By Katherine Grant
Olga Rochon is 64 years old, has advanced glaucoma, has had cataract surgery and has been warned by her doctor that the arteries in her neck are in poor condition which could lead to stroke.
Her poor health didn’t stop her from holding a fire watch at the complex where she lives throughout the frigid month of February.
Every 30 minutes she said, she walked from door to door, placing her hand on each to check for heat. Because her vision is severely limited, she needed help to read the fire extinguishers.
Had she suspected there was a fire she didn’t really have a plan as she has no telephone and there is no pay phone on site.
“I was going to scream until someone with a cell phone heard me and called 9-1-1,” she said sitting on the edge of the pull-out bed in her two-room unit.
The alternative, from what she understood, was the loss of the place she has called home for the past four years – the Escarpment Inn and Residences at 575 Main St., West in Grimsby.
At issue seems to be the difference between being a tenant under the Landlord Tenant Act or a lodger under the Innkeepers Act and it is a significant difference for the families faced with being homeless this week.
Last week, the owner of the property, Olu Akinbolue, issued notices to the 25 tenants they had to move out by April 1; a second eviction notice quickly followed noting all had to vacate by noon Monday, March 9.
“Everyone has lived here for several months to several years,” said Olga.
Only a small portion of the building is used for motel guests, according to the long-term tenants. There is no staff present at any time. There are no services such as for towels; no telephone service, and; the driveway wasn’t plowed all winter.
According to tenants, they dug it out by hand.
Of major concern to Grimsby Fire Department was the lack of fire alarms, necessitating the fire watch.
“Olu told me if I didn’t do the fire watch, the building would be closed and everyone would have to move out,” said Olga.
Under order by the Grimsby Fire Department to install working smoke alarms, the land owner instead opted to empty the building.
Olga is paying $800 rent for two rooms.
One bedroom is occupied by her granddaughter and another has an adjacent kitchenette and bathroom. Olga and her husband, Stan, sleep on a pull-out couch.
After the fire department informed tenants the landowner was responsible for the fire watch, a security company took over this week.
A tour of the building revealed a number of issues including leaking ceilings necessitating buckets to catch the water; cracked windows, crumbling ceilings and general disrepair.
Residents did without a furnace last winter, instead heating their rooms with space heaters. The furnace has since been replaced.
Outside in the parking area is a garbage dumpster filled to overflowing. The twice-a-month pick up is inadequate said tenants but they were told if they called to have it picked up more frequently they would have to pay for it themselves.
Some tenants are paying up to $1,300 per month for their units. Each also paid a $100 cleaning deposit as well as a $100 deposit for a TV box to allow access to cable.
The eviction notices came as a shock to residents.
“We got these letters saying we had to be out by the end of the month,” said Chantel Farnsworth who moved into the house adjacent to the office last summer with her 11-year-old son.
“Then we got a second letter saying we had to be out by Monday. I’m not going to just let her do this,” said Chantel.
“She can padlock my door with me inside,” said Olga. “I have nowhere to go.”
On the weekend, new padlocks appeared on the doors of empty units, and on the utility and furnace room doors. The washing machines and dryers were removed as well.
A notice on the office door read that the “motel” would close at noon, March 9 and, shortly after 10 a.m., Akinbolue arrived with two SUVs towing utility trailers. There were at least two men with her.
Residents called police.
Akinbolue and the men went into the office and the police headed inside to speak to them. After about an hour the police came outside and addressed the residents. Akinbolue remained inside the office.
“We have told her she can’t padlock the doors,” said Const. Chris Carter, told the tenants. He also said they were going to have to move eventually but there was a process in place that had to be followed.
Lisa Ridsdill from Niagara North Community Legal Assistance arrived as well to speak to the residents and ensure their rights were being considered.
By Tuesday the mailbox by the road had been removed and a “For Sale” sign was also gone. Tenants said their cable had been turned off.
Ridsdill noted there have been problems in the past with tenants not receiving their mail and things being returned, marked ‘moved’ such as disability and other government cheques.
The residents are in a holding pattern now, waiting until a hearing can be held to determine the next steps, said Ridsdill.
Ridsdill said it can take about two weeks to get a hearing date set with the Landlord and Tenant Board, which meets in St. Catharines.
“It is important that the board realizes that these people are tenants and it is not an inn just because that is in the title of the place,” said Ridsdill.
“The first goal here was ensure nobody was forced out. That was done. The next step is to get the hearing set.”
The tenants of Escarpment Inn and Residences gather in the driveway of the Grimsby building awaiting word from police as to whether or not they would have to move out Monday. They were given only a few day’s notice. Grant – Photo