Toronto

Fire hazards: 'A serious issue' at student rooming houses near York University

Students often struggle to pay for their rent, groceries and tuition fees — forcing many who attend York University to live in unlicensed rooming houses where fire safety regulations are often ignored.

Many students live in unlicensed, unsafe rooming houses in The Village near Keele Campus

The Village is close to York University's Keele Campus. It is inundated with rooming houses. (CBC News)

Students often struggle to pay for their rent, groceries and tuition fees — forcing many who attend York University to live in unlicensed rooming houses where fire safety regulations are often ignored.

The Village — a neighbourhood near the Keele Campus — is a popular place for students who want to live close to the university. Now that the semester is drawing to a close, students are moving out and considering their options for the fall.

Rooming houses are not permitted in North York, but that hasn't stopped landlords from renting rooms to students that often lack windows, solid doors and carbon monoxide detectors. Since these homes are unlicensed, Toronto Fire is not required to inspect them — unless tenants call with complaints, said Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop.

"We've had a number of fatalities over the last number of years in rooming houses that did not comply with the Ontario Fire Code," he said. "Most recently was last spring at 10 Haida Court. We had an international student who perished in a fire — those owners have been charged."

'This is a serious issue, and York University is not alone'

When CBC Toronto visited The Village to ask about students' living conditions, most were not willing to talk.

Sébastien Lalonde, vice president of campaigns and advocacy for the York Federation of Students, lived in The Village in 2016. He says he understands why people were hesitant to speak to a reporter about their living situation.

"As bad as [the houses] may be, it's pretty much the only thing that they have," he said. "And they want to make sure that their landlords are still happy with them at the end of the year."

You're dealing with essentially landlords who are trying to get as many students crammed into a cramped space for as much money as possible.- Sébastien Lalonde

In 2017, there was a crackdown in The Village when landlords were caught disobeying regulations. Many students were evicted. But since then, Lalonde says not much has changed.

"Those landlords simply swapped out who was living there, put in somebody new and there was no actual substantial change for students who needed to access housing," he said.

York's student union created a pamphlet to inform students of their rights as tenants, and also offers them legal aid. It is also looking into housing co-ops and spaces for commuters to stay overnight, said Lalonde.

Sébastien Lalonde, the vice president of campaigns and advocacy for the York Federation of Students, showed CBC Toronto the pamphlet he helped create to spread awareness to students about their rights as tenants. (CBC News)

"This is a serious issue, and York University is not alone," he said. "Food insecurity and housing insecurity is a huge issue for students with the rising cost of tuition fees."

"You're dealing with essentially landlords who are trying to get as many students crammed into a cramped space for as much money as possible."

'It's safe now and that's why I'm here'

First-year student Ayoku Fashola has lived in the village for four months and invited CBC Toronto inside her room. She said there was a fire in September on the third floor. Since then, the landlord installed smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and heavy metal fire doors. Rooms on the third floor are no longer rented out.

"It's safe now and that's why I'm here," she said.

When first-year York student Ayoku Fashola moved to The Village, she was told there had been a fire on the third floor. (CBC News)

Jessop encourages students to watch out for warning signs when apartment hunting.

"They want to make sure that there is at least a working smoke alarm and carbon monoxide alarm outside of each sleeping area," he said. "If they're living on the third floor, or a room in the basement, they [must] have a second way out."

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