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Rooming House By-laws for the 21st Century

May 10, 2016

I don’t often recommend the Globe and Mail comments section as a source of policy guidance. But I hope everyone who cares about rooming houses in Toronto spotted the most “liked” comment following John Lorinc’s recent article on “Dangerous – but affordable – fire-trap apartments.”

The commenter recounted her 21 year-old daughter’s move to a house in Parkdale. It was a decent place with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, but the only way out was down the front staircase. She bought a roll-up ladder from Canadian Tire to fit over her daughter’s windowsill, who practiced until she felt secure using it.

Of course, I’m not suggesting Canadian Tire is the solution to Toronto’s rooming house issues. But wouldn’t it be refreshing to see this mom’s practical “let’s make this work” spirit in Toronto’s Rooming House Review, expected at this June’s Executive Committee Meeting?

My own fear is that the discourse at this meeting will be rooted in obsolete notions of rooming houses as a “downtown thing,” or a fringe housing alternative. What we really need are policies that catch up with today’s reality.

Here’s what we know.

  1. Most of Toronto’s singles cannot afford to rent their own apartment.
    The average rent for a bachelor apartment across Greater Toronto is $937/month.[1] That’s 49% of the $1,908/month [2] median income for a single person in Toronto. Incomes are lowest among the young, the old, and newcomers. To say, “Rooming houses have no place in my neighbourhood” is to say “Our children – or seniors, or newcomers to Canada — don’t belong here.”
  2. Rooming houses can be found in all parts of Toronto, whether they are legal or not. Rooming houses are prohibited in Scarborough, North York and East York – a holdover from pre-amalgamation by-laws. But there was no lack of Scarborough and North York rooming house tenants to participate in a 2014 rooming house study, who in turn knew many others.[3] Wherever single people need an affordable home, rooming houses will spring up – legal or not.
  3. Homelessness is a bigger risk than fire. According to the Ontario Fire Marshall, five people died in Toronto rooming house fires between 2009 and 2014.[4] During the same period, 186 homeless Torontonians died.[5] Fire safety is important, but it can’t come at the cost of lost affordable housing.
  4. Current building and fire standards can put good landlords out of business.
    A small survey found the costs of bringing four non-profit rooming houses to the City’s current fire and building standards ranged from $91,000 to convert a family home to a rooming house for five women, to $221,000 to upgrade a 21-room house that had been operating for 25 years without incident.[6] 

    If even committed (and subsidized!) landlords are struggling to meet the standards, what chance does a small private landlord have?

Policies for 21st Century Shared Houses

What could a “let’s make this thing work” policy look like? Here are some ideas I’d love to see reflected in the staff’s recommendations to City Council.

  1. Drop the term “rooming houses.” It conjures up obsolete images – so much so that many people who live in rooming houses, as defined by the City, don’t even know it. We are talking about shared housing.
  2. Shared houses in every ward. Single people belong everywhere – whatever their incomes. A 21st Century zoning by-law must permit shared houses in every part of Toronto.
  3. Don’t duplicate the “good neighbour” laws we already have. Toronto already regulates excessive noise, over-crowding, parking, garbage, snow-shovelling, yard maintenance, pet control – all the concerns neighbours might raise.Shared houses are not a special class of neighbour. So there is no need for a complaints process just for them. Let’s simply enforce the laws and bylaws that govern us all.
  1. A “harm reduction approach” to fire and building standards. Right now there is a marked gap between the fire safety standards required in an ordinary family home – smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and not much else – and those in a rooming house. But the rooming houses that I lived in as a student were not much different from the house I live in now.

    Let’s find a regulatory framework that balances safety with affordability, just like the rules that govern single family homes do.

  1. Empower tenants to blow the whistle on bad landlords. Toronto’s current rooming house by-laws gives the City the power to refuse or revoke a license, forcing the rooming house to close. What tenant will dare complain, knowing they risk losing their home altogether?

    I wonder whether a licensing regime is really the best way to protect tenants. For many tenants, the big issues may not be fire safety or the building code. They are more concerned about fair rents, privacy, harassment, upkeep, and security of tenure. These issues are the purview of the Landlord and Tenant Board, not the City.

    Perhaps the City should be thinking about creating a registry — not a license – to monitor shared houses, so that tenants can complain without fear. And perhaps we need to fund and equip legal clinics, housing help centres and other agencies to address the specific needs of rooming house tenants at the Landlord and Tenant Board.

  1. Help the community help itself. I have been inspired by Winnipeg’s “Rooming Houses to Rooming Homes” initiatives that target both the structural integrity of the houses and the well-being of tenants. In one pilot, tenants were engaged in small-scale fix-ups of their own homes, with provincial funds helping with larger upgrades and energy efficiency projects.

    I’m intrigued by the Sightline Institute’s pushback against rules that “criminalize history’s answers to affordable dwellings: the boarding or rooming house, the roommate, the in-law apartment and the backyard cottage” – where “cities have banned what used to be the bottom end of the private housing market.”

    And I am hungry for non-bureaucratic solutions that enable neighbours to sort out their own conflicts.

An essential part of Toronto’s affordable housing stock

Toronto needs shared houses, and lots of them. As we await the City staff’s report on the rooming house review, let our chief question not be “How do we get rid of bad rooming houses?” but “How do we create more good ones?”

[i] CMHC, Rental Market Survey, Toronto, Average Rent by Bedroom Type, October 2015.

[ii] Statistics Canada, Median total income, by family type, by census metropolitan area (Persons not in census families), 2013.

[iii] Dr. Lisa Freeman, Toronto’s Suburban Rooming Houses: Just a Spin on a Downtown “Problem?”, October, 2014.

[iv] Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management, email, November 18, 2015.

[v] Holy Trinity Church, Toronto Homeless Memorial Official List, January 2016. 

[vi] Joy Connelly, The impact of rooming house licensing, unpublished, November 7, 2015.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2016 8:13 pm

    Well said!

  2. Lynn permalink
    May 11, 2016 1:26 am

    You nailed it. Thanks, Joy.

  3. jannie Mills permalink
    May 12, 2016 1:22 pm

    I really like the idea of ‘shared housing’ as the description of choice. very informative and helpful as always, Joy

  4. mrwensleydale permalink
    May 12, 2016 9:11 pm

    Reading Joy’s blog entry reminded me of a recent article by Matt Elliott about the debate on licensing Uber. (http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/torys-toronto-matt-elliott/2016/05/09/toronto-taxi-debate-points-to-issues-far-bigger-than-uber.html.)
    In the article he says, “it shouldn’t take controversy over a narrow set of industry reforms to get people to pay attention to the socioeconomic realities facing Toronto. These problems are way bigger than Uber.” Substitute “rooming houses” for “Uber” and you’ve nailed it.

    The rooming house discussion at Exec., I fear, is in danger of becoming a parade of councillors all calling for a number of NIMBY measures, but not facing up to what they are saying. Instead, they’ll talk about “neighbourhood empowerment,” or “listening to the voters.” What they’ll be ignoring is the crushing reality of housing unaffordability in this city.

  5. Art Eggleton permalink
    May 23, 2016 5:47 pm

    Good thoughts on rooming houses, I mean, shared accommodation, Joy.

    Art Eggleton

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