Pickering woman facing eviction — and a $25K repair bill — over a fire she says she didn't cause

·5 min read
Amanda Sherwood in front of her townhouse in Pickering, Ont., which sustained serious damage two years ago due to an electrical fire. She's facing eviction because the public housing agency that owns the unit says she's responsible for the fire. (Mike Smee/CBC - image credit)
Amanda Sherwood in front of her townhouse in Pickering, Ont., which sustained serious damage two years ago due to an electrical fire. She's facing eviction because the public housing agency that owns the unit says she's responsible for the fire. (Mike Smee/CBC - image credit)

A single mother of four could soon lose her home — and $25,000 — over a devastating electrical fire in her public housing unit.

Amanda Sherwood's three-bedroom townhouse, located in Pickering east of Toronto, caught fire in June of 2020, leaving her and her daughters, aged six to 20, temporarily homeless.

Her landlord, Durham Region Non-profit Housing Corporation (DRNHC), is now asking the province's Landlord and Tenant Board to evict her and order her to pay a portion of the $80,000 repair bill. The corporation has been trying to evict Sherwood for about a year, saying she caused the fire by overloading an electrical outlet — an accusation that Pickering Fire Services is refusing to confirm.

Sherwood maintains faulty wiring at the complex is the culprit.

"If you're running the microwave and, say, you turned on a kettle at the same time, you're going to blow a fuse — there's no ifs, ands or buts," Sherwood said.

"It's going to blow not only the kitchen out, it's going to blow out your whole main floor and some parts of the basement."

Mike Smee/CBC
Mike Smee/CBC

The Landlord and Tenant Board is expected to hear submissions from the paralegal representing Sherwood, and from the housing agency, Friday morning.

Sherwood's problems began early one morning when a fire broke out in her garage, destroying the contents and damaging much of the rest of her unit.

A fridge was connected to a wall outlet in the garage near where the fire broke out, along with a power bar connected to a freezer and a remote controlled car battery charger.

DRNHC, in its eviction application, asserts the fire was "due to overloading an electrical socket." But Pickering Fire Services doesn't appear to be backing that claim.

Mike Smee/CBC
Mike Smee/CBC

"The fire investigation could not confirm the cause to be overloading," Deputy Chief Nigel Robinson said in an email to CBC Toronto.

"There were a few possible causes considered during the investigation, however the exact cause was not confirmed."

The landlord tenant board hearing has been delayed several times since the DRNHC launched its eviction application about a  year ago.

A Pickering Fire investigator on the scene the night of the fire later wrote that "it appears the fridge, freezer and electronics were all powered by the same receptacle, which would create a higher than recommended current draw."

But the investigator, Adam Fowler, stopped short of concluding that overloading caused the fire, also noting that in the past Sherwood "has complained about electrical issues in the home relating to the receptacle at the back of the garage, and others throughout the home."

In 2003, 13 years before Sherwood moved in, her townhouse was the scene of another fire, in which two young girls, aged seven and two, were killed. The Ontario Fire Marshal's Office would say only that that fire was accidental, without immediately providing details of the investigation, or a more specific cause.

Pickering Fire Services
Pickering Fire Services

Other tenants in the public housing complex, near Kingston and Liverpool roads, told CBC Toronto that electrical problems in the 115-unit complex are common.

Tasia Pinnock, who's lived there for less than a year, said she's complained to DRNHC in the past about electrical issues, including a light near the door to he living room.

"It takes at least five to 10 seconds for it to turn on. We've asked them to fix several light fixtures," she said.

"To get in contact with them takes a couple days and for them to actually fix it takes about a week and over," Pinnock added.

'An ongoing thing'

"It's an ongoing thing ... It just feels like they don't really care to do these things. It's like a bottom-of-the-list kind of thing," she said.

"It's like, 'Oh, we'll get to it when we can, or when we want to."'  And when someone From DRNHC does repair something, "it's just the cheapest fix they can find, really," Pinnock alleged.

Neighbour Lynn St. Michael says she too has experienced electrical issues in her unit.

"Sometimes some electrical switches don't always come on, or you flip one, but then ... you have to jiggle it so that the light stays on," she said.

"I think a lot of people are a little nervous, you know?"

As for help from the landlords, a lot of tenants have written letters but "nothing gets done," St. Michael said.

Pickering Fire Services told CBC Toronto that they've been called to the complex seven times since the beginning of 2020, but only found fires four times. Only one of those fires was caused by electrical issues, the fire service said in an email.

'Educate tenants on safety'

Tracy Greig, DNHC's CEO wouldn't comment on the Sherwood case specifically, citing privacy concerns. But she said the units in the complex are routinely inspected for problems.

"The one thing that I can tell you is that the fires that have been at Orchard Valley have not been caused by Durham Region Non-profit Housing," she told CBC Toronto.

"We work with Pickering Fire, so that they can help us educate our tenants on safety - such things as leaving cooking unattended, leaving candles burning, smoking, those types of things."

Sean O'Connor, the paralegal representing Sherwood, said he's seen no evidence that supports DRNHC's claim that Sherwood is at fault.

But he said it's clear there have been complaints about faulty electrical systems at the complex from other tenants.

"The best possible outcome would be that that the matter is either withdrawn, dismissed, or there's an agreement to resolve it in a way that [Sherwood] can continue living there ... and that the facilities receive the proper funding to upgrade the electrical systems across the board."