Housing concerns flare up following construction fire

A pair of fires at an under-construction student housing development adjacent to the Fort Garry campus over the holiday break has renewed neighbourhood concerns about accommodation for U of M students.

A dramatic fire ignited on the upper levels of the 16-storey building in the early morning hours of Dec. 21 and burned for several hours before fire crews were able to put it out. Pembina Highway was closed in both directions between Bison Drive and Dalhousie Drive, two nearby buildings were evacuated and more than 100 firefighters were dispatched to battle the blaze.

An electrical fire broke out the following day after power was partially restored to the building.

The cause of the initial fire, which flared up after crews had shut down work for the holidays, is still under investigation.

Branded “The Arc,” the building is planned to hold more than 550 beds and feature fully furnished suites, a gym and study spaces within walking distance of the university.

The development is highly anticipated in the surrounding neighbourhoods, with community members hopeful the additional beds will relieve the pressure of unsafe rooming houses.

“Everyone wants to see it happen because it’s going to put students in safer living conditions,” said Waverley West Councillor Janice Lukes, who has been fighting illegal and unsafe rooming houses around the Fort Garry campus for almost five years.

“It’s not going to solve all our problems — we still need a lot more student housing,” she said, “but it’s going to put 570 more kids in safe conditions because there’s a lot of kids that are living in basements and really dodgy houses and dodgy living accommodations and it’s depressing, really.”

Jeffrey Shiff, a spokesperson for project developer Campus Suites, said the full extent of the damage is still being assessed but the “initial estimate is that the fire has pushed our schedule back at least three to six months.”

He acknowledged that the chances of meeting the initial “heads in beds” date of August or September are “very slim.”

Student housing in the neighbourhoods surrounding the Fort Garry campus has been a contentious issue for several years.

Concern broke to the surface in the fall of 2015 when nearly 300 people gathered in the Pinnacle Club at IG Field for a community update delivered by Lukes and university administration.

Residents at the time raised concerns of unkempt yards, too many cars filed into too little space and noisy parties.

In 2016, the Fort Richmond-University Heights Neighbourhood Association was formed partially in response to community concerns of illegal and unsafe rooming houses.

The association’s goals include upholding and celebrating the neighbourhood’s quality of life; educating homeowners, tenants and landlords about their rights and responsibilities; identifying and reporting dangerous and illegal housing and working to prevent the exploitation of tenants by unethical landlords.

The U of M has on-campus housing for more than 1,350 students in its four residences — Arthur V. Mauro, Mary Speechly Hall, Pembina Hall and University College — and two affiliated residences, St. Andrew’s College residence and St. John’s College residence.

For the first time last fall, the U of M enrolment surpassed 30,000 students, with 25,453 full-time and 4,837 part-time students on the rolls in November 2019, an increase of 2.3 per cent from the fall of 2018.

The number of international students enrolled — a particular concern for Lukes, who said she is concerned they are more likely to be taken advantage of — increased more than seven per cent to 5,993. International students make up about 20 per cent of all U of M students.

Lukes said landlords have withheld deposits from international students knowing they are not likely to press the issue.

“They don’t want to deal with authority,” she said. “They don’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers.”

“When you’re an international student you’re not going to want to go to the landlord and tenancy branch and fight with [them] and get your deposit back.

“Unscrupulous landlords take advantage of international students.”

Lukes acknowledged that the situation has improved in the last five years in part from the efforts of the association, along with new by-laws and strengthened enforcement.

She noted increased fines for things like improperly installed or too few fire detectors, more by-law officers and the increased authority of the city to cut unkept lawns and fine owners as positive steps.

“People think twice about buying or renting a property in Fort Richmond because they know that we’re not tolerating this,” she said.

“We’ve put a lot of changes in place over the last five years.”