Eleven residents were displaced from a westside apartment building in Saskatoon, [owned by Jack Grover (right)], after a fire Monday morning, the fourth in seven years at the address.
At 5:30 a.m., firefighters responded to a fire at the four-storey building at 203 Ave. E North. The fire was contained to an occupied suite on the third floor and was under control within 10 minutes.
Although the fire was confined to only one suite, fire marshal Patti Hoffinger deemed the building unfit for human habitation.
"Having (the building) exposed, going through it all, we just closed the building down because there is going to be a lot of work that's going to be required," said Hoffinger.
"It's been a few months since we've been in there and a lot of things have been depreciated. For example, the plumbing stack is leaking, so it's done a lot of damage in the last few months to the drywall and the fire separation integrity."
Hoffinger didn't want to go into further details as an order was being written up, which can be appealed by the owner. She said the building is fairly old and work will need to be done from the basement walls up to the roof.
"This building keeps us busy. We're constantly asking for deficiencies to be corrected. They're always followed up but there's always more to identify."
With the cause of the fire still under investigation, Hoffinger reported the fire alarm system was working.
Fire dispatch reports obtained under Freedom of Information legislation indicate fires at the address in 1998, 1999 and 2004.
The property is owned by Grover Holdings LPD. Landlord Jack Grover has been a controversial figure in the city, accumulating 77 convictions and paid tickets since 2000 for violations under the Fire Prevention Act and the fire bylaw. His properties have also been cited by fire inspectors with 88 improvement orders under city bylaws and the Fire Prevention Act.
Grover controls, through five business names, a growing inner-city empire of at least 33 apartment buildings and houses representing 99 units. Grover was not available for comment late Monday afternoon.
In March, a child and an infant died after a fire at 214 Ave. E North, another Grover property just houses away from the apartment building.
There were no injuries in Monday's incident as most of the residents had been outside by the time fire crews arrived.
Kevin Welgush of the Salvation Army is working with the residents, trying to get food, clothing and shelter. Although the residents declined to comment, he said the general mood of the residents he has seen is shock.
Welgush and others at the organization have taken residents to the Red Cross and Wal-Mart to get needed personal items. The Salvation Army has also provided vouchers for groceries and clothing at their thrift store.
Hoffinger said the residents will be able to enter the building to pick up their personal items and a couple already have.
The province should crack down on inner-city landlords with histories of fire and maintenance violations and inspect every home before social assistance clients moves in, says Owen Fortosky.
"We've got to be working a lot closer with social services to make sure these properties are safe for people to be living in."
The councillor, whose ward includes the core neighbourhoods of Riversdale and Pleasant Hill, was responding to a StarPhoenix report that a single landlord, Jack Grover, is responsible for one in five violations levied by city fire inspectors since 2001.
The province maintains that social-assistance clients are capable of picking their own housing. But Fortosky said the poor are often forced into substandard housing.
"You have a lot of people coming, for example, off-reserve. They don't have the same ideas of a home necessarily as someone living on the east side of the city. They're just looking for a place to stay. Unfortunately, some of our landlords take advantage of that."
The city has raised the issue with the province before, but is usually told that closing buildings would result in tenants being left on the street, Fortosky said.
"It's quite simple. You board those things up. Eventually, the land owner has to fix it up or sell it. There are groups in the city that will purchase these homes, like Quint Development Corp., and turn around and sell them through their affordable housing program.
Jim Wasilenko, chair of the Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership, said in time, the housing supply will improve as community groups buy and refurbish poorly maintained housing.
"The landlord that does not manage the property well will simply not have tenants," he said.
Herman Hulshof, director of communications for the Department of Community Resources and Employment, acknowledges the department does no checking on the quality of housing its social-assistance clients pay for with the provincial shelter allowance. But he said the province has been addressing the shortage of affordable housing.
In June, the Central Urban Metis Federation bought three ramshackle blocks that previously belonged to the Grovers near 22nd Street West at avenues T and U. With $3.2 million in public money, the buildings are being refurbished.
Grover maintained Thursday that he's the victim of his own compassionate heart, which allows destructive, low-income tenants to live in his buildings, as well as picky fire inspectors and misunderstandings.
"It is not the landlord, it is the people who still don't respect other people's property. . . . Other people are not compassionate. They put them on the street. But this landlord doesn't."
Fortosky hears a different side.
"I've had nothing but complaints from residents, from neighbours, from lots of people (about Grover), believe me."
Recently, Fortosky asked city administration to look into establishing a policy of charging land owners for fire response. He said Grover's properties have had three fires this year alone.
Grover suggests he's sometimes blamed for events outside his control. He said he was no longer the owner of a building on Avenue I North when it was demolished in 1993. He was, however, the owner, when a fire heavily damaged it a year earlier.
He said he intends to "renovate completely" the dilapidated block at 127 Ave. U South, starting with a burned-out suite.
"You have to accept the word what somebody, (a) landlord of my calibre tells you."
There is sympathy for Grover in some corners. A woman who identified herself as a west-side landlord, but declined to give her name, said Grover's problems are commonplace.
"Walk a mile in his moccasins. (His tenants) don't work. They think up ways to torture the landlord."
A single Saskatoon landlord has racked up a staggering 186 violations, improvement orders and convictions for the quality of his inner-city units from fire inspectors and the courts since 2001, The StarPhoenix has learned.
During the last four years, brothers Jack and Pritam Grover have also racked up $26,652 in fines and surcharges.
And it's the provincial government that keeps the cash flowing to the Grovers, since it pays rent for social assistance clients who fill most of Grover's units.
The StarPhoenix acquired city documents under Access to Information legislation that show Grover Holdings Ltd., Seema Holdings International Ltd., Pritam S. Grover and Jagdish (Jack) Lal Grover are the runaway leaders among city landlords for failing to abide by the fire and protective services bylaw, the property maintenance bylaw and provincial and federal fire acts.
But Jack Grover, who runs the Grover properties, says he's at the top of the list because no other landlords own so many units in inner-city Riversdale and Pleasant Hill.
It's "picky, dictatorial" fire inspectors and vandalizing tenants who are to blame, not the landlord, he said.
"I get up in the morning and I don't have stress. Go to bed at night, no stress."
Jack and Pritam Grover and the two Grover companies they operate, own spots one through four on a list, acquired from the city, of 19 landlords with five or more offences since 2001. Violations rung up by Grover et al. since 2001 account for one in every five flagged by fire inspectors, documents show.
The list spans 29 months, from January 2001 through May 2003.
Grover Holdings' four-storey block at 127 Ave. U South, a few kilometres from Premier Lorne Calvert's constituency office, is one of the worst blocks in the city, inspectors say, but it shares common shortcomings with other Grover buildings.
Dark, profanity-scrawled, pockmarked hallways appear to have more in common with American ghetto-style housing than the prim west-side bungalows only a few blocks away.
Holes are punched out in doors where deadbolts once had been and ripped, dirty linoleum lines corridors.
In the laundry room, a washer is neatly turned upside down, still plugged in. The hallway of one floor is entirely dark.
"We're trying to get out of here," said Gordon Napope, 24, who lives in the building with Melissa Taniskishayinew, 23, and their infant daughter. "(It's) slummy, not suitable."
"It's no good to stay here," Taniskishayinew added, catching a cool breeze outside the stuffy block on a hot morning. "His apartments are no good."
How is it that the young family and others like it collecting social assistance, live in substandard housing with the province paying the bill that keeps Grover's rental empire operating?
The director of communications for the Department of Community Resources and Employment, Herman Hulshof, said the province doesn't check the quality of housing in which its clients live.
"The clients are capable of managing their own affairs . . . They're the ones who choose the housing. Our department doesn't get involved in the housing they select."
Fire marshall Patty Hoffinger acknowledges there's a breakdown between the work that fire inspectors and social services workers do, even though they're serving the same people.
The department is notified only if fire inspectors close a building, Hoffinger said. Until a few years ago, the fire department also forwarded copies to the province of improvement orders for housing in which social-assistance clients live.
"It was just a waste of paper," Hoffinger said. "They weren't preventing their clients from moving in anywhere."
Grover's offences are a catalogue of mundane but deadly serious fire offences, such as failing to maintain smoke alarms and fire-alarm systems, storing flammable liquids, tampering with closed buildings, knowingly making false statements to fire inspectors and blocking access to exits.
Earlier this summer, a fire blazed through one unit at 127 Ave. U South. A few weeks afterward, tenants from another Grover building moved in because of a fire in their block, Taniskishayinew said.
Grover also frequently falls afoul of the property maintenance bylaw for broken or single-pane windows, holes in walls, filthy flooring, doors not locking, and junk and weeds filling yards.
"From the exterior to the interior, (he) is not conforming to any minimum living conditions," Hoffinger said. "You're appalled at the conditions. It's just not fair for anybody to have to live in conditions like that."
Grover is unapologetic about the 80 units he manages or owns. Blame the tenants, he suggests.
"The basic problem of society is the 20 per cent don't want to work in this world are paid by 80 per cent who pay taxes to look after them," he said in an interview. That segment of society needs to learn responsibility, he adds, which would prevent violations such as failing to maintain smoke alarms.
"Those are not my problem, too. The landlord's job is to provide smoke alarms . . . When the people steal batteries out of it, I tried to put (in) every suite electrically, hardwired smoke alarms. When these people have a smoke they take them (the smoke alarms) off. And then the inspector goes to inspect. Whose problem? (They say) it's the landlord's problem . . . Give the violation to the tenant."
Often, however, it's the tenants who suffer from the poor conditions in Grover's blocks.
Police and fire officials carry out the sad task of escorting tenants out of buildings that are ordered closed, often unexpectedly.
Major Wayne McDonough of the Salvation Army said the sudden moves are hardest on children, especially when low-rent units are in short supply.
"You lose your home, it's traumatic. I don't think it matters if it's a fancy house or one that's rundown. It's your home."
McDonough said some of Grover's tenants, who eat meals at Salvation Army, complain to McDonough about their living conditions, describing them as "rundown and unsafe," he said.
A related reason Grover offers for his large tally of breaches is the sheer number of units he manages or owns and the fact they're located on the west side.
"It is such a struggle but I'd never give up. Why? Because I choose to help these people, provide accommodation when other people have rejected them."
Grover said he even directs tenants to counsellors or counsels them himself.
Grover's court convictions result from refusing to comply with orders. He has an explanation for the convictions, too.
"This is a battle I'm facing to actually improve the behaviour of fire department inspectors that they must (ensure they) know the reasons behind the violations."
A man who didn't want to be identified and lives with his young son in one of Grover's buildings, is unimpressed after only a few months living there.
"There was a flood when the waterline broke, the roof caved in, the floor's sagging, my oven isn't working. There's no air conditioning, but he says he's going to fix it.
"It's hard. It gets pretty hot in here."
On paper, at least, the shortcomings of Grover's buildings have been costly. Fines and court surcharges for the four companies total $26,652 in the last four years.
Grover Holdings Ltd.'s largest single fine was $3,000 with a $600 surcharge tacked on, levied in November 2002 for tampering with a building ordered closed.
But payment is hit-and-miss.
Wayne Bischoff, one of the city's solicitors, said more than half of Grover's outstanding fines are unpaid at any given time, thanks to appeals, new fines being levied and simple failure to pay.
"There are limits on what the city can accomplish," he said.
Despite the convictions, some give Grover credit for supplying badly needed housing for low-income people.
"Look who lives in these places," said Randy Arnault, who was staying with his sister Rose Morin in a Grover block on Avenue V South. "Look at the damage they do."
Morin, who's been Grover's tenant for a few months, said she's satisfied with her accommodations, noting that he promptly unplugged her toilet.
"Jack is a good landlord."
"It's all right," said Clarissa Shetterly, who rents an Avenue R South bungalow from Grover. But she adds she hasn't had success getting him to fix her toilet, which leaks black water.
The number of overall orders and violations issued by city fire inspectors has been steadily rising. Orders almost doubled between 2000 and 2002, from 83 to 165. Violations, meanwhile skyrocketed more than 900 per cent during the same period. Landlords were notified of 187 violations in 2002, up from just 18 in 2000.
The increase results from a combination of recent bylaw changes and renters' growing willingness to file complaints, Hoffinger said.