Comprehensive inspection to be conducted at St. James Town apartment buildings

Mayor John Tory is making a move to change how apartment buildings are inspected after hundreds of families were displaced by electrical failures at two St James Town highrises.

Last August, a six-alarm fire broke out at 650 Parliament Street that started in the electrical room. Fifteen-hundred people were forced to find somewhere else to live after the building’s water and hydro were shut off while crews began to repair the extensive damage. Six months later the building is still uninhabitable.

Just a few months later, residents of a neighbouring building at 260 Wellesley St. E woke up without power or electricity after a water pipe burst, causing a basement flood. The building was not evacuated but the Wellesley Community Centre was opened to serve as a warming centre for the approximately 550 residents of the building. In this case, it was only a few days before heat and water were restored but it left many residents in the area wondering if their building would be next.

The back-to-back issues put a financial strain not only on the residents but on the city, and caused Tory to begin to take measures to ensure this wouldn’t happen again.

On Wednesday, the mayor announced a comprehensive series of inspections would be carried out in apartment buildings in St James Town and other areas around the city. These inspections would be carried out by a team of workers from the Electrical Safety Authority, Toronto Fire and City of Toronto bylaw enforcement officers.

“This lack of preventative maintenance is unacceptable and it needs to stop,” Tory said.

“There is simply too much safety risk involved and it simply can’t be the standard we accept when it comes to the daily lives of hard working tenants in these buildings around the city.”

This newly-created group will review building stock to identify which other buildings in the city have some of the same risks as those damaged in the St. James Town instances, and need to be subjected to the same comprehensive inspection process.

Tory said he hopes this new group will make buildings with a history of problems and non-compliance, a priority.

“Once this review of the building stock across the city is complete, a detailed risk-based inspection process will then be utilized to prioritize the buildings and the order in which they will be inspected and then, of course, the inspections will proceed,” Tory said.

“This is about safety, public safety, and doing all we can so that we don’t have a repeat of either the Wellesley Street situation or far worse – 650 Parliament.”

Tory hopes these new measures will put pressure on building owners and landlords who fail to comply with basic “moral” standards of their job.

“Building owners are responsible for ensuring that their buildings are in full compliance with the Ontario Fire Code and all the other relevant regulatory requirements,” he said.

“This should be an every day obligation of these property owners, including making sure they are subject to regular inspection now, in light of these events.”

Tory said the message to landlords should be clear: “Make sure your buildings and their electrical systems have been inspected and brought up to safety and state of good repair immediately, for the safety of your tenants and to avoid these worst case scenarios.”

It’s a messaged echoed by Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam who has been a long-time housing advocate.

“The issue of building maintenance is one that is affecting most people who are living in aging facilities … proactive enforcement is critical but so is ongoing maintenance and we should not necessarily forget the landlord’s responsibility to keep their communities safe and to make sure all life systems in these buildings are up and running and well maintained.”

Tory said that despite inspections being carried out across the city at an effort that is almost “unparalleled in North America,” there is a difference between what Toronto Fire would look for during an inspection and the functionality of a building’s electrical system.

One of the issues is that it’s up to the property owner to schedule proper maintenance of the building’s electrical system.

“The problem that we face is it’s largely a voluntary system to go out and maintain your (electrical) system. I like to make a parallel to a car – you know your oil should be changed every 5,000 kilometres, but there is no actual rule that says so,” Steve Smith with Electrical Safety Authority explained.

“There are industry standards that talk about two to three years it should be done, and we do rely on the building property owner to do a lot of that.”

And because of that, some electrical systems are going without maintenance for years.

Both Smith and Tory noted that there will be times when these inspections can be disruptive to the lives of those living in the buildings — such as when power needs to be cut for the inspection — but they are necessary to ensure proper function of the system.

“Visual inspections are one thing but the problem we have with electricity, it is a lot of the problems can’t be seen with just a visual inspection, it requires a physical inspection,” Smith explained.

This will be the first phase of the mayor’s plan. Tory said other neighbourhoods will follow.

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