Skip to content

Minister agrees with moving from old rooming hotels in wake of fatal fire

Winters Hotel inquest recommends phasing out public funding for single-room occupancy hotels
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

British Columbia’s housing minster says the province needs to shift away from accommodating vulnerable people in privately owned rooming hotels — but it won’t be fast or cheap.

Ravi Kahlon’s remarks come after the jury in a coroner’s inquest into the deadly 2022 Winters Hotel fire in Vancouver made more than two dozen safety recommendations on Monday.

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

“We definitely need to move away from the private SROs over time. Doing that just overnight is a challenge, given that we do have people living in them, and we need to make sure people have housing available,” Kahlon.

“But we’ve said for many years now that type of housing is not the type of housing we want people to live in. We need to work together with the City of Vancouver and the federal government, to reform how SROs are in our communities, and have housing that’s better suited for people in our communities.”

He said of the inquest jury’s recommendations that “most of them make sense.”

About 70 tenants were living in the Winters Hotel 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.

The jury ruled the deaths of Garlow, 63, and Guay 53, as accidental, caused by thermal injuries and smoke inhalation. Their bodies were found in the rubble more than a week after the blaze.

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 Vancouver’s 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 were privately owned, and nine buildings since 2019 had been “closed due to fires or city orders for unsafe conditions.”

But Kahlon said the majority of SROs have good fire protections in place.

He said moving away from privately owned buildings would take time and come with a significant cost. Phasing them out would require partnerships to fast-track permitting processes.

“We will have more to say on that in the coming months,” he said.

The operator of the building where the fatal fire happened said no “reasonable” amount of money could fix aging SRO buildings to make them safe.

The Atira Women’s Resource Society said in a statement that it fully supports the jury’s recommendations.

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

Atira said BC Housing should prioritize purpose-built housing and other long-term solutions moving forward.

“We have worked hard since (the fire) 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,” said Atira, which added that it operates 3,150 housing units in the Lower Mainland.

“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’s property management arm with funding from BC Housing, but owned by Peter Plett.

The inquest jury’s recommendations were 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.

Kahlon said the government had provided funding for safety training at SROs and was working with the Vancouver fire department to “figure out a path forward to make sure that the SROs, the privately held ones, have the safety measures they need in place.”

Activist and former Vancouver city councillor Jean Swanson said she didn’t know if ending public funding for operators to lease privately-owned buildings like the Winters was a good idea.

“My fear is that if the non-profits aren’t leasing the privately owned hotels that they’re leasing, that those hotels will be gentrified and won’t be available for low-income people,” Swanson said Tuesday.

Swanson said things such as better staff and resident training to deal with fires would be beneficial, along with assistive devices, regular fire drills and more stringent enforcement by the city.

“How can they possibly wait three days before reactivating the sprinklers?” she said. “I was trying to deal with that when I was on council. You know, that should be immediate.”

Swanson said the model of non-profit operators leasing buildings from private owners is preferable to owners renting out buildings themselves and forcing out low-income tenants.

“As soon as the tenant leaves, dies, is evicted or bought out, they raise the rents as much as the market will bear, so the rents in the privately owned hotels go up and then become unavailable for people who depend on social assistance or pensions,” she said. “And that’s happening in virtually all of the privately owned hotels in the Downtown Eastside.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of if that jury recommendation is implemented,” Swanson said.

The jury in a coroner’s inquest does not place blame, but instead makes recommendations to prevent future deaths.

READ ALSO: B.C. fatal fire inquest jury urges higher standards for SRO buildings