Winnipeg seniors without shower, toilet as impasse with city over damaged sewer line drags on

A Winnipeg senior is locked in a stalemate with the city over who is going to repair her sewer line, and the months-long saga has left her and her husband without proper access to laundry, showers, or a functioning toilet.

“We are feeling like we are living in the bush somewhere,” says Maria Mielczarek, adding the pair use water sparingly, dump wastewater into the yard, and visit nearby relatives to use the washroom.

“Now it’s COVID-19, we have to take under consideration hygiene, we also have to take under consideration cooking, meals, dishes; we have to pay attention to how to use our water and where to dispose of it.”

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At first, Mielczarek suspected the cold winter weather had damaged the pipes under their home on Selkirk Avenue, after they noticed wastewater draining into the basement.

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But after a neighbour with a plumbing snake and a camera told her that was unlikely, and there was a break somewhere nearby, Mielczarek began to suspect the damage happened when crews demolished a city-owned building next door.

What followed, Mielczarek says, was months of back-and-forth with various city departments about getting the problem taken care of.

Maria Mielczarek wants the city itself to fix her sewer pipe after it was damaged by a city crew. But the city says the pipe is violating building codes, so it’s offered tens of thousands to replace the line. Michael Draven / Global News

“In my opinion, if I damage something it’s my responsibility to fix it and to be responsible and to say ‘I’m sorry,’ Mielczarek says. “But I expect from the city of Winnipeg to do to me as well.”

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Mynarski Ward Councillor, Ross Eadie, says the situation isn’t quite so simple.

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Everyone involved agrees the crew hired by the city damaged the line, but Eadie says after that, it was discovered the line leaves Mielczarek’s property and crosses into the adjacent property by about two meters — a building code violation.

“So right in there, there’s a big issue, because we’ve had this with old water lines where water lines are running through other people’s property,” Eadie says.

“No matter who it is, the private line is considered to be the responsibility of the address holder.”

Maria Mielczarek says the city should replace a sewer line that runs into her home, after the existing line was damaged when the vacant home next door was demolished by a city crew. Michael Draven / Global News

Eadie compares it to buying a house with a deck that was built without permits. If the city finds out, the new homeowner would be responsible for tearing the deck down and building one within the rules.

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In this case, the city has accepted responsibility for the damage and is offering Mielczarek around $28,000 to replace the line, based on estimates from two separate contractors, as well as $500 to replace a fence that will need to be torn down and $600 for landscaping.

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But the deal isn’t sitting well with Mielczarek, who worries costs could begin to spiral well past the amount she’s being offered.

“If I take that money, I’m taking responsibility. I have to make sure all additional expenses are covered,” Mielczarek says.

“So that means in other words, the city washes its hands and [are] headache-free.”

In an email statement, the city said it couldn’t comment on individual claims, but says when it accepts responsibility it obtains quotes from two or three approved contractors to come up with a fair settlement that covers the expenses associated with the damage.

“If a claimant is uncomfortable accepting a settlement, they would likely be best served by retaining legal counsel that would properly represent their interests so that any concerns with the settlement can be discussed between themselves and their legal representative,” the email reads in part.

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Maria Mielczarek and her husband collect their wastewater and typically dump it in the yard. After a sewer line into the house was damaged, most of the water ends up in their basement. Peter Lark / Submitted

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Councillor Eadie says he has sympathy for Mielczarek, since the house she’s been living in for three decades was likely built over a century ago, when building codes may have been different or non-existent.

“I’m not disagreeing with the owner of the property whose sewer line was damaged, maybe the city should actually directly send in a contractor they trust,” Eadie says.

“It has to be replaced though. You cannot just repair where the damage happened. That private sewer line is under a property that they don’t own. So that’s the problem.”

Meanwhile, the elderly couple continues to wash their dishes in a bucket, and visit relatives to bathe.

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Real estate law and what to watch for

Real estate lawyer Jeremy Feuer, with Jeremy Feuer Law Corporation, says he sees building code or zoning citations “on a daily basis.”

“The number one thing consumers can do to protect themselves is to buy something called title insurance,” Feuer says.

“Title insurance will protect you and indemnify you against any costs going forward in the event the city cites your property for either zoning issues in your yard or building issues in your house itself that you were unaware of as of the date you take possession of the property.”

Part of the benefit with title insurance, Feuer says, is that a homeowner is covered for indirect costs as well as direct costs.

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“I’ve had clients be covered for electrical building code issues, and it wasn’t just a matter of replacing the electrical,” Feuer says.

“When you replace electrical you’re often going down through the studs, there’s a matter of drywall, sometimes flooring and paint and so on; my client was completely protected for that.”

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However, options start to disappear once the home has already been cited. Feuer says contesting a building code or zoning violation is almost unheard of.

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If it happens, he recommends homeowners find the final report or package they would have received from the lawyer that handled the purchase, and check to see whether title insurance was purchased at the time they bought the home.

He also suggests working with a lawyer who specializes in real estate law.

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Daniel Moscinski says a potential homebuyer can save themselves a lot of headache by having a home inspection done before signing any papers. The owner of Peace Of Mind Home Inspections says that’s especially true with older homes.

“I’ve had quite a few people call me after the fact, purchasing a home, and it had issues,” Moscinski says.

“They’re not quite sure what’s going on; high hydro bills, cracks appearing, gaps in their walls that are opening up, quite significant stuff. If I would have done the home inspection before the purchase, I would have highly suggested that they walk away.”

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The main things a layperson should be keeping an eye on before going ahead with a sale, Moscinski says, are stone foundations, the condition of the roof, and visible damage to the exterior.

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Drainage can also lead to significant problems; Moscinski advises people to pay attention to low spots near the home, sloping walkways or driveways, and the general grading of the yard.

“Typically it’ll be cracks, or if you see moisture spots in the basement or stains on the walls — things like that are indicators that things are going on, allowing the water to come through the foundation,” Moscinski says.

For a greater sense of certainty, homebuyers should hire a home inspector or other specialist to look over the house, Moscinski says.

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