Kensington Responds to City's Rooming House Consultation
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Kensington Responds to City’s Rooming House Consultation

With a multi-neighbourhood consultation, the City hopes to develop an improved policy for often contentious rooming house issues.

Facilitator Tekla Hendrickson debriefs a consultation session with local residents at Lillian H. Smith library. Photo by Joyita Sengupta.

Residents of the Kensington Market, Grange, and Harbord Village neighbourhoods shared their views about local rooming houses Monday night in the second of 14 neighbourhood consultation sessions the City has planned on the contentious issue between April 7 and May 7.

The results will go a long way to to defining rooming house policy across the City, an issue that can evoke very different reactions depending on which neighbourhood one is in.

“No one at our table is against rooming houses. We just want them to be safe and respectable for people,” Su Alexanian says during a mid-discussion check-in at Lillian H. Smith library.

Alexanian is the chair of the Kensington Market Action Committee, a volunteer-based neighbourhood group, and she explains how the views at the table reflect the local neighbourhood.

“Kensington prides itself on having housing stock that is super high-end, like the fancy lofts we have, and super low end, and it’s part of what adds to the delightful character of our neighbourhood,” says Alexanian.

Many indicated that this consultation is long overdue.

“We have been complaining about rooming houses in the Grange neighbourhood for a decade,” says Nick Schefter, a member of the Grange Community Association. “There are blatantly illegal houses, front yards paced over, filled garbage cans reflecting the populations of the houses…Anybody who works for the City of Toronto, that understands this problem, is turning a blind eye to our neighbourhood.”

Rooming houses are defined by the City as “living accommodations where four or more unrelated people live together, in individual rooms, but share a kitchen and/or washroom facilities.”

While rooming houses can provide affordable housing, particularly for students and new immigrants, they also provide little recourse for the often-vulnerable tenants who occupy them to complain about housing conditions. Those conditions can be very poor, and sometimes pose safety risks.

A row of representatives from the City and fire department sat quietly in the back and observed the session. One of them was Joanna Duarte Laudon, the senior policy and research officer overlooking the initiative. She explained that these meetings were just the first of three phases in this initiative.

“We’re going to report on what we heard to the executive committee,” explained Laudon to the group of about 25 in attendance.

“Then we’re going to come back to the community with options of different types of solutions. Gather feedback from the community again, present them to the executive committee again, get policy recommendations, bring those recommendations to the community, and then present them in a report to council by December 2015.”

While rooming houses have provided an affordable housing option in an area with rapidly increasing rents and property values, the result for some illegal rooming houses has been grim.

Alexanian bemoans the lack of progress on the issue, and refers to a number of rooming house fires—the latest happened in Kensington Market in March—that killed two residents and injured 10 others.

While much of the discussion at this session focused on issues with rooming houses specific to the communities surrounding the Lillian H. Smith library, there was also an overview of rooming house statistics from all across the city.

“How bloody ridiculous!” says Alexanian, when Hendrickson told the group that legal rooming house licences are unavailable in Scarborough, North York, and East York due to the lack of a harmonized City bylaw, leaving them all unregulated. The old City of Toronto and Etobicoke require licensing, while York offers licensing but does not require it.

During her presentation, the facilitator told the group that the only way the City can keeps a record of where illegal rooming houses are located, especially in Scarborough and North York, are through complaints filed to the City.

Parkdale Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) tells Torontoist that his ward was able to convert most of their unlicensed rooming houses into licensed rooming houses. He says licensing rooming houses and the regulation that goes into renewing those licences is what makes the difference.

“There are two worlds. There’s the world of licensed rooming houses, and 99 per cent of them don’t even generate complaints, and I have all kinds of members of the community that are surprised to know there’s a rooming house on their street,” Perks says.

“Then there’s the world of the unregulated, unlicensed rooming house and that’s the world of North York and Scarborough, and parts of Etobicoke as well, where the real problems are because the tenants have no rights and there’s no licensing renewal process that gives neighbours any rights either.”

Councillor Jim Karygiannis (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt) says his constituents feel differently.

“I don’t think my constituents want licensed rooming houses, I just don’t think people in Scarborough want rooming houses,” says Karygiannis. “However, I’m sending out the email, depending on the response I get I’ll be able to tell even more if people in my area want rooming houses.”

Karygiannis recognizes that rooming houses exist because of a lack of affordable housing, but he sees potential with some of the new condo projects being built in his area.

“Some of those towers could be, the developers mentioned that there are smaller units at around 400 square feet, so we can rent those out to people and they’re up to code and they’re affordable housing,” says Karygiannis. “We need more affordable housing in Toronto and we have to tell developers that x amount or percentage [of units] have to be affordable housing, so you have a combination of a condo unit and smaller and more affordable condos.”

For more, see the full list of dates and locations of the remaining consultation meetings, along with additional information on the initiative.

CORRECTION: 6:13 PM In the photo caption of this article, we misspelled Tekla Hendrickson’s name as Tekla Henderson. We regret the error.