Toronto rooming houses: Public consultation #4

Anxious citizens voiced their concerns early and often at the final public consultatio—held at the Wellesley Community Centre—for the new rooming-house policies being considered by the city of Toronto.

Mohamed Shuriye (senior policy and research officer from the Municipal Licensing and Standards office).

Mohamed Shuriye (senior policy and research officer from the Municipal Licensing and Standards office), who has helmed the proceedings at all of the public consultations, had barely begun his presentation when he was peppered with questions about security issues within rooming houses.

The participants—made up almost entirely of tenants and advocates for affordable housing—specifically wanted to know why measures to improve rooming house safety wasn’t part of the consultation. In particular, they expressed concern with the Wellesley area rooming houses which one vocal participant characterized as being rife with problems.

When informed by Mr. Shuriye that security issues were outside of the scope of this public consultation session, many of the participants were visibly and audibly upset. The crowd was eager to discuss the topic and dismayed the proposed plan didn’t address those concerns. They repeatedly voiced the opinion that the rooming houses are not safe. A few participants alleged TCHC security has done nothing to protect tenants.

When it was suggested an ombudsman should be created for tenants, to address the problems being raised, Mr. Shuriye informed the crowd that while he heard and understood their concerns, there were also tenant individual rights to consider and the city needed to be cautious not to infringe on those rights.

Shuriye explained, “Rooming Houses are no different than any other living arrangement. The tenantsof affordable housing should not be subjected to a higher threshold of oversight. Because there are human rights implications with providing an ombudsman to deal with only rooming house complaints. Because the question then arises why do we not do this for condo dwellings, for student residences? So we have to be careful. Because there are behavioural issues that happen certainly in rooming houses, as they do in other forms of housing as well, and those issues could be addressed through Toronto police and through enforcement.”

When Mr. Shuriye eventually steered the meeting’s agenda forward to provide an overview of the public consultation’s stakeholder feedback and the proposed new licensing requirements the barrage of pointed questions did not relent.

This was especially true when the discussion turned to the specifics of the new licensing requirements.

Again and again, participants reiterated their beliefs that the proposed changes would not make a meaningful difference. That dealing withthe reality of rooming house conditions, and its effects on tenants, was not the focus of this initiative.

A.J. Withers, of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty said, “I don’t think these proposals will improve rooming house tenants living conditions. I think that some of the ideas raised (by participants) will. I think that, reading these requirements, they look like they were designed to appease people who are concerned about their property values and concerned about being able to gentrify their neighbourhoods and push rooming houses out rather than maintain them.”

Several examples, brought up repeatedly, of how the participants felt the licensing requirements were misguided included the current state of the complaint system, the lack of effective incentives for housing room operators and the effects of gentrification.

While participants weren’t necessarily opposed to expanding and strengthening licensing requirements, they argued many tenants of rooming houses are part of the most vulnerable segments of society and the fear of reprisals, or even loss of housing, from vindictive operators is very real. Without a complaint system that adequately protects tenants few would be willing to come forward.  Making any changes to licensing requirements irrelevant.

Withers explained, “The way it’s (property maintenance plan) complaint driven means home owners that live in the community will feel entitled to call in and complain. As has been expressed in this meeting by two different people. Tenants that live in the building will not. The most vulnerable tenants will not feel protected and in many instances they will not feel safe enough to complain.”

Also, while these requirements, along with enforcement and penalties for failure to meet them, was acknowledged as an important feature of maintaining reasonable living standards in rooming houses, participants were equally concerned that the city isn’t doing enough to provide operators with incentives to meet those requirements.

Penalties which result in rooming houses shutting down are as much a loss for tenants as the owner. They are left homeless and the affordable housing stock in the city is further depleted.  But incentives can be a win for both parties. Operators stay in business and tenants are afforded comfortable and equitable living conditions.

Teya Greenberg, of Sistering, which serves homeless, marginalized and low income women,   elaborated, “I don’t actually think this (pilot project) helps. Because I imagine that folks that are running some of the worst rooming houses will never come forward to get licensed. I think it’s really about how we create incentives for property owners that are operating quite poor affordable housing to improve the quality of the housing they are operating without de-housing people. And that’s a really tricky balance. And I don’t know if this proposal addresses that issue.”

Finally there is the spectre of gentrification. This might be the most inflammatory issue of all. Many expressed the angry opinion that the new licensing requirements, pointing specifically to the proposed maintenance and waste management plans, was actually catering to home owners. That these were attempts to placate fears of lowered property values with the presence of rooming houses; exacerbating the perception home owners take advantage of lowered housing prices in areas with established affordable housing. And once entrenched in the neighbourhood, advocate for the removal of the very people whose presence made it possible for them to purchase a home in the first place.

In the end, most advocates in attendance we’re unsure of the potential results, and consequences, of the pilot project and the proposed licensing enhancements.

Greenberg surmised, “Financially, it is tricky now to be running a rooming house profitably. They are a totally inadequate and totally necessary part of the affordable housing stock. They are both of those things. So we need to figure out how to keep them in line, support the landlords and support the tenants.”

Others see this as the start of a protracted struggle requiring a unified front by all stakeholders in the affordable housing community to effect positive change.

Wither’s stated, “I don’t see real protections for tenants. I think that there definitely could be protections for tenants, and I think a number of people gave a lot of important feedback that if taken seriously could make a difference. But time will tell. It’s definitely my experience that city council often times, especially this city council, is far more concerned about the concerns of home owners and developers than they are poor people. I’m not hopeful with the way it is now. But that said, the one thing poor people have is each other and OCAP and many other groups and many poor people have come together many times in this city to fight for better and have won. And we will continue to fight for better conditions for poor people in this city.”

— Jake Gagnon