Please do not miss reporting Steel bars on the window
A year after this woman died, is your basement apartment safe?
By Olivia Carville
It was on a cool autumn night last year that Josh Schaefer, 25, stepped outside his downtown basement apartment and lit the cigarette that saved his life.
He heard the faint beeping of an alarm before his neighbours started screaming “Fire!”
Running down to the basement, he says, he was choked by smoke and blasted back by a brutal heat. The door to his apartment at College and Dufferin was in flames and his girlfriend, Alisha Lamers, 24, was sleeping inside.
He ran around to their open bedroom window and crouched on the ground to talk to her. Steel bars on the window were trapping her inside, he said.
“I was screaming at her to get out of there. I was freaking out and screaming,” he told the Toronto Star.
Schaefer says he started yanking at the steel bars, trying to rip them out of the brick.
She was so close, but unsaveable.
Thick smoke started seeping out of the window. Schaefer says Lamers stopped responding, and he collapsed in an alleyway.
Lamers’ landlord, Konstantin Lysenko, along with his company, Canada Corp., has been charged with 10 violations of the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, including failing to provide at least two exits, failing to maintain smoke alarms in operating conditions and failing to provide a fire alarm system that complies with the Building Code. The charges are still before courts. If convicted on all 10 charges, Canada Corp. could face a maximum fine of $1 million.
Messages left at Lysenko’s business were not returned Thursday.
The tragedy that unfolded on the night of Nov. 20 highlights the patchwork-quilt of rules governing basement apartments in Ontario.
Tens of thousands of people across the GTA are living in illegal and unregulated basement apartments.
In a move to ease the housing shortage in the GTA, the government legalized basement apartments across the province in January 2012, and municipalities were told to set their own rules.
However, nearly three years later, some municipalities, including Vaughan, Brampton and Richmond Hill — with a joint population of almost 1 million — are still dragging their feet.
Most have proposed bylaws in the pipeline, but bureaucratic hurdles and community consultation are pushing enforcement dates back until at least next year.
Even the cities that have amended their laws still have thousands of pre-existing basement apartments yet to be regulated.
Toronto first started regulating secondary suites in the late 1950s, but other municipalities in the GTA had turned a blind eye to the issue until they were forced to face it in 2012.
• Mississauga passed its first bylaw in January this year. So far, only 14 second-unit licences have been issued and 30 are pending.
• Vaughan is completing a city-wide secondary suites study and plans to discuss draft policies before a statutory public hearing early next year.
• Brampton is estimated to have 30,000 illegal basement apartments and concerns over permits were raised at a public meeting in April. City staff is investigating the issues before reporting back to council.
• Richmond Hill has a new official plan allowing secondary suites, but the town is waiting for input from the public and other stakeholders before implementing the necessary bylaw.
Ernie Hardeman, Progressive Conservative critic for municipal affairs and housing, said the government has dumped all the heavy lifting on municipalities.
“When the province introduced it, they did it in such a haphazard way,” he said.
The government did not provide city officials with guidelines or standards, nor did it encourage a concerted effort or campaign to inspect existing basement apartments.
“The ones that were there before the legislation, nothing has changed for them, except that they are now considered legal,” Hardeman said.
The province “should have done the research, put the parameters in place and stated what was required.”
Rev. Jim Keenan, a Vaughan minister and Georgina council candidate, who has been pushing for legal basement apartments for five years, agreed with Hardeman.
The government “brought in the legislation with much fanfare, but then acted very passively.”
Municipalities were left alone to wade through controversial community consultations and bylaw amendments, while basement tenants have remained in unregulated and sometimes unsafe conditions.
When Lamers and Schaefer moved into the basement apartment last year, they had no idea if it was legal and didn’t even think to ask. The couple had struggled to find affordable accommodation in the city’s tight rental market, Schaefer said.
It was the first apartment they were offered and they accepted the $900 rent without hesitation.
“There’s always people looking for apartments, and people will continue to build illegal apartments because they know they will be able to rent them,” he said.
“It’s a brutal system.”
Schaefer, who now lives in Waterloo with his father, still suffers from nightmares over the fire and the death of his “soulmate.”
“I was absolutely in love with her. What we had was almost indescribable, unless you’ve felt it yourself. And you know when you’ve felt it,” he said.
He recalls everything from that night, including tucking Lamers into bed and telling her he loved her.
Less than an hour later, she was hauled out of their burning apartment as paramedics tried to revive her.
She died from smoke inhalation in hospital four days later. The cause of the fire remains inconclusive, authorities told the Toronto Star.