Rooming houses are an integral form of affordable housing, but often overlooked.
Rooming houses are often-overlooked in Toronto, but they provide an essential form of affordable housing in a city that struggles with the issue.
Essentially, rooming houses are private dwellings in which tenants, who have their own private bedrooms, share common kitchens, bathrooms, and/or other common areas; each tenant pays rent individually. In some parts of the city they are legal and welcomed into the community. In other parts of the city they may be illegal or strongly opposed (or both). And rooming houses are in neighbourhoods across the city, even when communities may not know that to be the case.
While rooming houses often get short shrift in discussions of Toronto’s housing market, they have been in the news more lately. Last week, landlord Konstantin Lysenko was found guilty for multiple fire code violations at 189 Sheridan Avenue (in the Brockton Village neighbourhood) after Alisha Lamers, 24, died in a fire in November 2013. The property on Sheridan was an unlicensed rooming house. In March, 2014, a fire at another illegal rooming house on Baldwin Street killed two and injured ten others. The Toronto Star reported on the troubles at a legal rooming house on Berkeley Street, where tenants are often disruptive and occasionally violent, the house is in disrepair, and its license is in jeopardy. Most vulnerable are the poor, new immigrants, students and seniors; a single room may rent for $400-800 a month; an individual receiving Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program payments may not even be able to afford $500 a month for shelter.
Under the current city regulations, rooming houses are only legal in the old City of Toronto, as well as parts of Etobicoke and York. In North York, East York, and Scarborough, they are strictly forbidden. While most city bylaws and services have been harmonized in the post-amalgamation City of Toronto, the legal status of rooming houses still corresponds to old city boundaries.
The map below illustrates the location of all licensed rooming houses in the City of Toronto, or rooming houses with a pending application. In South Parkdale, a special class of housing exists, known as bachelorettes. Like rooming houses, these are licensed by the city, but they differ from rooming houses as they are self-contained rooms with kitchen facilities. Since the map is based on a city database that includes only legal, licensed rooming houses, the map does not include illegal rooming houses, or legal facilities in the former City of York.
The majority of rooming houses are clustered in three parts of the city – In Parkdale, in Ward 14; in Ward 20, in the Annex, Kensington Market and Chinatown; and in the east downtown core, in Wards 27 and 28 in the Moss Park and Cabbagetown neighbourhoods. Ward 14 has 75 licensed rooming houses (23.3 per cent of the City’s legal total) as well as 51 houses containing bachelorettes. Ward 20 follows with 71 houses, Ward 27 with 55 rooming houses, and Ward 28 with 34.
Legal, licensed rooming houses are inspected for fire, health and property standards. Despite complaints about negligent or exploitative landlords, city oversight provides a minimal standard of protection for tenants. But the current system of licensing and restricting rooming houses fails to recognize the growing need for affordable housing, nor does it address the different types of shared accommodation, which stereotypical rooming houses make up just a small part.
First of all, rooming houses are not just a “downtown” problem. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of such dwelling types across the City of Toronto. But in suburban locations, these are harder to spot because the housing types are quite different from the downtown Victorian detached and row houses where rooming houses are most common.
According to a study by the Wellesley Institute, many unlicensed rooming houses are located in the basements of dwellings occupied by homeowners, or rooms rented out by a homeowner looking to cover mortgage and other ownership costs. The Wellesley Institute advocates for better and more inclusive bylaws, broader regulations to reflect the various types of shared accommodations, increased advocacy to both landlords and tenants improve safety and standards of living. And most of all, that shared accommodations become legalized outside the downtown core.
Meanwhile, existing rooming houses are disappearing as new developments displace them. At 235 Jarvis Street, tenants were encouraged to vacate a 44-unit rooming house so that the property owners could get approval for a proposed 47-storey condominium tower. Rooms at 235 Jarvis, just south of Dundas Street, rented for about $560 a month.
The City of Toronto Rooming House Review, now underway, is meant to address many of these concerns. It is concerned not just with the licensing, enforcement, safety and conditions of existing rooming houses; it is also looking to address the unsafe living conditions for tenants of illegal accommodations. The public consultation phase recently concluded. In December, a draft rooming house strategy will be presented to the Executive Committee with options for changes to licensing and zoning regulations, and enforcement.