The landlord of an apartment building where all tenants continue to be locked out of their homes following a Feb. 20 fire, says he’s simply following directions from his insurance company.
That’s despite a May 5 ruling by Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board that 14 tenants at 721B Earlescourt Dr. must be allowed “immediate” repossession of their units. It’s also despite a City of Sarnia order that access to the building is permitted, excluding the second floor, one unit on the first floor and three units on the third floor, pending repairs.
Several who live in parts of the building where the city says occupancy is allowed, returned this week only to find they are still locked out.
The landlord said Wednesday that direction from his insurance company is guiding his decision to keep the building unoccupied.
“We are working with the insurance company, restoration company Belfor, and engineers to obtain fire clearance from the fire department…,” Ash Singh, president and founder of Equity Builders Ltd. (EQB) of Mississauga, wrote in an email to The Journal Wednesday.
EQB owns 721B Earlescourt Drive, a three-story building where a kitchen fire occurred on the second floor nearly three months ago. All 40 or so residents were evacuated that night and, without due process, were forced to find other accommodations.
Some, like Jess Latreille who was allowed brief access to get her cats, say there is no evidence of any damage or smoke odor in their units.
Many have been couch surfing and relying on the good will of friends and family for almost three months. Others have lived in local motels while at least three resorted to homeless shelters.
“I am aware of one tenant who slept on the street because the shelters were too full,” said Melissa Bradley, a paralegal with Community Legal Assistance Sarnia, which represented the tenants at Friday’s Landlord and Tenant Board hearing. “A lot are on very limited income and have no ability to pay for a motel.”
Singh said in an email to The Journal that if his tenants had tenant insurance, they would not be out on the street or in a shelter.
“Their hardship is a direct result of their negligence,” he wrote, warning others to get tenant insurance to protect themselves.
He urged The Journal to “follow up” with the Sarnia fire department. When contacted, City of Sarnia Fire Prevention Officer, John Milne, said there was an inspection order after the fire but “nothing in that order precludes occupancy.”
Singh also forwarded a letter to The Journal from his insurance company that indicates EQB has incurred more than $22,000 in security costs due to break-ins to the building since the fire. The letter noted that EQB is responsible for half those costs while the insurance company will pay the balance.
It also says that asbestos abatement may take three months to complete.
But Bradley said the presence of asbestos is “very limited” in the building and detected in only two units and a stairwell.
“I still don’t have a single document from any authority that indicates there’s an order for abatement,” she said. “The insurance company is not an authority.”
Tenant insurance is recommended but it’s not always affordable, Bradley said, responding to Singh’s assertion that had his tenants had tenant insurance they “would be covered for their out-of-pocket expenses instead of having to live in shelters etc.”
“The landlord should have used his insurance to put these tenants up,” Bradley said. “A landlord’s obligation is to ensure the security of their tenants.
“I can’t imagine what these people are going through,” she continued. “They hear the Tribunal’s ruling and think they are so close to getting their homes back, then they can’t get in.
“I don’t know why the landlord would make this so difficult.”
The Landlord and Tenant Board ruled that if the landlord did not immediately allow the 14 tenants back in, then the Sarnia Court Enforcement Office (the Sheriff) is authorized to take action.
This week, CLAS paid the $324 fee on behalf of the tenants to apply to the Sheriff’s office for enforcement, Bradley said.
It’s not clear how long that will take, she said. “The Sheriff’s office is really busy.”