Patchwork rooming house rules need overhaul, say critics
A member of the Scarborough Tenant Support Group, he’s one of many advocates who say the dwellings need to be legalized in order to protect low-income tenants from substandard living conditions.
“There are so many people like me who are in rooming houses, and their rights need to be protected,” he said in an interview, speaking through an interpreter.
The city’s regulations about rooming houses are complicated. There isn’t even a standard description of what one is, although a working definition is an accommodation in which more than four unrelated people live in separate units while sharing amenities like bathrooms and kitchens.
Bylaws vary between one part of town and another because the regulations of the pre-amalgamation municipalities were never harmonized. In the old city of Toronto and Etobicoke, rooming houses are legal if the landlord obtains a licence, while in York they can be operated without a licence, and in North York, East York and Scarborough they’re illegal.
There’s evidence this patchwork approach isn’t working. As of last summer, Toronto had 214 legal rooming houses, far fewer than the illegal 685 that Municipal Licensing and Standards has discovered since 2010. A recent city staff report warned that many of the illegal houses were “not suited for human occupancy.”
Once considered a downtown phenomenon, illegal rooming houses are now common in the inner suburbs and areas near post-secondary institutions, where demand for cheap housing is high.
On Thursday, the city launched public consultations as part of a review aimed at overhauling the piecemeal bylaws. City staff will present the results to Mayor John Tory (open John Tory’s policard)’s executive committee in June.
Sethu and others hope staff will recommend making the housing type legal across the city. Where rooming houses are legal, they’re subject to yearly inspections. Making them illegal in other parts of Toronto hasn’t kept them from operating, the argument goes, but they don’t face inspections, and tenants who live in them are reluctant to complain to the authorities about negligent landlords.
“Even to find out what my basic rights are, I’m afraid that government will come and shut down,” says Sethu, who currently pays $350 for an illegal room near Eglinton and Brimley.
Ken Hale, director of legal services for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants – Ontario, argues that if rooming house are legalized and regulated throughout Toronto, “the quality of the housing will go up, and some of the bad operators will be driven out.”
Hale says that in a city with a shortage of affordable apartments, rooming houses are “a form of housing that is urgently needed” by students, new immigrants and low-income seniors.
But attempts to liberalize rooming house rules are likely to face opposition. Jim Karygianniscouncillor for Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt, says he receives “massive complaints” from residents, who say the crowded dwellings cause parking problems, aren’t well-kept, and bring down property values.
Instead of legalization, Karygiannis would prefer to see a crackdown on illegal operators.
“The majority of the people that have rooming houses are landlords that are not taking care of their property,” he says. “I just need to make sure that these people are addressed.”