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Rooming houses made respectable

April 28, 2015

How do you help newcomers afford their first mortgage, seniors stay in their homes longer, or students find a home close to campus? You rent out rooms.

Rooming houses are Toronto’s affordable housing secret. According to the City’s official figures, there were only 214 licensed rooming houses operating in the former municipalities of Toronto, Etobicoke and York – the only areas where they are permitted. Yet I could point out at least half a dozen rooming houses on my street — not one of them on the City’s list of licensed rooming houses — and recent research suggests hundreds can be found throughout the inner suburbs.

It’s not hard to see why. According to Statistics Canada, the median income for a single person in Toronto is $22,900/year, or $1908/month. The average rent for a bachelor apartment in Toronto is $857 or 45% of the median income. For a one bedroom, it’s $1,050 or 55% of the median income.

In other words, the only option for the majority of single people is shared housing. For 45% of Torontonians aged 20 – 29, shared housing means living with parents. For other low-income singles, it means splitting the rent in one- and two- bedroom apartments. But for a growing number of Torontonians, rooming houses are the only option.

Back to the future

We need a regulatory regime that acknowledges that Toronto today is much like Toronto before the 1950s, when the rooming house, the bed-sit and the boarding home were considered entirely respectable housing alternatives. I’m not exactly sure what that regime should look like. But I’m hoping that as the City reviews its rooming house by-laws it asks a few questions like these:

Should we regulate rooming houses through the zoning by-law?

Or course the obsolete zoning by-laws that prohibit rooming houses in East York, Scarborough and North York should be abolished. But I actually wonder why rooming houses need to be regulated through zoning by-laws at all. It seems to me a house is a house, however it is divided up, and belongs in neighbourhoods with other houses.

Some supporters of the current restrictions imply that rooming house tenants are n’er-do-wells that have no place in a middle-class neighbourhood. This argument is a simple case of discrimination — a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code that prohibits discrimination on the basis of source of income, disability (including mental illness) and 13 other grounds, and the City’s own Housing Charter that states everyone can live in the neighbourhood of their choice.

It also misrepresents 21st century rooming houses.  In her 2014 study of Toronto’s suburban rooming houses, Dr. Lisa Freeman found most rooming house residents were seniors, newcomers, students and ordinary low income people — the “have-done-wells” and “will-do-wells” who simply can’t afford their own place.

As for the notion that rooming houses place an undue burden on municipal services, I observe just the opposite. Increased density of all kinds makes effective use of existing services – all the “smart growth” benefits promised by the Official Plan’s Avenues policy but without the condos.

And parking? The driveway of the rooming house across the street is always empty, while some neighbouring family homes have three vehicles apiece. We don’t zone out families with multiple vehicles, so why zone out rooming houses? In any case, chances are that people who can’t afford their own place can’t afford their own car either.

How can we target protections to those who really need it?

Toronto’s current rooming house definition covers the four house-sharing students who neither want nor need the City’s protection, but explicitly excludes the roach-filled welfare hotel.

Enforcing the current by-law would make it impossible for my nice neighbour to rent rooms in her large house to international students, but could bring safety to the newcomer wedged into an unventilated firetrap.

I don’t have the answer to this one. But I do wonder whether a more effective complaints-based enforcement of the existing building code, fire code, and health and property standards, could go a long way to protecting vulnerable people, whether they live in rooming houses or not.

How can we shift power from neighbours to tenants?

Under Toronto’s current rooming house by-laws, the City’s Licensing Commissioner’s only real power is to refuse or revoke a license, forcing the rooming house to close. What tenant will dare complain, knowing that he risks losing his home altogether?

Unlike rooming house tenants and owners, the neighbours have nothing to lose by complaining.Licensing hearings are public, and take into account the comments of anyone living “in the vicinity.” The by-law further politicizes the process by making the local councillor an integral part of the licensing and renewal process.

Might tenants be better off complaining through the Landlord and Tenant Board? Or simply inviting property, health and fire inspectors to visit?

How can we promote good rooming houses?

Today’s by-laws require the virtuous rooming house owner to jump through hoops to get a license, and then pay at least $50 an hour for a City inspector to check whether they comply with standards they can’t afford to meet. No wonder so few owners apply.

I’m excited by initiatives that focus on “carrots’ rather than “sticks.” For example, Winnipeg’s Neighbourhood Renewal Corporations use provincial and municipal grants to fix up rooming house exteriors, with a Rooming Housing Outreach Program that has tenants working with landlords to make minor repairs. I’m equally excited by Toronto’s own efforts to fund rooming house landlords to bring their homes up to standard.

What would you do?

This month the City of Toronto is holding public consultations on rooming houses. There is an online survey open until May 10th, with opportunities to write or email comments as well. And of course, this blog’s comments section is always open!  

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Antoinette Schokman-De Zilva permalink
    April 28, 2015 8:56 pm

    I know you’ve said median, but note that the maximum a single senior is allowed from CPP and government funding (e.g. OAS), including a top-up is only C$1,200/= a month!

  2. April 28, 2015 11:01 pm

    Couple of things! First of all, great post! As someone who lives in a rooming house, I might be able to add some flavour to the argument. There are a couple of things why I like these housing solutions so much. However, I do have to say that this only holds true for a certain demographic (college/university grad between the age of 20-29). Let’s start with the first. You are never alone.

    The amount of single households under young people in Canada has grown tremendously in the last couple of decades. Our focus has shifted from families to careers, and besides the economic argument their is also a community argument (spoiler alert: this does depend on your room-mates). I thoroughly enjoy having Sunday breakfast with the entire house or a random makeshift dinner.

    The concept of family is changing, but the need for human interaction most likely isn’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if I am not the only one who enjoys being surrounded by other people instead of sitting alone in my 1 bedroom condo/basement all by my lonesome.

    The other argument is indeed of course money. Our labour market has radically changed. Job’s are less secure and often times located in the city core. Instead of constantly moving from $1000 a month one bedroom apartment to $650 basement, having a rooming housing solution is perfect. While you are on the job, you can save and when you are in between contracts you don’t have to move. Furthermore, it allows me to live in a place that I otherwise could not afford. Heck, I can even save up to go on a holiday or perhaps buy a house one day.

    Lastly, and maybe not so optimistically, it is a great financial opportunity for landlords. Less square feet per tenant means more profit for the landlord. I happen to live in a two bedroom apartment + den. If the landlord were to let one family live here, He would maybe be able to collect $1500 a month. Now, all of a sudden, there are three people living in it. $650 per person is for Toronto standards a pretty low rent, but it does give the landlord a good $450 extra p/m.

    Regulation would be great in this case, in order to prevent the incident that happened last year in Kensington and create protection and security for those who are vulnerable as well as share the city’s core with those who need to live there but cannot afford it. I would like to stress though that this is a rather ideal picture of rooming houses, and that I don’t consider this to be a viable alternative for more affordable rental housing in the city core. That would be a very dangerous slippery slope. Sorry for the long post. Just wanted to share my two cents.

  3. April 29, 2015 7:12 am

    In 1971, I moved to Toronto to attend Ontario College of Art and Design University as it is called now, with a friend from North Bay, Ontario. I found a room in an actic with a pot bellied stove in a rooming house in Parkdale. We lived here for approximately two months; as we could not have guests to visit, we found a furnished bachelar apartment on Dunn Avenue with a fold down couch where 3 girls had to live..

    We basicly got kicked out of the two places because of rules and not enough room period.
    We found a house on Markham Street that another friend was giving up and we moved into another rooming house. We called it a commune at the time. Friends came and went and we lasted 1 year there. Those were the best years of my life as the rents were reasonable and this was all before affordable housing like City Home and the Co-Ops that sprang up in the late 70’s.

    Rooming houses have been around since the beginning of time. They should be regulated
    for fire hazards, and health conditions. The Kensington market has always had rooming houses and the conditions were terrible and unregulated for years.

    I could go on and on about Social Housing as I have been involved since they started almost 40 years ago. I have lived in Social Housing since 1982 with Cityhome now TCHC.
    Nothing but trouble with fires like 200 Wellesley Street, the conditions with old buildings that need repairs: and the rents are unbelieveable, if you are lucky enough to get or be subsidized or under rent-control due to income or lack of income. Toronto will never change in my opinion. Housing and affordable housing will always be a big issue.

    A person’s home is where he or she can hang their hats and feel comfortable, a shelter from the storm as Dylan’s song goes.

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