City Hall has been lambasted for secrecy over the investigation into a near-fatal student house fire

Tenants’ rights groups in London are criticizing City Hall for saying it would not release the results of an investigation into a near-fatal fire at a crowded student bungalow in the city’s northeast.

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Tenants’ rights groups in London are criticizing City Hall for saying it would not release the results of an investigation into a near-fatal fire at a crowded student bungalow in the city’s northeast.

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“I think it’s frankly shameful,” said Jordan Smith, a local ACORN Canada leader. “We can’t do anything if we can’t have basic responsibility.”

“It’s a shame,” Smith added.

The city said it has launched an investigation into possible bylaw violations following the fallout from the Feb. 1 fire that severely damaged the home at 1281 Hillcrest Avenue.

Twelve people, many of them Indian international students, escaped the early morning fire on their own.

Three other tenants, all young women who were trapped in the house during the fire, with no way out, were rescued by two men from around the corner – recognized last week by the city for their heroic actions – who pulled the Fanshawe College students to safety through a small basement window.

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The Free Press asked about the details of the city’s investigation in an email to Orest Katolyk, the city’s bylaws officer. But a city spokesperson responded, saying no information would be made public about the case.

Pressed to clarify whether the no-disclosure stance would extend to any decision, or not, to press charges or issue fines once the investigation is complete, or why complaints from at least one Hillcrest neighbor about overcrowding at the home did not trigger an investigation, the spokesperson confirmed that no information would be made public at any time.

“No other information will be provided about the property, for reasons of confidentiality and procedural fairness. This includes information relating to any resolution as well as any internal processes,” the email from Patti McKague said.

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It’s an unusual stance for City Hall, which in the past has shared at least broad details about bylaw violations and fines, including at annual Fake Homecoming student parties near Western University.

The city’s response on Monday left some observers calling for more openness about the case and London’s bylaw enforcement system.

Tradition Construction workers in London have already started work at 1281 Hillcrest Avenue where a fire destroyed a house last week, which contained 8 flats and 15 beds.  (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)
Tradition Construction workers in London have already started work at 1281 Hillcrest Avenue where a fire destroyed a house last week, which contained 8 flats and 15 beds. (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

“It’s not a very transparent (system) at all,” said Jacqueline Thompson, executive director of LifeSpin, an agency that advocates for low-income people.

Thompson said her agency had reported issues with multiple properties to City Hall in the past, but getting information about the actions taken by city staff was a frustrating process.

“It seems to be an ongoing problem. We have no idea why they’re so secret, and it’s not helpful when trying to act on properties that aren’t safe. This compounds the problem.

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“It’s very scary that people have this idea that the city is acting on behalf of the community to enforce regulations, and it all falls on deaf ears,” Thompson said.

Smith said the city had “a few answers to make” regarding its response to complaints about overcrowding at the Hillcrest Avenue home.

City officials initially said a fire department report mentioning the large number of people living in the home was the first time occupancy issues had been reported.

But a neighbor told The Free Press he had previously complained about the number of people in the house, backing up his claims with time-stamped emails sent to town hall just last year.

Smith said it was lucky no one died in the fire.

“If we don’t have systems in place to prevent this kind of abuse from happening systemically, it’s going to happen again and there’s going to be a tragedy,” he said.

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Jeremy Roberts of the London Tenants’ Association said city staff should be more transparent. For example, if information cannot be shared because it could affect a municipal investigation into a property, officials should explain why releasing those details could harm the investigation, he said.

“I don’t think it should be a cover that they can use to not comment because they owe it to the townspeople,” he said.

Mayor Ed Holder said the public should be aware of any violations of city rules or Ontario laws in the near-fatal Hillcrest fire.

“I think it should be extremely public,” he said.

‘It would seem reasonable that if a conviction was recorded and those in breach were found guilty, it should be a public process, I think for the safety and well-being of all Londoners who are tenants.’

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But when told of City Hall’s refusal to provide such information in the Hillcrest case, even when the investigation is complete, Holder said he could not comment.

“I think the city is doing a pretty good job of accountability, as a general comment. I don’t have the details on that, I’m not going to castigate staff or criticize a process when I don’t know what that process is,” he said, citing rules that create a firewall. fire to prevent any political tinkering with the regulations. investigations or sanctions.

Holder said City Hall has issued 167 fines to landlords who failed to license their rental units since April 2021, when City Council approved new rules to impose financial penalties on those who breach its property and safety standards. other housing regulations. Fines start at $400 and increase for repeat offences.

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Homes rented to tenants, such as 1281 Hillcrest Ave., must be licensed according to City Hall rules. Apartments and townhouses do not require the same licenses.

Holder also acknowledged City Hall’s public calls for transparency.

“Is it worth watching? Absoutely. Not by board members, but I think what this has highlighted, this process, among other things, is going to be reviewed to ensure accuracy and accountability,” he said.

When asked if he would push for this internal review, Holder replied, “I’m already asking for information, that’s all I can say.”

An inactive listing for the Hillcrest house advertised rooms for rent for $500 each or $300 per person for shared rooms.

The city’s Landlord License Registry indicates that the property is unauthorized.

Toronto owner Qasim Qasim did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Free Press.

jjuha@postmedia.com

mstacey@postmedia.com

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