A massive fire that destroyed a historic building in Gastown has sparked concern about safety in Vancouver's single-room-occupancy (SRO) residences.
Over 140 Gastown SRO residents were displaced after a four-alarm fire broke out in a tenant's room on the second floor of a four-storey building April 11. The upper levels were used as an SRO called the Winters Hotel, run by Atira Women’s Resource Society. After demolition got underway, two bodies were found in the rubble, officials confirmed April 22.
The fire was deemed accidental and likely sparked by unattended candles in a second-floor unit, according to Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services' (VFRS) preliminary investigation. Findings of the preliminary investigation were released April 21.
Winters Hotel employee Rhonda Bright spoke to Vancouver Is Awesome at the scene of the fire and said there were three employees in the office when they overheard someone yell "fire."
"Because we just had a fire Friday night we didn't take it seriously," the staff member added.
VFRS confirmed they responded to a fire at the premises April 8.
According to another Winters resident named Nicole, there were no alarms when the fire broke out on April 11. She was able to get her own pets, a cat and a rat, safely out of the building, but added that "if we would have taken any longer, I don't know if we would have made it out."
"It's also commonplace when the fire alarm goes off, people don't leave their rooms."
A former employee of Atira Property Management, who we will call Jane, reached out to V.I.A. after she heard about the fire. She said fires were not uncommon in the buildings she worked in and, as a result, residents and staff didn't take them seriously. Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.
"It's also commonplace when the fire alarm goes off, people don't leave their rooms," she explained in a telephone interview, adding that many residents smoked cigarettes and used drugs in their rooms.
While there was a "no smoking" policy, Jane says the rule wasn't enforced. Further, she alleges that she was "treated like an outcast" for continuing to bring up concerns about fire safety.
Many of Atira-run SRO building residents are also hoarders, she added, and their "rooms are packed to the rafters" with all sorts of things.
"I've seen it where people have fallen asleep with cigarettes, or they've left a cigarette."
Atira buildings have policies to prevent employees from working alone, but the former front desk worker noted that she was often working by herself, even late at night. "I've received death threats...I've been spit on," she said.
Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Women's Resource Society and Atira Property Management, told V.I.A. that working in an SRO is challenging for several reasons.
"Working in SROs is not for everybody. This isn't an apartment building in the West End of Vancouver. Around 81 per cent of our tenants use," she explained.
"Many of those tenants also struggle with mental wellness. For many people, this is housing of last resort."
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Atira manages 23 SROs in the city and has safety measures in place but "small fires and floods are not unusual," Abbott said.
As tenant Nicole indicated and VFRS confirmed, there was a small fire at the Winters Hotel on April 8 and the sprinklers were activated. A licensed technician is required to reset the sprinkler system and Atira was on "fire watch" until they came to the building.
The fire was first detected by supervisory staff conducting the fire watch, according to the VRFS. "They attempted to extinguish the fire but were unsuccessful in their efforts. They quickly transitioned to alerting the occupants in the building."
In addition to fires and floods, tenants and employees of Atira-run SROs face other safety concerns. Abbott spoke to the specific concerns raised by Jane.
When it comes to ousting a resident from a building, Atira management has to weigh the individual's behaviour against potentially making them homeless. "Our first goal would be to try and work with that person to change behaviour," Abbott noted, adding that the company makes decisions to issue eviction notices on a case-by-case basis.
When it comes to smoking in the buildings, Abbott said that it is "always a challenge for the manager and always [have to consider] do you make someone homeless for smoking."
In some instances, however, a tenant could be issued a letter under the Residential Tenancy Act that "they breached the terms of the tenancy agreement and then they go to hearing at they go to a hearing at the RTA."
Management in these cases would "provide a breach letter, ask the tenant to change their behaviour -- whatever behaviour it is that's problematic," explained Abbott. "And then at some point, [management would] make the decision to issue an eviction notice and typically the tenant appeals and then you wait for a hearing and you have to go before an arbitrator and the arbitrator decides if you have a case for eviction."
In regard to employees working alone, Abbott said Atira has a policy against people working by themselves but sometimes staff do not show up for their shifts. In these instances, management tries to get someone to fill in but it isn't always possible, acknowledged Abbott.
"We make efforts to find someone [to fill in] but staff do occasionally work alone, but there are working alone procedures for those occasions."
Abbott emphasized that in the wake of the Winters Hotel fire "the loss of this many rooms all at once is devastating," because it means that people on the street will have to wait longer for housing.
In the summer of 2021, another Atira-run property, the 93-unit St. Helen’s Hotel at 1161 Granville St, was issued 80 violations by the city; 46 were considered “life safety issues” that primarily consisted of missing or defective smoke alarms and automatic door closers. Fire escape obstructions were also identified.
Similar to the Winters Hotel, the St. Helen's Hotel was built over 100 years ago and requires frequent maintenance.
The city maintains a public webpage listing all buildings with maintenance, health, or safety issues. Currently, that includes multiple SRO operators including Atira. Records of issues from longer than a year ago are not immediately available.
With files from Mike Howell