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Apartment fires leave residents hunting for homes amid Winnipeg’s scarce affordable rental stock

Fires at two large apartment buildings in Winnipeg within the past month alone have displaced around 100 people, with some now struggling to find a new place to live due to a lack of affordable rentals. 

Longtime tenants James Zepp, 72, and his wife, Zyta, were among about 40 residents forced from the five five-storey building at 85 Furby St. due to an early morning fire on Feb. 11.

“For us, it was a major uprooting,” Zepp said in a phone interview. 

A few weeks later, a massive fire on the afternoon of March 5 at 774 Toronto St. displaced 54 people.

Both fires come amid a tight rental market in Winnipeg.

A man wearing a blue t-shirt and camouflage pants stands posing for a photo in an apartment suite.
James Zepp, 72, is pictured in his new apartment building on Pembina Highway, after he was displaced from his West Broadway apartment by a fire last month. (Submitted by James Zepp)

The latest numbers from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation show a 1.8 per cent rental vacancy rate for Winnipeg, down from 2.7 per cent in January 2023. The average rent for a two-bedroom suite was $1,427 per month — up 4.4 per cent last year compared to 2022, according to the CMHC.

The corporation said factors like employment growth, population growth and wage growth led to greater demand and a tighter rental market last year. The number of new rental suites in 2023 did not keep pace with that demand.

The supply is even more scarce for “affordable” rentals — which the CMHC defines as units with rents totalling no more than 30 per cent of household income.

For most income groups, “affordable rentals remained scarce,” which “could potentially force households into less suitable units as they try to save on housing costs,” the CMHC report says.

‘Great disparity’ between incomes, available rentals

Both the Furby and Toronto Street buildings damaged by fire are managed by D-7 Property Management.

The company also manages a block next door to 774 Toronto that sustained some damage in the March 5 fire.

In total, people in 72 suites — 44 suites in the Furby building and 14 suites in each of the Toronto Street buildings — were displaced by the two fires, said Jean Reuther, D-7’s manager.

Flames and smoke light up the night sky.
A March 5 fire at an apartment block on Toronto Street in Winnipeg’s West End displaced the residents in 14 suites in that building, and another 14 in a building next door. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

People at 768 Toronto may be able to return, but it’s still not clear when, she said.

Reuther said the company has found homes for seven people in some of its other rental buildings in the city.

“We’ve given people what we have,” Reuther said. “Other than that, they have to look where they can.”

The City of Winnipeg’s emergency social services team also helps people displaced by fires, providing support for the first 72 hours following an emergency where there are up to 100 evacuees.

The city said in a post March 8 on its website it works with the Canadian Red Cross and its Personal Disaster Assistance Program when there are fires. 

A woman wearing a blue shirt and pants stands in front a large stack of cardboard boxes in an apartment building.
Zyta Zepp is pictured in front of a stack of boxes in her new apartment on Pembina Highway. She and her husband, James, were forced out of their old home after a fire at their Furby Street apartment building. (Submitted by James Zepp)

James Zepp was paying around $1,000 per month for his Furby Street apartment, in the central West Broadway area. He got help from his management company finding a unit with similar rent on Pembina Highway in south Winnipeg, which he and his wife are now settling into.

He couldn’t find a comparable place near his old Furby Street building that was in that price range.

“I’m sure we looked at nine suites in the first three days,” Zepp said. “They were ones that weren’t as nice as what we had.”

Those units would have involved a move into the Wolseley area, and “they were running $1,200, $1,300, $1,400 a month,” he said.

“There’s a great disparity. Most people living in the building, $1,000 is way more than they can afford because they’re single people on a fixed income.”

The outside of an apartment building shows fire damage.
Residents in 44 suites at 85 Furby St., in the West Broadway area, were displaced by a Feb. 11 fire. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Zepp said some of his neighbours moved into the North End, where they’re now paying $700 to $800 for suites that aren’t as nice as what they had on Furby Street.

“Some people had no choice,” Zepp said.

‘Lost pretty much everything’

Mark Head, an instructor with the Native Youth Theatre program at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People, is among the people displaced by the Toronto Street fire.

He lived with his mom and sister in the apartment. 

“I lost pretty much everything,” Head said in a Thursday interview with CBC’s Up To Speed.

Man in a blue shirt standing outside.
Mark Head was displaced by the Toronto Street fire on March 5. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

He said they were staying temporarily at a hotel thanks to support provided through the Canadian Red Cross, while looking for a new place to live.

“In terms of how long we’re going to stay there, that’s something that’s still up in the air right now,” he said last week.

For Zepp, the ordeal has highlighted just how few affordable suites are available in Winnipeg. 

“We’ve lived in West Broadway all our time in Winnipeg. That’s where we wanted to be,” Zepp said.

“But with that kind of time, you don’t have a lot of choices. You take the first good place you can afford.”

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