Toronto Council should approve rooming house proposal

This piece can also be found on the website.

Toronto city council is about to consider a proposal to create new rules for rooming houses which will make them legal across the city, subject to a licensing system that will set safety standards and annual inspections. It is the culmination of decades of work. It has also generated fierce and often ugly opposition.

Thousands of Torontonians, nobody really knows how many, live in unsafe illegal rooming houses. While there is a large demand for inexpensive rooms in houses, it is illegal to rent out such rooms in many parts of the city, such as Scarborough, North York and much of Etobicoke. Some house owners in these areas convert them to rooming houses anyway and often tell tenants not to let city inspectors in and not complain about substandard conditions or they will be evicted.

The consequences are awful. Because inspectors cannot check the plumbing, electrical or fire safety systems, they are often terrible and unsafe places to live. In the last 10 years, 14 people have died in fires in illegal rooming houses.

In our system of laws, city inspectors cannot simply knock on your door and demand entry. This is for good reasons. However, governments can put inspection conditions on properly registered or licensed rental properties.

The problem is making rooming houses illegal when there is a demand for them (and there certainly is a demand in Toronto); they will still be created, but they will be underground and unsafe.

There have been rooming houses as long as there have been houses. There has always been opposition too. Although few will say so, rooming houses are opposed because they bring “undesirable” people into a given neighbourhood. These are people with very low incomes: students, newcomers, or people on disability or social support. There is no justifiable legal or moral argument to say that people with low incomes cannot live in a given neighbourhood.

What people will say is the unscrupulous landlords who built the illegal rooming houses will never do the work to make them safe and legal. This is demonstrably untrue. When I was first elected, there were 30 odd illegal rooming houses in Parkdale. The city had established incentives for landlords to become legal: a mix of carrots and sticks. In two years, all but one of them got licensed. The city helped the tenants in that case get new units nearby at the same rent. It wasn’t easy. Some neighbours opposed legalizing them. Interestingly, years later, many of those same people have become friends and advocates for the tenants. They show up at hearings on licence renewals and advocated for better conditions for the tenants.

The status quo is intolerable. We have a dire shortage of safe affordable housing. People live in fear, in squalid conditions which all too often result in the loss of life. There is a path that creates safe legal affordable housing and stronger neighbourhoods. Council has a duty to approve the plan to legalize rooming houses everywhere in the city.