Around 11 a.m. on April 11, a fire broke out in the Winters Hotel at 102 Water St. in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood. As dozens of firefighters battled flames shooting from the roof and smoke poured through windows, it was clear that the 71 tenants would never be able to return to the 115-year-old building.
Five people were injured as they escaped from the fire, and 144 people were displaced from both the Winters and the Gastown Hotel next door. Tenants of the Gastown will be able to return to their building once the smoke and water damage is cleaned up, and Winters Hotel tenants have been offered space in another SRO.
The blaze has highlighted the risk of fire in single-room occupancy hotels, century-old buildings that provide housing to some of the most vulnerable people in the city. SROs — scattered across the Downtown Eastside and downtown Vancouver — feature small rooms with no kitchens and shared bathrooms, and are often referred to as the housing of last resort for people struggling with poverty, mental illness or substance use.
The provincial government has increasingly turned to SROs in an attempt to deal with the Vancouver housing crisis, including housing people who have been living in encampments in city parks.
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services says the April 11 fire was accidental, caused by an unattended candle in a room.
The sprinkler system and the building fire alarm were not working at the time because the fire department had turned them off after another fire three days earlier. The department says the systems needed to be serviced by a contractor before being restored.
Until that could happen, the building operator was required to set a regular patrol to watch for fire, called a fire watch.
Fire Chief Karen Fry said it sometimes takes several days for fire system companies to come to service sprinklers and alarms.
According to a preliminary investigation by the department, a building worker doing a fire watch patrol spotted the fire and attempted to put it out, then alerted residents to get out of the building. Some residents had to be rescued from the upper floors of the four-storey building.
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services responded to 312 fires at SRO buildings in 2021, almost once a day on average. Concerns about the buildings range from hoarding to fire alarms not working properly to blocked exits. The fire department has devoted two firefighters to inspect SROs and follow up after fires to make sure safety problems are being addressed.
In 2021, The Tyee obtained building inspection reports for 34 SROs that are operated by supportive housing providers RainCity, Lookout, PHS Community Services Society and Atira Property Management. The reports show dozens of issues with disconnected fire alarms in rooms, missing door closers, sprinkler lines and other fire safety issues.
Saul Schwebs, the city’s chief building inspector, said building inspectors check SROs once a year and look for four things when it comes to fire safety: whether fire alarms are installed and working in every room; whether doors to individual rooms are closing properly; any holes in the walls that could lead to a fire spreading quickly throughout the building; and whether there are any problems with sprinkler systems.
The city requires sprinkler systems to be installed at all SROs, a requirement Schwebs said is extremely important to reduce the risk of a catastrophic fire.
Building inspectors often note that door closers are missing from room doors. That’s important, Schwebs said, because a closed door will prevent fire and smoke from spreading as quickly throughout a building. In January, 17 tenants of an apartment building that caught fire in the Bronx, New York, died of smoke inhalation. Investigators found that smoke had been able to spread through the building because the door of the apartment where the fire started and a door to a stairwell had been left open.
“Since that fire occurred, it really highlighted the issues that we have and some of the consequences that could result if [buildings are] not maintained,” Schwebs said.
Reports of people living without doors for long periods of time at some buildings concerns Schwebs, who said a tenant not having a door would be an “unacceptable” fire risk.
The Tyee is aware of three reports over the last five years of tenants living without doors on their rooms, in some cases for weeks, inside the London Hotel and the Savoy. Both SROs are operated by Atira Property Management Inc., a for-profit subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resource Society.
In a 2021 interview, Janice Abbott, the CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society, told The Tyee that in one case the tenant took the door off her room and resisted having it put back on because of severe mental health issues. The woman died in January of an apparent drug overdose. Abbott did not respond to followup questions this week.
APMI operates 18 SRO buildings in Vancouver, including the Winters and Gastown Hotel. Most are run as supportive housing buildings with funding from BC Housing. The Winters Hotel is owned by a private landowner, Peter Plett, and the province owns the Gastown Hotel.
Schwebs said he was not aware of people living without doors on their rooms, but said it’s a clear fire safety risk and needs to be reported to the city right away. Tenants can call 311 to report urgent fire safety problems.
Constant vigilance required in SROs
Tanya Fader, director of housing at PHS Community Services Society, said fire safety at SROs is something that requires constant vigilance. PHS operates seven SROs, as well as other supportive housing buildings, transitional housing and shelters.
Many SRO tenants smoke in their rooms, and when it gets hot in the summer residents also want to prop open their doors to get air flowing through their tiny rooms. And lack of space leads to tenants hanging things from sprinkler lines, which can create another fire risk.
Some tenants living with severe mental illness repeatedly damage their rooms — behaviour that is a symptom of their illness and can be hard to control. That can include repeatedly sabotaging alarms and sprinklers because of paranoia or other symptoms of mental illness.
Fader said that PHS tries to move tenants who damage their rooms because of mental illness to newer supportive housing buildings, which are harder to damage. It can be difficult to manage behaviour that is a symptom of mental illness, but Fader said tenants can’t be left in situations where they are putting themselves or their neighbours at risk in case of fire.
“Once we know someone, it makes it easier to know when and who to approach,” Fader said. “It’s just those trust relationships that staff build with residents, to keep checking in on them.”
When certain buildings need a fire watch because of a power outage or other temporary problem with sprinklers or alarms, PHS staff will do a patrol of the building every 15 minutes.
Firefighters educated manager days before blaze
The Tyee asked Atira Property Management how often fire watch checks were being done at the Winters after the April 8 fire and how long it normally takes to get the sprinkler and building alarm reset, but did not receive a response.
Fader and Bill Briscall, a communications staffer for RainCity Housing and Support Society, said at SROs operated by their organizations, tenants would be moved out of a room that did not have a door. Fader said tenants would also be moved to another room if their door lock is broken.
Briscall said RainCity staff monitor issues like exits being blocked, smoke detectors not working and door closers operating properly.
While some SRO buildings are operated by non-profit housing providers, others continue to be privately owned and managed. Those buildings are supported by the SRO Collaborative, an advocacy group that has been working on organizing tenants to respond to overdoses, do small repairs and advocate for themselves and their neighbours.
Jersey Hurtt is a community organizer with the SRO Collaborative. He works with a group of tenants who do minor repairs for their neighbours, and he said those tenants do important work to spot fire safety risks like smoke detectors being disconnected. If they notice a smoke detector isn’t working, they’ll try to reconnect or replace it, Hurtt said.
But Hurtt said more education is needed for tenants to make sure everyone understands why it’s important to keep doors closed, alarms connected and how to get out of the building in case of fire. Hurtt is hoping to connect with Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services to organize some training sessions with tenants on using fire extinguishers and other fire safety issues.
Dave Meers, an assistant fire chief with Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services, said firefighters find it works well to sit down with property managers of buildings that are having a lot of problems to explain how they can better comply with fire safety orders and avoid fines.
The fire department is now collecting data on the number of fire safety tickets and other metrics for buildings operated by various housing providers, and that effort is paying off to raise awareness and stay more on top of fire safety issues.
Just one week before the Winters Hotel fire, Meers said firefighters sat down with staff at Atira Property Management Inc. to discuss why the SROs operated by APMI were receiving so many tickets for fire safety violations.
“We said, ‘Here’s all the things we’re looking at. Here’s all the things your managers can do if you want to be proactive,’” said Meers. Firefighters went over several fire safety topics, such as making sure alarms, fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems are regularly serviced to understanding what a fire watch is and why the fire department requires a fire watch if alarms or other systems are temporarily not working.
“We did this great education piece with them for about two hours about fire safety. What actually is a fire watch, why do we put a fire watch on a building? What does that mean? And it was super helpful for them.”