Are St. James Town highrises an early warning for city's aging apartment buildings?
Half a million people call these vertical communities home as recent problems show need for investment
Toronto's highrises are home to half a million people and the state of these buildings — the bulk of which were built in the 1950s to late 1970s — is under scrutiny after high-profile problems have left thousands scrambling to find somewhere to stay.
This week, the City of Toronto ordered the water, heat and power shut off at 280 Wellesley St. E. so the apartment building could be thoroughly inspected. The shutdown lasted more than 48 hours.
But Michael Plante, who had to hike 25 flights up to his apartment, was not complaining.
"Well, they're inspecting the equipment, which is a good thing — a stitch in time is worth nine," he said. "I'll manage while they fix the equipment and make sure everything is okay."
Resident Tom Park also took the shutdown in stride.
"Well, with the recent problems with the other buildings, I think they are coming in here just to make sure we don't have the same problems," he said. "It's preventative maintenance. It's an inconvenience, but better than us having to move out because of an electrical fire."
Last month, about 1,000 tenants in a neighbouring highrise at 260 Wellesley Street E. were without power for more than three days after a water pipe burst and flooded the building's electrical room.
Last August, at 650 Parliament St., an electrical fire in the basement caused extensive damage that's left 1,500 residents still unable to return to their homes.
The city has ordered inspections of highrises in St. James Town starting with these three apartment buildings.
Mark Sraga, director of investigation services for Municipal Licensing and Standards, said his officers along with investigators with Toronto Fire Services and the provincial Electrical Safety Authority conducted the audit.
"So those buildings are owned by the same ownership group. So we're first and foremost focusing on those buildings, because we've identified there's some commonality of issues in the three buildings," said Sraga.
And while these three buildings are undergoing scrutiny, the safety audits highlight a larger concern about Toronto's aging residential towers — and not just in St. James Town.
There are more than 1,000 "vertical" neighbourhoods in the city — some now approaching 70 years old and in need of renewal.
"We've looked to identify what other buildings in the city that meet a certain vintage of building where these problems may be more prevalent," said Sraga.
Under the city's RentSafeTO program — an apartment building standards bylaw enforcement program that began last year — Sraga said his officers have the authority to inspect all apartment buildings taller than three storeys with ten or more units.
"We will go in and do an evaluation of that building based upon 20 different areas and we look at cleanliness, elevator functionality, cleanliness in the hallways, the lobbies, the doors to the exterior, if intercom systems are all functional and working and if the grounds are maintained," he said.
Often superficial problems, such as a lack of cleanliness, could mean bigger problems with the electrical system or safety infrastructure, he said.
"When we identify a building that fails its evaluation and is not in fact being maintained, then we will do what we call a complete audit of that building," he said.
During that audit, his team will inspect and service electrical rooms and closets, sometimes accompanied by staff with the Electrical Safety Authority, who may also go in separately.
But with 30 bylaw officers to cover more than 3,500 apartment buildings, Sraga said they have to prioritize.
"We look at all our records and cross-reference our records to say, 'here's a group of buildings that nobody's really been in to look,' and go ensure those buildings are being properly maintained and operating and so there's no risk of catastrophic failure," he said, adding there are a relatively small group of operators that are red-flagged.
"Yes, we have completely negligent building owners. We have some building owners that want to do the right thing, but don't know how to do it and they need help from us to get there. And then of course we have the ones that lead by example and they're the responsible building owners," he said.
The penalties under the Provincial Building Code Act for negligent building owners are a maximum $50,000 fine on conviction for a first offence and can go up to $100,000 for subsequent convictions, he said.
Graeme Stewart is an architect with E-R-A Architects who is a passionate advocate for saving Toronto's aging stock of highrise buildings. He's helping to lead a national initiative called Tower Renewal — to re-invest and rejuvenate this vital housing stock.
"Today we talk about there being a shortage of affordable rental housing. It was the same in the late '50s and early '60s," he said, adding that same formula of private investment and public incentives needs to happen now if Toronto's highrises are to be saved.
Stewart said city bylaws and standards are necessary, but also said finance programs and education are needed to show what a retrofit should look like and how to do it.
"The challenge is it's just incredibly expensive and there's not a lot of market rationale for it," he said. "You can't just rely on the private sector to fix it. The costs are too high. And the only way they would do it is if they could raise rents, which is something that we certainly don't want to see happen."
And the time to do it is now, he said. Stewart estimates that as much as 50 per cent of the housing stock is aging and near the end of its first life cycle.
"We could be in real trouble if this [St. James Town] is our canary and we start seeing dozens and hundreds of buildings begin to fail," he said. "We could be in trouble as a region because we just cannot afford to lose this housing. And you can't build your way out of this. You couldn't replace this housing."