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Rooming houses for a more affordable Toronto

September 17, 2015

Many years ago flames flared out of our family’s fireplace. In the two minutes it took to scoot my young children out the door and bring the fire under control, the smoke had spread throughout the house and filled my third-floor bedroom with ash.

The fire taught me that my home’s staircase functions as a chimney that can instantly spread danger to every part of the house.

What did I do about it? Nothing.

Private homes house Toronto’s most vulnerable people: babies, toddlers, the elderly. Yet, like other homeowners, our family has immense leeway over fire safety precautions. We, of course, care about our family’s safety. But we also care about natural lighting, an easy flow between rooms, and especially, a home we can afford. So instead of enclosing two flights of stairs with solid-core doors and ¾-inch drywall, we satisfied ourselves with smoke detectors on every floor.

Can we bring a similar approach to balancing priorities to the City of Toronto’s Rooming House Bylaws, now under review?

Acting in the City’s interest

According to the City’s Rooming House Review: Public Consultations, many Torontonians are seeking a more rigourous rooming house licensing regime, with more inspections, tougher penalties and greater opportunities for neighbours to complain. The implicit aim: to rid the City of bad rooming houses.

But what if the purpose of the City’s rooming house regulations were to advance the City’s affordable housing agenda? That agenda, backed up by the City’s Housing Stability strategy, the Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy and the Seniors’ Strategy, calls for more homes for vulnerable people, more affordable rental housing, and help for people to stay in their homes.

In other words, creating and preserving affordable housing is THE policy context for the City’s rooming house strategy.

What might a proactive rooming house bylaw look like?

1. It would explicitly recognize rooming houses as an essential part of Toronto’s affordable housing stock. It forms roughly 40% of Toronto’s supportive housing for people with mental health issues and roughly half the housing for homeless people. It’s where Streets to Homes finds places for people who can’t afford their own apartment. And it is the home of newcomers, students, minimum wage earners and seniors. We need rooming houses, and lots of them.

2. It would count the cost of City standards and processes. I know of one non-profit organization trying to convert a house into rooms for low-income singles. The cost of meeting Fire Code regulation is expected to be over $90,000. Another colleague housing formerly homeless singles said it would cost over $200,000 to bring their rooming house in line with the City’s Fire Code.

Is it any wonder that even the most motivated rooming house operators avoid licensing altogether?

I hope that City staff will use their very considerable expertise on building standards – plus the experience of inspectors in the field – to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of all existing and proposed rooming house standards. I can imagine studying a handful of cases, perhaps using the budgets of non-profit rooming house owners as a starting point. They might assume revenues of $376 per room – the Ontario Works shelter allowance for a singe person – and then identify the standards that would most increase tenant safety and well-being, and still allow a rooming house operator to recover costs within a reasonable time period. Call it a “harm-reduction approach to standards.”

And if the numbers don’t work, then it’s time for the City to look at financial incentives. Simply telling rooming house operators the rules or trying to enforce them, as some consultation respondents urged, is meaningless. If it doesn’t work financially, it doesn’t work.

3. It would make use of the “good neighbour” laws we already have. Many public consultation respondents described the impact of bad rooming houses on the surrounding community.

There is no question that a bad neighbour is a big problem. That’s why Toronto has standards for excessive noise, snow-shovelling, parking, garbage, yard maintenance, overcrowding, pet control – in fact, all the concerns mentioned in the public consultations — not to mention the Criminal Code that governs all illegal activity.

So why do the neighbours of rooming houses need a special complaints process? Rooming houses are not a “special class” of neighbour. Why not simply enforce the same laws and bylaws that govern us all?

Licensing if necessary, but not necessarily licensing

It is clear that the current rooming house licensing regime is not working. But before we rush to fix the system with more inspectors with more enforcement powers – the usual responses – should we not ask the question, “Why license at all?”

We don’t license other rental housing. We don’t license privately owned and occupied homes. Perhaps we should first ask, “What makes this housing distinctive? And are there better ways to respond to these distinctions?”

  • Is it that rooming house tenants are often vulnerable? Surely the solution is making their homes more secure with increased supports – not making tenants’ lives more precarious with the threat of shutting down their homes.
  • Is it that rooming house tenants are afraid to complain? Then focus energies on helping them exercise their rights at the Landlord Tenant Board – the body already designated to protect their interests.
  • Does the City simply need to know where rooming houses are? Then maybe what’s needed is a registry, not a license.

And if the best solution IS licensing, then how can we create a system that actively promotes housing stability and affordability?

Rooming houses ARE a residential use

Finally, of course, the strategy would permit rooming houses in every residential district in Toronto. Why? Because rooming houses are a residential use. Because the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner has already chastised the City for its current discriminatory restrictions. And because the public consultations show the greatest acceptance of rooming houses comes from the districts where rooming houses have been permitted for decades.

This part is a no-brainer. As for the rest, I am eagerly looking forward to seeing what the best brains at the City can devise.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. permalink
    September 17, 2015 11:18 am

    How very timely! And right on the mark as always! I just got back from the Licensing Office where I began the process of applying for a licence for a rooming house that has been providing supportive housing for 25 years.

    We were also visited by Toronto Fire yesterday inspecting to see if we meet the new standards for “Vulnerable Occupancies”. The price tag to date to meet the new Fire Code requirements has been $102,868, most of it provided by the City of Toronto housing budget. Another $118,000 will pay to install sprinklers; this will come from the charitable donations we receive.

    I wonder how much of this expense is really necessary.

    Thanks for your work!

    Paul Dowling Interim Executive Director House of Compassion

  2. September 19, 2015 12:58 pm

    The fear of rooming houses that has spread throughout the city has particularly seized the powers that be in North York and Scarborough to the point that neither district allows overnight parking for anyone. Ironically, this has led to poverty intensification in the two districts because families with more than two cars (i.e. those families with 3+ people with jobs and money) move to areas of the Toronto CMA where they can obtain permit parking.
    Of course, the restrictions are absurd once you realize that a detached house in the city will cost you a cool million. No one is going to set up a rooming house at these prices as it just isn’t financially viable.
    The registry idea is just plain common sense and once we know where all the rooming houses are, we can start to make rational policies that make sense for all of us. So many of the rooming house cures are so very much worse than the supposed disease. It’s all based on the idea that rooming house residents are children of a lesser God.
    For 12 years, I have delivered meals on wheels to halfway houses and rooming houses and I have found every tenant to be appreciative and quiet souls often with disabilities, all so afraid that their homes will be discovered by the NIMBY police. The reality is that they often go decades without being ‘discovered’ because they fit so well into their communities.
    Thanks, Joyce for this timely meditation.

  3. Phil Nazar permalink
    October 2, 2015 11:58 pm

    Thanks Joy for this thoughtful essay at the rooming house problem. I will take some tangents here, maybe not directly relating to this post. Just adding to the discussion.

    As some may know, the basis of the city’s consultative effort (another one – there have been many city-funded reports on rooming houses these years! (including the Golden Report and HOT, major documents both) and all support the expansion of rooming houses as part of the affordable housing spectrum) is the issue that rooming houses are “allowed” in the former city of Toronto and parts of Etobicoke and York and not legal in Scarborough, North York and East York. Many know that it is a crying shame that this kind of affordable housing is not permitted in much of the city. It is a human rights issue that the city of Toronto essentially discriminates against a segment of the population who needs this kind of housing.

    That is one part of the equation.

    Another is that the rules for licensing of rooming houses are in place because of tragedies that have happened over the years because of unscrupulous landlords taking advantage of vulnerable tenants – lack of care for their real responsibilities as landlords. As is often the case, rules and legislation are the results of tragedies and/or problems in our world.

    So, I support licensing and regular inspections – as I do for all rental accommodation. Tenants are often in a vulnerable situation and need some protection. There certainly are grounds for balancing the needs of tenants and the difficulty for rooming house landlords to make ends meet.

    There does need to be a reasonable accommodation to both sides.

    BUT, most importantly, allowing for licensed rooming houses across the city as-of-right is the least expensive way to increase the affordable housing stock in Toronto.

    It requires political will.

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