Safe, legal rooming houses must be allowed to proliferate: Parkdale

It was a small but passionate group—tenants, activists and professionals (both from non-profit agencies and various city departments) as well as Parkdale-High Park (Ward 14) councillor Gord Perks—on hand at the Parkdale Public Library on June 22 for an insightful debate at the third of four Downtown consultation meetings about the harmonization of city by-laws governing rooming houses.

The fourth and final Downtown meeting will take place on June 27 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Wellesley Community Centre, Room A, 495 Sherbourne St. Visit the city’s project page for more information.

Everybody was in agreement that more affordable housing is needed, especially in the face of the current housing crisis in Toronto and given the fact rooming house stock has been dwindling the past several years. Proliferation, not contraction, is required.

As Perks said, “Nobody in this room can understand why the rest of the city doesn’t allow rooming houses. And if part of the process of getting there is to review and maybe strengthen some of the licensing criteria that’s a step we’re going to have to take.”

But there were a variety of opinions about the proposed new licensing requirements for operators. With some advocating for the limitation—or even outright elimination—of licensing requirements, others questioned whether the enhanced measures would in fact provide any practical benefits to tenants.

Current issues with rooming houses

The meeting was led by Mohamed Shuriye (senior policy and research officer from the Municipal Licensing and Standards office) and started with an overview of stakeholder feedback.

Shuriye explains, “Stakeholders identified rooming houses as an essential and integral component of the affordable housing stock in Toronto. It provides shelter to low income Torontonians and more importantly, are located in areas of the city where there are services available to support the tenants of rooming houses, making it essential to protect the stock.”

However, there are serious challenges facing rooming houses. Many users are living in sub-standard conditions. The situation has been described as untenable by stakeholders who warned that immediate action is necessary.

In particular, attendees honed in on the premise that enforcement needs to be strengthened. Clearer and better guidelines must be provided and tougher penalties must be levied against operators who don’t meet standards.

The need to better manage and disseminate information to both tenants and operators was also stressed.

Tenants don’t have adequate information about their rights; they don’t know where, when  or how to make complaints or identify sub-standard living conditions being perpetrated by delinquent operators.

Operators aren’t aware of their rights and responsibilities. And often operators don’t know how to go about rectifying issues with their properties or with tenants (bad or good) due to the lack of support.

New licensing rules may be a cost to both owners, tenants

Once the status quo was definted, the agenda turned to the proposed additional requirements for granting and renewing a rooming house operator’s license. The new requirements mandate that operators provide property maintenance, waste management, parking and floor plans, in addition to written confirmation of the maximum number of tenants allowed in the rooming house.

One of the main priorities of the new licensing requirements, explained Shuriye, was that regulations governing rooming houses need to be harmonized. Municipal amalgamation in 1998 left several areas of the “new” city unregulated, at least as far as rooming houses are concerned. The implementation of the new licensing requirements would correct this omission by providing uniform regulation and administration of rooming houses across all of the city of Toronto.

During the course of the public consultations, Shuriye explained several key issues were identified that needed to be addressed by the new requirements.

  • The need for waste to be better managed by rooming house operators. Too often, rooming houses have too much garbage in and around buildings which negatively affect both tenants and surrounding property owners. More timely and efficient waste removal is essential but it may require operators to pay out-of-pocket for extra waste removal to ensure reasonable living standards.
  • The need to better maintain common areas, such as kitchens and bathrooms, in order to provide safe, sanitary living conditions.
  • Lastly, the need for detailed parking plans. Frequently, too many vehicles were being allowed to park on the property of a rooming house which results in vehicles being illegally parked on lawns and other areas which are prohibited by city by-laws.

Shuriye ceded the floor and became the moderator of an open discussion. Of the various concerns were raised, one theme kept coming to the fore: the stigma of rooming houses.

Ending the stigma

Even the term “rooming house” itself has become contentious. Some believe the term is now inseparable from the negative stereotypes associated with it and that a new descriptor is necessary—hence the emergence of the term multi-tenant housing. However, several participants visibly bristled when this new term was used.

All agreed that more must be done by the city to battle the stigma of rooming houses and, more importantly, being a tenant of a rooming house.

As Perks put it, “People who live around rooming houses don’t think it’s a big deal. People that don’t live around them don’t want it.”

Representatives of tenant associations echoed this sentiment and urged that tenants need a louder, stronger voice to be heard so that they are not branded by the fear and ignorance permeating the larger, city wide discussion.

However, licensing itself remained a problematic issue.

Some, like Kelly Skeete, vice-chair of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, see the new requirements as being anything but and wonders if resources could be better allocated.

“They’re reintroducing a licensing program that is already failing,” Skeete worried. “The most logical way forward, in my opinion, is for the city to team up with a non-profit organization, where the non-profit is handling more of the burden of managing these properties. The city is not in the business of real estate, and nor should they be.”

Affordable housing as a Charter right

Others believe more private sector involvement is necessary, and that licensing is an infringement on the rights of the very people rooming houses are supposed to be helping.

Gus Sandusky, an affordable housing advocate, believes zoning, building and fire code regulations, along with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, already protects tenants sufficiently. Licensing, by its very nature, limits where prospective tenants can live. He believes everyone should be treated the same. That licensing is unnecessary.

Sandusky explained, “Housing as a right is what we need. Licensing is insulting to the people living in rooming houses. People should be able to live wherever they want. They should be respected. What we need is to encourage the private sector to come in and help solve the problem as well. We might need to assist them with the way they manage. But we can’t depend on the public sector like non-profit housing and so on to meet the entire need of housing rooms. It’s a huge need.”

Everyone agreed that the need for safe affordable housing must be met. Perks is eager to do so in council chambers. He said, “The city of Toronto is struggling with the fact that when we amalgamated some parts allowed rooming houses and some didn’t. We’ve never really stitched those two sets of rules together. I think there is good body of human rights cases that says you can’t exclude people from your neighborhood just because they are renting a room in a house. So, there’s pressure on the city to solve this once and for all. The staff has brought a proposal and we’ll see what happens when the politicians get their hands on it in the fall.”

Perks concluded, “The city of Toronto is struggling with the fact that when we amalgamated some parts allowed rooming houses and some didn’t. We’ve never really stitched those two sets of rules together. I think there is good body of human rights cases that says you can’t exclude people from your neighborhood just because they are renting a room in a house. So, there’s pressure on the city to solve this once and for all. The staff has brought a proposal and we’ll see what happens when the politicians get their hands on it in the fall.”

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