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‘We’re stuck in the middle’: Owner faces 2-year delay for a fire inspection at Calgary seniors home

A Calgary business owner has been trying for more than two years to expand a small-scale seniors home and increase options for those looking to age within their neighbourhood.

But a disagreement between the City of Calgary and the provincial government means Dawit Mulugeta can’t get a fire inspection. That puts a cap on the number of seniors he can take in, and means the business is no longer viable. 

It’s gotten so bad, he said he’s considering selling the home to move outside city borders.

“We’re stuck in the middle. We don’t know what to do,” said Mulugeta.

“We cannot continue doing this. Our option is maybe selling the house, move away from Calgary, so that we can get our fire inspection from another city.”

For Dawit and his wife, Mekdes Mulugeta, this was a passion project.

Mekdes has been working as a health care aid for 15 years, and they’ve seen evidence of the need for more beds to accommodate Alberta’s growing population of seniors.

Mekdes is certified to provide personal care, such as bathing and changing people, and care for diabetic and dementia patients. She also speaks Amharic, in addition to English, and can accommodate seniors looking for cultural foods from East Africa.

A wicker basket sits on a table with a living room in the background.
The home in Woodbine has a sunny living room plus a den at the back of the house. Small touches, such as this injera basket, reflect the owner’s Ethiopian heritage. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

In 2020, they bought a single-storey bungalow in southwest Calgary that’s big enough for four bedrooms and two bathrooms on the main floor. They renovated, and then got their inspection from Alberta Health.

Finally, they called a City of Calgary fire inspector, who came to the home, inspected it, and Dawit says he was verbally  told that it passed.

But instead of sending him a report, Dawit said the fire inspector called back to say Calgary actually doesn’t do these inspections anymore. And since then, he hasn’t made any progress with the city.

“City of Calgary said that you don’t require a fire inspection report, and Alberta Health requires the fire inspection report. Because of that, we cannot be licence by Alberta Health. Without the licence from Alberta Health, you can’t get a contract from Alberta Health to get any clients.”

It means he’s allowed a maximum three clients, who must pay out-of-pocket privately. They don’t get a provincial health-care subsidy. Because of this, only two people live there now and they’re barely covering the mortgage and expenses. 

“My wife loves this work with a passion and she has been doing it for the last 15 years. This was her dream to do,” he said. “So we keep trying, but I don’t know how long we’re going to keep doing this? If we didn’t have this problem, by now we could have expanded and be helping lots of people.”

A washroom with a personal assistance chair in the no-step shower.
Dawit Mulugeta renovated the bungalow so that it could accommodate up to four residents needing extra assistance with basic daily tasks. (Elise Stolte/CBC)

When CBC News contacted City of Calgary officials, they declined an interview. Instead, they sent an unsigned statement saying they paused this kind of fire inspection four years ago, at the request of the province.

The officials said these residential care and group homes house people who might need help for daily living and mobility. But fire or safety code inspectors are not qualified to determine what level of care a client might need or if the house is a safe fit for them.

They said that’s “a gap” in the provincial regulations that needs to be fixed.

However, when CBC contacted the City of Edmonton, a spokesperson said the Edmonton Fire Rescue Services still offers these inspections.

When we contacted the province, Alberta Municipal Affairs press secretary Scott Johnston emailed a statement that said there are no gaps in the regulations.

“There is no legal or legislative barrier to the City of Calgary carrying out fire inspections,” he said.

Other Calgary organizations that run small-scale care homes are also being impacted by this. 

Norma Wisbling is the head of New Age Services, which has 10 group homes in Calgary serving people with disabilities. She said two of her homes have more than three clients. When this issue came up, New Age wasn’t able to get the fire inspection to get the licence renewed for these two homes.

There is no legal or legislative barrier to the City of Calgary carrying out fire inspections.– Scott Johnston, provincial press secretary

She would have had to evict one of her long-term clients, but the provincial authorities she’s dealing with allowed her to continue without the full licence. They put in writing that they understand this is a Calgary-specific issue.

Wisbling said she and other private care providers have been lobbying to get this issue fixed.

She thinks it’s related to a provincial debate from years ago, when the provincial government tried to changed group home regulations following a fatal fire in Edmonton. The province wanted group homes to have sprinklers, but families and group home operators said that investment would be so costly, they’d lose the homes and be evicted instead. 

Eventually, the province backed down. But Wisbling said she thinks that’s what caused Calgary to say there’s a gap.

It’s a big deal, she said.

“I think that clearing up this issue is really important for the safety of our clients and to address the housing crisis that is currently happening for so many people. It’s a bureaucratic issue that’s impacting people’s ability to live in homes and receive services that are really, really needed.”

A woman holds a bright yellow sign that says "My sons live..."
In 2015, families rallied to protest new provincial safety regulations they said would make the cost of group homes unaffordable. (CBC)

Coun. Dan McLean represents Mulugeta’s area. He said he hadn’t heard about the issue before but plans to check in with city staff to monitor if progress is being made.

“We have to make sure things are safe … and we need more seniors care facilities,” said the Ward 13 representative. “If this is one of the reasons that’s stopping (us from getting more facilities), I’m definitely interested. I’ll follow up with the right people in city administration and the province as well to get resolution on this.”

Meanwhile, residents in the Woodbine house say they have a quiet life. It’s a corner house with a large veranda out front and a cheerful, sun-lit living room.

Paul Maric has been living here for more that two years. He has a physical disability and appreciates help with tasks around the house. He hopes the issue with the fire inspection can be resolved quickly to ensure the small business continues.

“I’m just so grateful. I wish more people could get in with a family like this,” he said, referring to Dawit and Mekdes Mulugeta and their three children.

They add a personal touch and visit for board games weekly.  

“The family is fantastic,” Maric said. “They make time for me as much as they can. We play board games quite a bit. I socialize with them from time to time, and we have a great time bantering around.”

Sharing Knowledge

Last fall, CBC Calgary launched a new community project with local East African community members. The idea for this news story came through that project, and the research was a collaboration between CBC Calgary and the community publication Habesha Magazine.

 Read more about this partnership, and check out other reporting sparked by these conversations.

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