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Overcrowded homes under investigation

Fire Rescue Services say problem is widespread

Whistler Fire Rescue Services is cracking down on homeowners breaking the Fire Code and stuffing their bedrooms full of too many renters.

The issue, which is pervasive throughout Whistler in both short-term and longer-term rental accommodation, has been an ongoing problem in the resort. But as the 2010 Winter Olympic Games draws near, Whistler Fire Rescue Services will be ramping up its efforts to let homeowners know that overcrowding bedrooms with renters is a serious life safety issue and they could have their business closed down.

"We’re on the world stage," said Assistant Fire Chief Rob Whitton. "We can’t tolerate this stuff. If something happens in this town it will be worldwide news and the municipality will not take responsibility for that.

"We’re working towards the Olympics and this is going to be something that we really have to keep an eye on and, once it gets close to that time, there will be no leeway in this from a fire service perspective. If you’re found doing something outside the purview of the code, we’re already talking about immediate closure of the building, period. No break in time, no reduction. It’s closure. We don’t want to have the risk."

Whitton is actively involved in seven investigations right now. In one case every unit in an entire complex is operating outside the boundaries of the B.C. Fire Code. He would not reveal the addresses of those under investigation because it is a confidential, ongoing matter.

The code is crystal clear – in Whistler there can be no more than 10 people sleeping in a single family home.

Whitton explains how the code works: only two people are allowed per sleeping room in a dwelling unit. That means a four-bedroom house can accommodate only eight people. In Whistler there are no legal single-family homes with more than five bedrooms and so, there can be no more than 10 people sleeping in a home in Whistler.

There are some anomalies. For example, if a house is zoned as a pension or a hostel there could be more people living under the one roof. However, there are extra fire safety measures required, such as a specific fire alarm system.

Despite the laws, local businessman John Richmond, who operates a tourist accommodation business with his two homes in Cedar Ridge, says there are landlords blatantly breaking the law.

A simple search of accommodation websites shows just how easy it is to advertise your home for rent for as many as 12, 14 and 15 people, said Richmond.

He points out a five-bedroom townhouse with a ski in/ski out location advertised on a website mid-February, stating it has a maximum occupancy of 14 people. They advertise one king bed, four queen and four single beds in the house.

A five-bedroom house in Creekside advertises for 15 people who can stay in five queen beds, one twin and two sofa beds.

A six-bedroom house in Creekside can sleep 13 in two kings, two queens, one double, two singles and one twin.

All of these are over and above what is allowed in the Fire Code.

Not only is that a life safety issue, for Richmond – who advertises his homes at the legal limit of 10 – it’s not good for business.

"It’s hurting my business," he said, adding that he’s turned down potential guests who were looking to sleep more than 10 people in one of his homes.

"With vacancy rates as high as they are this year… it’s making it extremely difficult when I’m trying to compete legally."

Whitton explains that as a local assistant to the Fire Commissioner he is focused on how many bed spaces are in a house. There could be just eight people living in a four-bedroom house, which is allowed under the Fire Code. But Whitton isn’t interested in the number of people per se. He’s looking for the number of bed spaces, or the potential to sleep more people than is allowed under the code.

"If I walk in there and there’s more than eight bed spaces for a four bedroom place or 10 bed spaces for a five-bedroom place, you have to remove those bed spaces, period."

And, he added, a pull out couch counts as two bed spaces. If that couch puts you over the maximum you would be asked to remove the mattress from the house.

This issue first came to light in 2002 with a home on Panorama Ridge in Brio.

In that investigation Whitton found roughly 80 bed spaces in a home which was allowed 10 bed spaces. He found 24 beds in the attic alone.

Renters were given 24 hours to vacate the building and the homeowners were asked to remove the extra beds.

The municipality helped those renters find places to stay in the short term.

"That’s what all this is hinging on, the life safety of the people that are staying in those places," said Whitton. "That’s all that this boils down to, for us, is that we’re making sure that everybody that comes here has a good time but that they’re staying in safe places. That’s the whole drive behind it."

Richmond hopes this will remain a top priority for the municipality.

"The biggest onus is on the municipality to make sure all of the property owners are made well and clear of the fire code," he said.

For the most part Whitton said Whistler landlords and homeowners comply when they learn they are breaking the law. Many simply don’t know they’re operating contrary to the fire code. Others do but don’t realize how serious the offence is.

The repercussions if something did happen could be terrible.

"As far as I know, historically we haven’t had any deaths in that realm," said Whitton. "We’ve had many fires in buildings that we know there was more people in there than what would have been allotted through the occupant load use. Fortunately no one’s been injured from that perspective… yet."