectors.- Assistant Fire Chief Yvonne Raymer

"We can't be going and looking for it or … for the lack of a better word, harassing any property owner. So the concern on a property has to come within a neighborhood or anonymous complaint."

She said cases like these are very concerning for the Fire Department when they are not being alerted until it is too late.

Annual fire inspections

Like most other commercial buildings, motels require annual fire inspections. 

The fire inspection in January 2019 at the Idylwyld place found five deficiencies, and the 2020 inspection didn't happen prior to the shut-down. 

"We have more buildings, frankly, than fire inspectors," said Raymer.

According to the assistant fire chief the inspection was coming up but then was delayed due to COVID-19. 

Government program cut

Besides people reporting on questionable living conditions, Raymer said the reinstatement of a program that was cut in 2016 would also help to intervene earlier in a situation like this. 

According to the 2014 Saskatoon Fire Department Continuous Improvement Initiative report,  fire inspectors used to evaluate properties under the Saskatchewan rental housing supplement program, ensuring accommodations were safe to live in for ministry clients. The initiative resulted in a 46% drop in fires for this type of occupancy, the report states.

"I can't say for sure whether or not we could have prevented a closure like this," said Raymer.

"But I know that when we were conducting those types of inspections, we didn't find sort of the living condition concerns and more deplorable conditions that we have been seeing in recent years."

According to the city, its regulatory powers over motels are somewhat limited. While Saskatoon has the ability to inspect for fire code issues, its regulation over issues of public health are restricted, for example when it comes to issues such as the control of pests inside a building. 

Motel known to public health inspectors

According to the Ministry of Health, hotels and motels are no longer licensed under The Public Accommodation Regulations and are not inspected annually, but on a complaint and follow-up basis. 

The Saskatchewan Health Authority said in a statement there were 35 complaints in connection with the hotel/residence portion of the City Centre Inn and Suites over the last five years. The statement noted that one complaint report may include more than one person making a complaint on the same problem. Consequences of complaints could result in a phone call or visit from public health, providing education and/or a formal inspection. 

According to the agency, the City Centre Inn and Suites has been inspected 27 times since 2015, but the Saskatchewan Health Authority did not say when they last inspected the motel prior to its shut-down in July.

In its statement the Saskatchewan Health Authority listed some of the issues found during past inspections including "a number of unsanitary conditions and pest control violations, including significant enforcement activity undertaken by public health in 2015-16 involving placarding (closing) numerous rooms, and a Precautionary Drinking Water Advisory (PDWA) issued in 2017 due to a lack of running water at the facility for an extended period."

Problem of housing in Saskatoon

While a re-housing team was scheduled to meet Monday to discuss how to support residents with longer-term housing placements, Petit said finding appropriate housing for all people affected by the shut-down might become an issue. 

"We should have done something last year, we should have done something six months ago and it didn't happen then," said Petit.

Anna Pacik, fundraising and communications manager for Lighthouse Supported Living also mentioned the housing problem last Friday.

"There is just a huge gap in our city for transitional housing and supportive housing."

History of problems and inspections at the Idylwyld Drive North property 

According to the City of Saskatoon: 

Saskatoon Fire Department activities at 610 Idylwyld Drive North since 2014: 

  • 13 Complaints 

  • 14 enforcement actions: 

- 10 tickets 

- 3 orders to remedy contravention

- 1 direct charge under the Fire Safety Act 

  • 21 inspections

July 2020 inspection, leading to closure of motel:

  • 34 deficiencies under the Property Maintenance and Nuisance Abatement Bylaw;

  • 27 deficiencies under the National Fire Code of Canada.

Inspections prior to shut-down:

  • Fire inspection on  January 9, 2019: 5 deficiencies

  • 2 property maintenance inspections in April and May 2020

According to the Saskatchewan Health Authority:

  • Since 2015: 35 complaint reports 

  • Since 2015: 27 inspections 

  • 2017: Precautionary Drinking Water Advisory (PDWA) issued due to lack of running water at the facility for an extended period.