Life was normal for Rebecca Gondos and her husband, Peter, until they and fellow tenants at 650 Parliament St. were forced to evacuate following a six-alarm fire some 17 months ago. Then things took a turn for the worse.
Like everyone else who was displaced by this fire, the family initially spent time in temporary housing. They stayed at one friend’s place for five days. Then they moved to the basement of a work colleague’s place, where they lived for two months. But the colleague’s family members were moving in, and the Gondos had to relocate again — this time to one-bedroom condo in Yorkville that soon proved too tiny for both of them and their two rescued cats. They later found a more spacious one-bedroom condo nearby, where they reside today.
During this time, Gondos, 52, has been diagnosed with two types of cancer — first, endometrial cancer last January, and then breast cancer in February. She has since undergone three surgeries and requires constant treatments at Princess Margaret hospital.
“I had 43 radiation treatments due to the two cancers, and that means a trip to the hospital everyday, five days a week, for months,” said Gondos, who works at a private wealth management company — a job she says helps her with options to work from home from time to time, as she battles through the changes in her life.
“Everything was great before, and then the fire hit, and then everything just went to hell in hand basket,” said Gondos, noting she and her husband had lived in their 22nd floor apartment for more than 15 years.
“Adding all of these serious medical issues on top of not being in your home, in your own bed, surrounded by your own belongings, it has been exceptionally difficult for both my husband and myself.”
Nearly a year and half after displacement, and more than two months since the last significant update from property management, Gondos is left wondering: has everyone forgotten about the 1,500 people who were forced out of their homes?
The Aug. 21, 2018 fire, which started in an electrical chamber and rocked the highrise residential building in St. James Town, did not cause any serious injuries. But Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop would later describe the damage as “absolutely the worst” devastation to a building’s entire electrical system that he has seen.
As a result of the mass displacement, building management scrambled to find temporary shelter for the residents. Some stayed at nearby community centres, while others were housed in hotels or told to make arrangements with friends and family. But as it became apparent repair work would be substantive, residents were advised to look for alternatives that would last longer — including rental spaces at buildings under the same management.
Many potential return dates have been proposed, only to be pushed back multiple times, due to the amount of restoration work required. Management also had to go through a legal process in order to relocate tenants’ belongings from their original units into garage locker rooms to facilitate the repair work, which contributed to the delay.
There’s also a $40-million class action lawsuit underway seeking compensation for displaced residents, alleging negligence on the part of the landlord and property management.
But, now more than ever before, there could be some good news on the horizon. Danny Roth, who speaks for Wellesley-Parliament Square property management, told the Star that management is getting “very, very close” to issuing a reoccupancy announcement.
“There are some T’s that need to be crossed and some I’s that need to be dotted, but very much in the immediate,” he said, noting he expects the announcement to be made in the coming weeks.
“There’s still work that is ongoing, but the vast majority of the reconstruction effort is now complete and we’re in the very final process of getting the building ready to be reinhabited.”
He said management will announce a reoccupancy protocol to ensure the safe and orderly return of tenants, recognizing some may need to make arrangements with the places they’ve been living during the displacement period.
He said management understands the frustration of tenants who’ve been out of their homes through no fault of their own, but called it a stretch to say they’ve been forgotten.
“Whenever we had tangible information to share, that information has been shared,” he said, noting every effort has been made to make sure people are taken care of, and repair work is done quickly and properly.
Roth said tenants in fewer than 100 units have broken their lease and moved on. The majority — those renting just under 500 units — are still registered as tenants and looking forward to coming back. He said their rental rates will be what they were at the time of the fire.
In the time they’ve been displaced, “if any tenant wanted to live somewhere else, they could very easily have gotten out of their lease with us, and not have all this stress on their head,” he said.
“We don’t want to lose tenants, we want to welcome everybody back, but that option has always existed for tenants all the way along.”
Gondos said she understands management taking time to ensure the building is in proper shape before allowing people to move back in, but the process has taken “too long” and there was a lack of proper communication to keep tenants in the loop.
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She said she was especially disappointed to see management post holiday wishes last month on their website, something she said was “extremely insensitive.”
“They just don’t seem to care. There’s 1,500 people that want to go home, you know,” she said. “It’s our second Christmas, our second new year out of our homes, and they’re wishing us a happy 2020. Seriously? Who does that?”
Last week, Gondos sent an open letter to Mayor John Tory and Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, imploring them to do something to help displaced people who now seem to “have been forgotten.”
“I’m tired and we just want to go home,” she wrote in the letter.
Tory agrees displaced residents should be frequently updated on the work progress at their building, and he’ll make that request to the landlord “right away,” wrote his spokesperson Don Peat in a statement to the Star.
“The fire in this private building has had a heartbreaking impact on residents and the mayor understands both their ongoing frustration and their desire to be able to come home,” Peat wrote.
“The focus of the city is on making sure the landlord is working as quickly as possible to get the work done and that when the work is completed that the building is safe. The city is committed to supporting that work in any way we can to help resolve this situation.”
During the restoration process, the city is continuing to conduct inspections to ensure the work is in compliance with the Ontario Building Code, said the city’s chief communications officer Brad Ross.
More inspections will be conducted once repairs are over, and Toronto Fire Services will conduct required inspections for fire protection systems to ensure the building is safe before reoccupancy, he said.
As the waiting continues, Gondos and her husband have decided to remove their belongings from the garage locker into a warehouse space through their insurance company, as they worried about potential damage or some of their important materials collecting dust. But she said her insurance is getting used up due to the continued delay to return home.
She said some of the tenants of 650 Parliament St. were newcomers and young people using the relatively cheap rental prices as a stepping stone before they bought their own homes, but some others are longtime dwellers who just “love it there” and are in that community to stay, she said.
“This is not our fault that this fire happened. It’s their fault, with a complete lack of maintenance,” she said.
Gondos said over the decade and a half she and her husband lived in the building they had decorated, hung pictures on the walls and made custom shelving.
“We made it our home. It wasn’t just a place to sleep,” she said.