Landlord groups call for guidance on dealing with hoarders
New flames could be seen coming out of a 23rd-floor bedroom at the 200 Wellesley St. building fire at 8:39 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 24, 2010.
TORONTO - Two groups representing more than 2,500 landlords in Ontario say they'd like to do more to deal with tenants who have hoarding problems, but want guidance from fire officials before taking steps to tackle the problem.
The office of the Ontario Fire Marshal said Tuesday a six-alarm blaze at a downtown Toronto highrise that injured 17 people last September and forced the evacuation of 1,200 tenants was started by an errant cigarette igniting an "excessive amount" of material hoarded on a balcony and inside the suite.
Marshal Ted Wieclawek's office is calling on landlords to keep their eyes open for hoarders whose possessions may pose a fire risk. Fire departments could then work with mental health and other agencies to deal with hoarders under fire safety laws, the office said.
Scott Evenden, fire investigation co-ordinator with the office, said anyone should pick up the phone and call the fire department if they spot a potential hazard in a housing unit -- such an exit blocked by towering newspaper stacks, bed sheets flung over a heater, or questionable electrical wiring.
"If they're aware of it they need to contact the proper authorities," who will then investigate if appropriate, Evenden said.
But the Greater Toronto Apartment Association and the Federal Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario, which together represent about 460,000 housing units in the province, say they'd like guidance for how to spot and warn officials about hoarding safety risks.
"We will be requesting a meeting with local fire services to see how we can establish a protocol to eliminate this hazard," said Daryl Chong, newly appointed president of the Toronto landlords' group.
But Chong said it's too soon for him to suggest what that protocol should include.
Vince Brescia, head of the Ontario federation, said a note from fire officials that landlords could show tenants in order to help them gain access to a unit would help.
The landlord-tenant laws in the province make it hard for property owners to inspect a suite or evict problem renters, he added.
"What our system fails to do is recognize the rights and concerns of all the other tenants around," said Brescia.
Yet getting help to those with a serious hoarding problem isn't easy.
Hoarding is not just having trouble letting your stuff go but rather "the actual accumulation of so many things that the clutter invades the living areas of the home," said Cheryl Perera, chairwoman of the Toronto Hoarding Coalition, which has about 30 member groups.
"We'll see ... people who can't even get into the rooms of their home" or apartment, said Perera, who added the clutter is often so embarrassing a hoarder won't let people into their home -- making detection of a potential fire risk difficult.
And even if fire inspectors do knock on a hoarder's door to start an investigation under municipal law, they can still encounter resistance.
Larry Bolonchuk, Winnipeg's acting director of fire prevention, said the 16 fire department inspectors he oversees often get attitude from homeowners when making calls on potential hoarders.
"Owner-occupied dwellings are still a 'Your castle, my castle' kind of thing," where an owner insists fire officials have no right to inspect their property, he said.
One in 20 Canadians are estimated to have a serious hoarding problem, said Dr. Peggy Richter, head of the obsessive-compulsive and related disorders clinic at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
Richter said one big problem with hoarding, which is still a relatively misunderstood condition, is that hoarders don't see anything wrong with their collecting behaviours.
"In hoarders they very often don't have that insight or recognition around the impact of the difficulty -- that their accumulation of stuff is excessive or that it's putting others in jeopardy," she said.