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Why this Winnipeg councillor wants to crackdown on illegal rooming houses

From fees to new licensing rules, Coun. Janice Lukes wants to see safer housing options for students.

Winnipeg Coun. Janice Lukes

Metro file

Winnipeg Coun. Janice Lukes

A Winnipeg landlord attempted to wriggle out of an evacuation order for allegedly violating a fire code earlier this week, providing insight into a growing problem in South Winnipeg.

On Monday, Syed Bokhari contested the order issued against his South Winnipeg single-family-zoned, which stated the building had been "altered or occupied for purposes of providing accommodations for boarders, lodgers or roomers" without conforming to building codes.

According to Bokhari, not only is he not responsible for the 14 beds counted by the fire inspector in the home–as he holds a lease agreement with only one tenant–anyone living in the home with his tenant has a "shared culture" and "shared values," like a single family. 

Bokhari also explained he has sought permits for and done renovations to make the electrical, fire alarms, and basement windows code-compliant. Item by item, he went through the rules he was alleged to have broken and earnestly asserted he had done no wrong. 

"The premises… under no circumstances poses a threat to life and safety," Bokhari said.

Councillors sitting on the city's standing policy committee on protection, community services and parks didn't see things his way. 

Coun. Ross Eadie said "it sounds like there are a bunch of individuals who are not related living in that house… it seems to me this house is not zoned appropriately for that kind of rental agreement."

Bokhari shot back, "Is there any zoning bylaw that it goes against?"

There is, and the fact that it was an appeal for a fire code violation and not a zoning violation didn't matter much. 

Director of Fire Prevention Janet Bier said the inspector issued the order partly based on the 14 beds, windows that wouldn't allow egress, and locks on main floor bedrooms. The inspector concluded "it was being used as what we would call a rooming house, which contravenes the fire code, as well as the zoning bylaw." 

If it were a legal rooming house, it would need smoke detectors, two means of egress to every suite, and fire separation doors. 

Bokhari's appeal failed.

While the city addressed this one lone property – akin to many which have proliferated around the University of Manitoba – South Winnipeg Coun. Janice Lukes calls the imperfect process a game of "whack-a-mole.”

She’s pushing the city to do more.

"Very savvy landlords will try and look for any loophole they can," she said.

Motion to investigate licensing, other best practices

That was in part why she introduced a motion Tuesday calling the city to launch a cross-jurisdictional review on rooming house licensing and other best practices.

Lukes said she's spent more than two years trying everything else city staff recommended. She rallied people in neighbourhoods adjacent to the U of M, had them form an association that has since been active in reporting the issues that come up, and she conducted a supply-and-demand study with grad students from the school. 

But beyond the whack-a-mole game, nothing has made a dent in single-family dwellings being used as rooming houses.

Lukes thinks the "residential licensing" idea–which has had some success in a number of Ontario jurisdictions including North Bay, Waterloo, London, and Oshawa–may work. 

It would essentially treat the suites like a small home business and require landlords like Bokhari to voluntarily register their single family dwelling as an income-generating property, giving the city the ability to not only quantify such homes, but also impose hybrid zoning rules that could make them safer. 

"It's like a hair salon–you register them, then they have to meet up to obligations," she said.

"Students get the raw end of the deal" 

Lukes said she would prefer the licensing mechanism to fire code inspections and evacuation orders because, for the most part, the students renting in these situations aren't the problem.

"The ultimate decision is on the fire inspector or zoning (officer), if they feel it’s not being used as a single family unit, they have the authority to evacuate them, which is sad because the students get the raw end of the deal," she said. 

Lukes explained many in the illegal rooming houses are international students who struggle to rent through legitimate leasing companies, or they don’t get into or can't afford the limited U of M housing available. 

Eric Liu faced all of those problems when he moved from his native China to Winnipeg to study at the U of M.

His main goal was just living close to campus, but he didn't get into on-campus housing, couldn't afford a one-bedroom apartment, and lacked a co-signer for leasing companies to consider him eligible for renting.

He ended up renting a single-family-style bungalow that had been divided into eight separate living spaces. They were each rented out at $450 per month.

“Four people living on the main floor, four people living on the basement, and there was a separate kitchen for main floor and basement,” Liu said. “The landlord even made the living room a bedroom."

In March, one similarly packed home on Pasedena Avenue actually did catch fire—luckily, no one was home. 

New fees could also be coming 

The new fire prevention bylaw pending approval would also hit landlords profiting from illegal secondary suites where it hurts: their wallets. 

If council approves the bylaw, likely at its April 26 meeting, the city will introduce new inspection fees of $100 per illegal room or suite, with a minimum penalty fee of $500.

"It's putting some teeth into the bylaw, and that's what residents want," said Lukes. 

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