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Rights + Justice

After a Fatal SRO Fire, Inspections Found Dangers at More Buildings

Atira fined for failing to maintain alarms and fire extinguishers in supportive housing.

Jen St. Denis 6 Nov 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

After a fatal blaze at the Winters Hotel killed two tenants, a Vancouver fire services inspection blitz found that Atira Property Management Inc. had failed to maintain fire alarms at four other SRO buildings, court documents show.

The inspections also showed the supportive-housing operator had not properly maintained fire extinguishers at two of the buildings.

And Atira says better funding from BC Housing could help reduce fire risks in its supportive-housing buildings.

Mary Ann Garlow, a 68-year-old residential school survivor, and Dennis Guay, a 53-year-old man who was hard of hearing, died in the April 11, 2022, fire. At the time of the blaze, the fire alarm and sprinklers were off and fire extinguishers were empty, giving residents no warning of the fire and little means to fight it.

The Winters was operated as supportive housing by Atira Property Management Inc., a for-profit subsidiary of Atira Women’s Resource Society with funding from BC Housing. The property is privately owned by Peter Plett.

Provincial court documents show that in the months following the Winters fire, APMI was fined or found guilty of multiple fire bylaw violations at four other supportive-housing buildings.

On April 26, 2022, Atira Property Management Inc. was fined $750 for failing to maintain the fire alarm at the Luugat (previously a Howard Johnson hotel) at 1176 Granville St. The building had been bought by the province in 2020 to provide housing for homeless people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After inspections on Oct. 4 and Nov. 4, 2022, and March 23, 2023, APMI was found guilty of a total of 22 fire safety bylaw violations. The buildings at risk were all single-room occupancy hotels owned by the province: the Hotel Canada at 518 Richards St., the Patricia Hotel at 403 E. Hastings St. and the Hazelwood Hotel at 344 E. Hastings St.

Those violations included failing to maintain fire alarms at all three buildings and failing to maintain fire extinguishers at two of the buildings. APMI has been ordered to pay a total of $12,250 in fines.

At the Patricia, fire safety inspectors found APMI had failed to maintain fire extinguishers on the fifth floor, failed to maintain the fire alarm system “in operable conditions at all times” on the second floor and failed to maintain a fire hose on the fifth floor. The Patricia was bought by the province in 2021 to help house people who had been living in an encampment in Strathcona Park.

Atira announced a month ago that it would give up its contract to operate the Patricia because the costs to run the difficult building exceed the funding operating agreement.

At the Hotel Canada on Nov. 4, 2022, APMI was found to have failed to maintain the fire alarm system and failed to make the sprinkler system accessible for inspection.

At the Hazelwood Hotel on March 23, 2023, APMI was found to have failed to maintain a fire extinguisher on the fifth floor because the glass cover on the extinguisher case was missing. The operator was also found guilty of failing to maintain the building’s alarm to prevent false alarms.

At the three buildings, inspectors also found a host of other problems, such as blocked exits, exit lights not being illuminated, accumulations of flammable material and problems with extension cords.

Atira operates an unusually high number of single-room occupancy hotels, buildings that are a century old, often house people with severe mental health and addiction issues and are very challenging to maintain and run. In the post-pandemic period, many SROs in downtown Vancouver have had frequent fires.

Court records show that Lookout, another supportive-housing provider that operates SRO hotels, has also been charged with four fire safety bylaw violations in 2023. Lookout says that as of Oct. 31, the charges have either been moved to the Provincial Housing Rental Corp. or settled.*

The previous CEO of Atira, Janice Abbott, resigned from the organization in May following a government report that confirmed concerns about conflict-of-interest violations. The previous CEO of BC Housing, Abbott’s husband, Shayne Ramsay, was found to have frequently pushed for projects and funding to go to his wife’s organization, in contravention of BC Housing’s own conflict-of-interest rules.

Atira’s interim CEO, Catherine Roome, has said that improving safety is her highest priority.

In response to questions for this story, Atira sent an emailed statement saying that the organization has implemented additional safety measures since the Winters Hotel fire.

Those measures include establishing an external safety task force that conducts monthly inspections in the SROs, led “by a current inspector from the Richmond Fire Department who previously was a Vancouver Fire Rescue Services inspector.”

Atira says its staff are also meeting monthly with Vancouver Fire Rescue Services and are conducting daily building rounds to monitor fire safety problems. The organization says it has contracted a third-party company “that is responsible for regular maintenance calls and conducting inspections which ensure extinguishers are present, have been inspected and are properly tagged.”

The organization said it’s also calling for more funding from the B.C. government to be able to safely run and maintain SRO hotels in the Downtown Eastside.

A coroner’s inquest into the deaths of Garlow and Guay was announced shortly after The Tyee reported fire extinguishers were empty, but the inquest has not yet been scheduled.

On the one-year anniversary of the Winters Hotel fire, former tenants announced they were suing the City of Vancouver, Atira Property Management and the owner of the property for alleged negligence. The lawsuit has not yet been certified as a class action and the allegations have yet to be tested in court.

* Story updated on Nov. 7 at 12:23 p.m. to correct information about Lookout's fire safety bylaw violations.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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