March 5th, 2024

Funding can’t make aging rooming hotels safe, operator says after B.C. fire inquest

By Darryl Greer and Chuck Chiang, The Canadian Press on February 6, 2024.

The society that operated the Vancouver supportive housing building where a fire killed two people two years ago says it fully supports the recommendations of a coroner's inquest. Debris falls to the ground as demolition resumes on the Winters Hotel after a body was found in the single room occupancy building, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 22, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER – The society that operated the Winters Hotel in Vancouver where a fire killed two people two years ago says no “reasonable” amount of money can fix aging single-room occupancy buildings to make them safe.

The Atira Women’s Resource Society, which operated the Gastown rooming hotel at the time of the 2022 fire, said it fully supports recommendations made Monday by the jury in a coroner’s inquest into the deaths.

They include phasing out public funding for single-room occupancy hotels in privately owned buildings, and ramping up fire safety bylaw enforcement.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that no reasonable investment in these buildings will ensure the health and safety of staff and tenants,” Atira said, adding that it is now up to the province to “fund supportive social housing to the level that guarantees safety.”

The society said in a statement that BC Housing should prioritize purpose-built housing and other long-term solutions moving forward.

“We have worked hard since then to improve safety in all the buildings that house our tenants, including ensuring all staff have appropriate training and resources in place in the event of another life-threatening emergency,” Atira said.

“We believe that when there is a commitment by government to fund supportive social housing to the level that guarantees safety, it would be an investment in the future.”

The Winters Hotel was operated by Atira with funding from BC Housing, but owned by Peter Plett.

The inquest jury made 25 recommendations addressed to BC Housing, the Ministry of Public Safety, the City of Vancouver, the provincial housing ministry, the Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver Coastal Health and Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.

The recommendations to BC Housing include making lease agreements that hold building operators to higher standards than minimum fire code requirements.

About 70 tenants were living in the building when lit candles left on a bed started a fire on April 11, 2022, sweeping through the building and killing Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis Guay, whose bodies were found in the rubble more than a week after the blaze.

The jury ruled the deaths of Garlow, 63, and Guay 53, as accidental, caused by thermal injuries and smoke inhalation.

The jury heard that the old structure was not designed with the same protections to slow the spread of fire that come in more modern buildings. Its sprinkler system didn’t work on the morning of the blaze because it hadn’t been reset since a smaller fire three days earlier.

A report to city council last year said there were 146 single-room occupancy buildings operating as of January 2023, with around 6,500 rooms.

The report said nearly half of the buildings are privately owned, and nine buildings since 2019 had been “closed due to fires or City orders for unsafe conditions.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2024.

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