© Star photo by Gary Kean
Paul Greene, with his cat Jack, is one of eight people displaced as tenants from 27 Humber Road in Corner Brook, which was suddenly shut down last Friday night because of safety concerns with the building's electrical system.
Paul Greene knew there was something not right about the electrical system that powered the building he lived in at 27 Humber Road.
Greene is one of eight tenants who lived in the five residential units located in the building that was shut down by a provincial electrical inspector last Friday night.
The decision not only displaced the eight people who lived there, but also forced the closure of the Pho Vietnam restaurant that operated out of the front of the building.
Greene, along with his pet cat and rabbit, had been living in a bed-sitting room at the property since last May. He said he sometimes acted as the building’s superintendent when the property’s owner, Janet Ma, was out of town in exchange for a break on his rent.
While he was the acting superintendent last July, he said he had to replace fuses connected to the building’s heating units four times. He said the way the place was wired did not look right to him with, for example, multiple heaters connected to the same circuit.
He described the building as “a death trap” with the panel box labelled in Chinese, making it difficult for most people to decipher.
“It must have been really bad because it was only one day after the inspectors came that they shut it all down,” said Greene.
The inspection that led to the power being cut off was precipitated by a complaint received by the Corner Brook Fire Department. Fire department officials and a City of Corner Brook building inspector, along with two provincial electrical inspectors from Service NL, conducted the inspection last Thursday.
The provincial inspectors made the call to cut electricity to the building after noting safety hazards due to deficiencies in the electrical system.
According to Paul Barnable, the City of Corner Brook’s director of community services, this sort of inspection is only done when either the property owner or someone living there requests one. He said the complaint received was in relation to the residential portion of the building and had nothing to do with the restaurant, although the subsequent investigation led to power being cut to the entire property.
In terms of how the building could be rented to tenants and a business under such circumstances, Barnable said the city issued a permit related to repair of water damage in the building last August and an occupancy permit for the restaurant since then. Neither of those permits required an electrical inspection by the city, which would have to be conducted by a provincial government inspector anyway.
Prior to Pho Vietnam, Ma ran a restaurant herself out of the same location. Service NL told The Western Star on Tuesday that, because Pho Vietnam was occupying what was an existing restaurant, another electrical inspection was not required for it to open last fall.
Pho Vietnam would have only required a health inspection from the province, which was done and which the restaurant passed.
The last electrical inspection done at 27 Humber Road, according to Service NL’s records, was in 2005. Any work done since then, said the provincial department, would not have had a permit issued from Service NL.
Greene, who said he wasn’t the person who complained to the fire department, is glad the action was taken before something worse happened. Still, he and the others who have been displaced are left with nowhere to go.
One of the eight tenants has managed to find alternate accommodations at least for the time being, but the other seven have been put up in hotel rooms. However, they have been told that their stays in the hotel may not last beyond Thursday.
Greene has been on the phone with Premier Tom Marshall’s office and other elected officials, trying to find out what else can be done until they find new places to live.
“I’m happy we’re not in a building that has the potential to kill us anymore,” said Greene. “But, my concern — and I voiced it to Tom Marshall’s office — is who protects us? Which branch of government is out to protect people like us who got to be removed from these places and have nowhere to go? Is there any part of the Newfoundland government that can step in?”
To make things worse, the tenants say they have paid rent for the month of February and Ma has not returned any of their money, making it more difficult for them to secure new accommodations.
The Department of Advanced Education and Skills is footing the bill for the hotels. No one from the department was available for an interview Tuesday, but a spokesperson said in an email that, generally, with tenants who are displaced from rental accommodations, landlords would compensate for the additional cost incurred, or individuals look to their tenants insurance.
“When landlords are unable to or won't respond and individuals are assessed as needing help for emergency accommodations, the Department of Advanced Education (and Skills) would respond, as it did in this instance,” read that email. “Once the immediate crisis is over, individuals are expected to start the process of finding new long-term accommodations. Individuals with the financial means generally take responsibility for addressing their own circumstances. Those that do not have the financial means are supported through the Income Support program.”
The department’s staff will continue to monitor the situation of the displaced tenants.
One of those tenants is Jordan Curnew, who is six and a half months pregnant. She lived in a three-bedroom apartment in the building with her boyfriend and his mother.
“We have nowhere to go after Thursday,” she said, adding she has no family of her own in Corner Brook.
The only person who has been able to find accommodations is Louise Jones. She wants her rent money for this month back.
“I need that money,” she said.
The Western Star has been unable to contact Ma for her side of the story.
Greene, who says he has a place to go Feb. 27 but nowhere between Thursday and then, hopes he and the others can be helped through this unexpected ordeal.
“People like us need legislation or some part of the government to step in when something like this happens and take care of those who are in crisis because it is not our fault that building was like that,” said Greene. “We need somebody to change legislation, or whatever has to be done, so landlords like that can’t take advantage of people like this anymore.”
See page 2 for the earlier version of this story