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The common sense case for rental rooms

April 30, 2021

This April the City of Toronto launched its consultations on the future of Multi-Tenant (Rooming) Houses. It’s the third time in the past decade the City has attempted to create a regulatory framework that acknowledges the thousands of newcomers, students, seniors and other low-income people who rent rooms in Scarborough, North York, East York, Etobicoke and York. 

Why has it been such a struggle? 

The truth is Toronto needs affordable rooms. A vacant Scarborough bachelor apartment rents for $1,415 per month. In North York, it’s $1,345. In Etobicoke, it’s $1,557. These rents shut out minimum wage earners, or the 1/3 of Toronto renters who depend on a disability pensions or social assistance. 

In contrast, rooms in these areas typically rent from $450 – $700, making them the only affordable housing provided by the private sector. They are often also the most convenient. They allow students to live within walking distance of classrooms, libraries, sports facilities and friends. They enable Scarborough’s essential workers to live near their work rather than criss-crossing the city every day, and they can enable newcomers to rent from people who speak their own language. 

I sometimes hear complaints that Multi-Tenant Houses are unkempt or noisy. I also hear of tenants who live in crowded, unsafe or squalid houses, managed by landlords who do not treat them fairly. But I see these as arguments in favour of taking Multi-Tenant Houses out of the closet, not stuffing them back in. Our aim should not be to do away with the last affordable housing in Toronto, but to make it better. 

What does “better” look like?  I was very moved recently by a short video posted by a London landlord whose six lodging houses are home to 85 men, many of them coming straight from a homeless shelter or the street. I urge you to watch it too. This landlord discovered that many of the men he housed had never been respected by their landlord. When he offered that respect in word and action, men who had once struggled to maintain their homes became stable, successful tenants. The houses are well-maintained, tenants get along with each other, and rents are paid in full. Now he is ready to retire but fears his houses will be redeveloped if he lists them on the private market. So he is looking for a buyer to take over his successful business and preserve these homes. 

How can WE preserve the last intrinsically affordable housing in Toronto?

We can start by recognizing Multi-Tenant Houses are residential uses and belong in every district zoned for residential use. That is the recommendation of Toronto’s City Planning Division, and it makes perfect sense. A house is a house, whether the people who live in it are owners or tenants, or are related or not. 

Legalization is the gateway to ensuring these houses are good homes and good neighbours. Until Mult-Tenant Houses are made legal, owners cannot obtain Building Permits to upgrade their houses. Tenants cannot open their front door to an inspector, or make a complaint, for fear they and other tenants in the house will lose their home. And the inner suburbs will continue to be short-changed because census counts – the basis for public investments such as hospitals – will continue to skip the thousands of tenants living in Multi-Tenant Houses. 

We can treat operators the way we treat other landlords. That means they must abide by the City’s property standards and other regulations, be subject to City inspections, and respect tenants’ rights under the Residential Tenancies Act.  As with other rental properties, the focus should be on improving the homes, not shutting them down. 

We can invest in these homes. Most Multi-Tenant Houses were built as family homes. The Ontario’s Building Code, on the other hand, envisions Multi-Tenant Houses as quasi-apartment buildings, where every bedroom, every hallway and every stairway requires a fire-separation. 

To learn more about the costs of converting a family home to a Code-compliant Multi-Tenant House, I talked to three non-profit rooming house operators who had brought their downtown houses to Code. I also received estimates for the cost of converting a four-bedroom Scarborough bungalow with a full basement, and a three-storey house near UTSC. Here are the costs:

 ProjectTotal CostNo. of TenantsAverage Cost/Tenant
Downtown five-bedroom187,591537,518
Scarborough four-bedroom bungalow74,46789,308
Scarborough nine-bedroom127,577914,175
Downtown 21-bedroom 249,6652111,889
Downtown 11-bedroom 259,9001123,627

Will owners pay these costs? Most good landlords are making only modest profits and won’t have the savings needed to make these upgrades. So newcomers who rent out their basement to pay their mortgage might decide to evict their four single tenants and rent to a family instead. Others, especially those owning three-storey houses, might be more likely to take advantage of Toronto’s hot market and sell altogether. 

And then what?  

In 2014 researcher Lisa Freeman estimated that 5,000 – 10,000 tenants lived in inner-suburban Multi-Tenant Houses, and I suspect the numbers have grown. Where would 5,000 – 10,000 low-income tenants go? Even in the midst of pandemic-high vacancy rates, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s 2020 Market Rental Survey reported only 49 vacant bachelor apartments in all of Scarborough, 55 in North York and 38 in Etobicoke. 

And what will be the costs to the public when universities lose tuition fees, businesses can no longer fill low-wage jobs, homeless shelters bulge and encampments grow, simply because there is nowhere to live? 

The best and cheapest way to forestall a crisis it to equip landlords to complete the upgrades. In the past the City has offered loans of up to $24,000 per room, with repayment forgiven if landlords kept rents affordable. This solution will come at a public cost. But it is much less costly than the up to $300,000 required to create new micro-units or the ongoing cost of shelter allowances of up to $600/month to help low-income tenants afford private sector rents.

Time for common sense solutions

In their report to Council, City staff list ten occasions since 2008 – 20 years after Toronto’s 1988 almagamation – when City Council or its committees discussed legalizing or regulating Multi-Tenant (Rooming) Houses. Yet we are no closer to the unified regulatory framework Toronto  needs. 

It’s time to recognize reality. Toronto needs affordable rooms, and many of these rooms are in the inner suburbs.  The debate is not about whether, but how, to make these rooms legal, affordable and safe. 

To participate in the City’s consultation you can:

4 Comments leave one →
  1. mrwensleydale permalink
    April 30, 2021 3:48 pm

    Very good blog.

    Well done indeed.


  2. ryaron permalink
    April 30, 2021 4:16 pm

    Thank you for doing this, Joy. The video was compelling…..though I wasn’t sure what the name was on Vimeo… I’ll pass on your email. I did the questionnaire and registered for a meeting.Very best, Ronny

    “I would not claim to pass on any secret of life, for there is none, nor any wisdom, except the passionate plea for caring.”           —  Margaret Lawrence

  3. Colette permalink
    May 2, 2021 11:39 am

    I wonder how to reconcile the experience of supportive housing providers like Houselink in attracting people from the waitlist to accept a room in shared housing. Their shared housing has the highest vacancy rates of their portfolio, even though they are one of the good landlords. But I agree with the idea, the concept, the theory, that rooming houses are a good option for some people. What do you think explains it?

    • Joy Connelly permalink*
      May 2, 2021 3:20 pm

      Great comment, Colette. I have a couple of thoughts, and I’d be interested in your further thinking too. First, I think the chief attraction of shared housing is that rents are $700 – $1000 per month cheaper than self-contained apartments. But that wouldn’t be the case for anyone paying rent geared to their income, as they do in Houselink. So unless they are desperate, people on the waiting list may wish to wait a bit longer for the home of their choice for the same rent.

      Second, I think shared housing works best when there is a bond of association among the residents. (In my case I lived two years in a rooming house with other students, and then in a house shared with friends of my own choosing.) Newcomers speaking the same language may also benefit from living together. I understand that Houselink’s houses were created in the hope of a similar bond among people with mental health issues, but I can also imagine the challenges of dealing with one’s own issues while your housemates have issues of their own.

      BUT I agree with you. Most people given the choice prefer to have their own kitchen and bathroom. I think that should be the standard for new supportive housing, and I’m all for renovations that replace rooms with micro-units. The challenge, as always, is keeping the rents affordable. Until we address that problem, we can’t risk losing the rooms we have.

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