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BC Housing exec testifies about disconnect between Crown corporation and Atira

BC Housing executive tells Winters Hotel inquest there was no formal checklist about fire safety plans.
Mary Ann Garlow, 63, and Dennis James Guay, 53, died in the April 11, 2022 fire at the Winters Hotel in Vancouver.

A BC Housing executive said she was unaware of any independent review of the aging Winters Hotel before a company agreed to house vulnerable people in Gastown.

Atira Property Management leased the 1907-built heritage building from owner Peter Plett and signed an operating agreement with the Crown corporation in 2017. On Thursday, at the coroner’s inquest of the deaths of two tenants in a 2022 accidental fire, associate vice-president Heidi Hartman testified that BC Housing was not involved in the lease negotiations.

“When the opportunity came to us, we negotiated a budget, and we're able to support the non-profit with the maintenance budget to do the maintenance as needed,” Hartman said. 

Mary Ann Garlow, 63, and Dennis James Guay, 53, died in the April 11, 2022 fire. Presiding coroner John Knox and five jurors in Burnaby are gathering facts in order to recommend ways to avoid a similar tragedy. 

Hartman, whose responsibility is overseeing BC Housing’s supportive housing and homelessness division, said the incident report from a minor April 8, 2022 fire at the Winters Hotel was received by BC Housing on April 11, 2022, the day of the deadly fire. Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services had ordered Atira to immediately repair the fire alarm and sprinkler system after the April 8, 2022 fire, but the work had yet to be scheduled. 

The coroner’s court heard that Atira’s deal with BC Housing included requirements to work with appropriate authorities to perform regular inspections and identify and correct safety hazards, including the provision of functioning smoke detectors and sprinklers. Atira was also supposed to maintain records of annual inspections, testing and maintenance of fire protection systems, and maintain a fire safety plan with policies and procedures. 

Hartman said BC Housing conducts operational reviews every three years. The most-recent review of Atira’s portfolio was in 2015, prior to its Winters Hotel involvement. The next review was delayed by the pandemic.

Hartman said BC Housing has online fire safety training for its non-profit providers and it also refers those non-profits umbrella organizations, such as B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association and the B.C. Society of Transition Houses, for additional training. 

“We encourage our non-profits to look at resources beyond BC Housing,” she said.

Hartman admitted there was no formal checklist about fire safety plans. 

She was also asked about any long-term plan to stop housing people in older buildings. 

“The province has the provincial partnership program, in particular, looking at the Downtown Eastside and trying to improve conditions,” Hartman said. “That's why extensive renovations have been undertaken in many of the [single-room occupancies]. We also know that some of the conditions might not be ideal, but the important thing is that we're bringing people in, putting a roof over their head and connecting them to services. We would all love permanent, purpose-built housing.”