Tragic Fire on Norton Avenue

Early Tuesday morning, a fire at 37 Norton Avenue killed one resident, put firefighters at risk of serious injury, and forced seven others to run for safety with whatever they could carry. It was an entirely preventable tragedy.

Eight unrelated people were living in the house. The incident is still being investigated by Toronto Fire, the Office of the Fire Marshall, and Toronto Police, so I shouldn’t speculate about their conclusions or what charges may be laid.

What I can say is that one way to help prevent such tragedies is to report illegal rooming houses to my office so that we can ask Toronto Fire to inspect. They are anxious to do so.

Over the past several years, rooming house fires have caused several deaths to residents and serious injuries to firefighters. Because there are often walls where there shouldn’t be any, in addition to a lack of fire doors, second exits, or even smoke and fire alarms, fires in illegal rooming houses can be especially deadly.

Unfortunately, the Province doesn’t allow municipalities to enter suspected rooming houses without the owner’s permission. The result is that our staff are often unable to gather the evidence needed to lay charges. But the Fire Department has the legal right to enter. They don’t enforce the zoning bylaw but can lay Fire Code charges, obtaining high fines and often shutting the place down at least until it is made safe.

Toronto is the first municipality in Canada to seek, and obtain, prison terms for property owners who have caused death by knowingly violating fire regulations. Also, if Toronto Fire spots illegalities at one location, they will check other addresses owned by the same person.

Other parts of the city have slum landlords. Willowdale is plagued by slum land speculators, who often ignore legalities in order to generate cash income while waiting to sell the property.

Earlier this week, the City’s Planning and Housing Committee launched a public consultation to make rooming houses legal all across the City. They are currently legal only in the old city of Toronto and part of Etobicoke. One of the reasons given for making rooming houses legal in places like Willowdale is that this will stamp out the unsafe illegal ones.

This may be somewhat effective in parts of the former City of Toronto which have large older homes where an owner may renovate to create a safe rooming house, mostly for people who can’t afford anything else. In Willowdale, I very much doubt that those who cram students into crowded, unsafe conditions have any interest in paying for legal renovations or following regulations.

There will be more on this subject in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, I will be asking Planning staff to address the shortage of safe student housing with the city’s colleges and universities, with the goal of increasing the supply.

Toronto attracts students from all over the world. Many find dormitory space on campuses and others live with local families or in condo units owned by family members. But many are left to try to find housing on their own, in a strange city. Some are taken advantage of by education agents who charge their parents a fee for finding students a home and then place them in illegal and unsafe conditions.

If you wish to report an illegal rooming house, you can contact Toronto Fire directly through 311 or contact my office so we can monitor the situation. To ensure Fire staff have the necessary cause to enter an illegal rooming house, we ask you to verify that it looks like a rooming house, as opposed to a group of friends renting a home.

A rooming house typically has a large number of people, with no connection to one another, paying by the week or month. They are different than Airbnb rentals, which now have a defined set of rules and a requirement to register with the City.

– John