Some 20 people gathered at Queen and Parliament - where the Rupert Hotel rooming house, destroyed by fire in 1989, once stood - to acknowledge the 10 who died there and the others who were left homeless nearly two decades ago, but also to push for better rooming house standards.
"The rooming house sector is dying. It cannot exist any more as a profit sector, but as a non-profit it could,' says Rupert Coalition member Bart Poesiat at the Thursday, December 14, memorial. "What's happening now is an increase in unlicensed places that are below standard and firetraps, because there's a desperate need.' There are currently around 500 licensed non-profit and privately owned rooming houses, but many more are unlicensed. The city is aware of shoddy conditions in the latter, claims Poesiat, but won't shut them down because it would produce more homelessness. Municipal licensing and standards (MLS) district manager Elizabeth Glibbery disputes charges that the city is looking the other way. "The city operates on a complaint-based system and investigates illegal rooming houses. If there are property standards violations, we work with community partners and, where necessary, find alternate housing for the tenants.' Housing activist Michael Shapcott admits that fire safety conditions have improved dramatically, but pressure needs to be put on landlords to address suffocating heat during the summer. "People have no legal guarantee that conditions in their homes won't go into the lethal zone,' says Shapcott
. But the city seems to be sending mixed messages. According to public health manager Reg Ayre , retrofitting Victorian-buildings-turned-rooming-houses is too costly and the city will look at cheaper ways to keep tenants cool. "A bylaw requiring all the landlords to put in air conditioning could drive some of them out of business, which then means a whole bunch of people without housing.'
But public health isn't the only reticent player. So, too, are some in the Rooming House Working Group , a coalition of for- and non-profit landlords and front-line workers, though for different reasons. "I'm not going to advocate that landlords install air conditioning or a fresh air circulator, because it's so expensive. Hydro is rising, and [landlords] don't get compensation,' says the working group's Ken Kennedy . The Board of Health is awaiting an upcoming report from MLS and the medical officer of health regarding a maximum heat standard.