By Charlie Senack
It will be a long time before people looking for affordable housing can call Westboro’s Salus home again after a burst pipe caused millions in damages.
It was around 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 4, when a sprinkler pipe burst on the fourth floor of the building at Athlone and Scott Street. Water gushed to the floors below destroying everything in its path. The building’s elevator system stopped working, its electrical grid was damaged, and worry about mold taking over later. In all 42 tenants were displaced, their belongings destroyed.
Initial estimates said repairs could take six months but the magnitude of damage alongside supply and labor shortages is expected to make it longer.
“We had to do a complete gut. It’s down to the bare studs,” said Ottawa Salus executive director Mark MacAulay. “All flooring had to be lifted up, the fourth floor had half the walls taken down, all lower cabinets had to be removed, and then on the first and second floor we had to remove all our mechanical and heating systems in order to get at the ceiling for repairs. It’s surprising how much damage water can do.”
But first, management had to find everyone a permanent home. Founded in 1977, Ottawa Salus provides mental health and housing services to clients for nearly 45 years. All tenants have limited incomes – most are on Ontario’s disability support program – and many struggle with substance use and mental health challenges.
Some stayed with family in the interim, others moved in with family friends. MacAulay said all residents have a permanent home for now and will have the option to move back when repairs are done.
He said finding housing typically takes a year, but Salus’s staff met with each resident individually to go over their needs and completed the process in six weeks.
MacAulay credited the support of community neighbors who stepped up and answered their calls for help.
“We received one donation from someone out of the country who was visiting someone here in Ottawa who had a connection to Salus and they made a donation because of the impact,” MacAulay said. “We saw donors who had a connection to the family members, but the local community association also made a donation.”
Once demolition is completed in two weeks, final repair costs will be tallied. It’s expected to be in the millions. In addition to fixing flood damage, MacAulay said Salus must do upgrades because of changing building codes.
When the building was designed in 2006, for example, window air conditioners were common. Today they are seen as a liability.
With a hotter climate, “our tenants need air conditioning,” he said. “We have to figure out those costs, we don’t know what it will be, and it won’t be covered by insurance.”
Ottawa Salus plans an insulation upgrade. Insurance would pay for the fiberglass in place when the flood happened, but not for a new, more expensive kind that is more pest resistant.
Donations so far have gone to new furniture, clothing, and food for tenants. Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden has written to Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing asking for support. The Westboro Community Association also collected money for the effort.
“We have been blown away by the community support,” MacAulay said. “The residents appreciate it and we appreciate it.”