Yesterday, I was informed by residents of Berkeley Street that a massive fire broke out at 5:15 a.m. at 238 Berkeley Street. The at-risk activities arising from these properties are well known to Toronto Police and City divisional staff as they have a long history of jeopardizing the wellbeing and safety of the community. My office was first informed by the residents of their ongoing struggles, when they brought the properties to my attention in June 2020.
Residents cited alarming concerns of poor management, blatant property standards disregard, criminal activity and at-risk behaviour including open drug use and drug trafficking. In addition to illegally operating as a rooming house, residents reported that the property manager was dangerously over housing tenants in unsafe conditions.
Fortunately, while all residents living inside the property at the time of the fire were accounted for, one individual suffered critical injuries due to smoke inhalation and was rushed to the emergency room. My concern goes out to the tenants, who were not only abruptly awoken to a raging fire in the early hours of the cold morning, but now may face an added layer of trauma due to this displacement. Thankfully, the City was able to quickly secure accommodations for the tenants at the Holiday Inn in the interim.
In the long run, housing replacements for these individuals must be a top priority and I will be monitoring the situation closely in the weeks to come. In the midst of this horrific situation, I commend the generosity and care demonstrated by neighbouring residents who brought out blankets and jackets for the affected tenants to keep warm and their genuine concerns to address the issues of tenant displacement.
In September 2020, my office organized an interdivisional inspection with Toronto Fire, Municipal Licensing and Standards (MLS), Toronto Building and Toronto Police to address the severity of issues of the property. Upon completion of the inspection, all City divisions involved filed orders against the property.
The following month in October 2020, our office organized an interdivisional follow-up meeting between Staff and Management in the City Divisions and residents. This was an opportunity for residents to directly speak and hear from City Staff regarding the progress of the inspection from September, outstanding work and anticipated outcomes of the investigations.
In fact, upon investigation, the Multi-Tenant Housing Team (MTHT) at MLS confirmed that the property was functioning illegally as a rooming house and charged the property owner and operator in relation to MLS bylaws. Currently, the charges are within the MLS legal team and awaiting a court summons to be issued. I fully understand and support the residents’ rationale of strongly calling for the permanent closure of this property by the City because of the serious safety concerns raised.
To be clear, the City of Toronto does not have the authority to prevent a dwelling from being used as a rooming house. However, the City does have a legal liability to ensure that the process is being completed appropriately. Prosecutors within MTHT have diligently reviewed the charges to ensure that enough information is attached for a prosecution.
The Ontario Superior Court is the only governing body with the jurisdiction to order the property owner to immediately stop using 238-240 Berkeley Street as a rooming house if the Judge rules the investigation to determine that the MLS findings are correct. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, standard provincial court practices have been changed and the current prosecution timelines and structures have also been delayed.
I genuinely appreciate the residents' patience on this element that is out of our control. Rest assured, the community will be immediately notified when my office receives confirmation of the date and time of the summons given to the property owner.
Toronto Fire confirmed that the property owner did not comply with Inspection Orders given back in September 2020. TFS has been engaged with this building in the past and there are currently charges under the Fire Protection and Prevention Act against the owner that are before the courts. The Specialized Enforcement Resolution Team within MLS Investigation Services has worked diligently since October 2020 to correct outstanding and ongoing issues related to property standards such as cleaning up litter and securing the property by installing garage doors.
In December 2020, my office coordinated two additional meetings with Superintendent Peter Moreira from 51 Division of the Toronto Police to discuss the overall concerns that residents described as deteriorating safety in the community. Of note, Superintendent Moreira confirmed that 238-240 Berkeley is a source of many criminal activities and that 51 Division receives regular reports. My office will continue to work with Toronto Police and residents to combat the alarming behaviour and criminal activity present at this property.
I recognize and deeply sympathize with the frustrations of the residents because there is an evident systematic failure that not only jeopardizes the wellbeing of the tenants living in this property but disrupts and shatters the sense of security and comfort of neighbouring residents.
I am gravely appalled by the careless and substandard management practices of this particular property owner who has clearly demonstrated a blatant lack of respect to adhering to municipal by-laws and safe living conditions.
While the origin, cause and circumstances of yesterday’s fire are still under investigation, my office has requested a report from Toronto Fire in addition to MLS and Toronto Police and will be scheduling a meeting early next week with residents to share these findings.
In addition, I will be contacting the City's Solicitor to discuss legal measures at the City's disposal to remedy the violations of this property as we wait to hear from the Ontario Courts. Toronto Fire’s Platoon Chief confirmed yesterday that 238 Berkeley is completely uninhabitable due to fire damage.
In the next few weeks, we will have to ensure that the housing needs of these displaced individuals are met. Given the challenges at the properties and the recent fire, there are valid safety concerns for the tenants remaining in the adjacent unit at 240 Berkeley Street, which Toronto Fire and MLS will take into consideration once the inspection process is complete.
My office will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates as they become available.