My office has recently received a number of comments on rooming houses relating to a motion at a recent meeting of the Planning and Growth Management committee. Because the issue generated an unusually large number of emails, I have developed this FAQ which I hope covers the comments and questions that were raised. Some 80% of those who wrote opposed legalizing rooming houses; the remainder raised strong issues regarding the need for affordable housing and asked how this would be addressed if not through rooming houses. What follows is a mixture of fact and opinion (mine), presented as objectively as I can.
What is a rooming house?
Basically, a rooming house is a home in which rooms are rented out individually by the landlord. Typically, all bedrooms have individual locks. If a group of friends or family members rent a house and share it, that is not a rooming house.
Why are rooming houses legal in some parts of the city and not others?
At the time of amalgamation (1997), different rules existed in various municipalities. In the former city of Toronto, rooming houses were as-of-right anywhere – meaning that they can be located on any property on any street without any Planning approval. In North York, they were not legal anywhere. These rules have carried through to the present. Some have argued that the rules should be the same across the city and that rooming houses should be as-of-right everywhere. Others have said that rooming houses are undesirable and should not be imposed on areas such as Willowdale just because the downtown has them.
Why is this issue coming up now?
It’s been on the back burner for several years but was reintroduced last month at Planning and Growth Management Committee when a downtown councillor moved that staff report on how to legalize rooming houses across the city. As a member of the committee, I was able to get the wording changed so that the issue is examined more openly, with community consultation and without any foregone conclusions.
If they’re illegal in North York, why isn’t the city shutting them down?
We try to, but obtaining a conviction in court requires hard (not circumstantial) evidence. In most cases, this can only be obtained by gaining access to the building. Currently, the city does not have the authority to enter premises to investigate. We need to obtain this authority from the Province.
What are the benefits of rooming houses?
Rooming houses can provide the least expensive form of housing. There are a very large number of people in the city who cannot even afford basement apartments and are on long waiting lists or not eligible for assisted housing.
What are the drawbacks of rooming houses?
Rooming houses typically house up to 10 unrelated people; rooming house populations are typically more transient than with other types of rental housing. They do not fit in with the character of established neighbourhoods – especially in an area such as Willowdale – and therefore do not represent good Planning. Sometimes they house people with a variety of personal problems (which have contributed to their poverty) but unlike, for example, group homes, they provide no support for these individuals. Frequently they are operated by landlords who care little about the living conditions of the tenants.
What are the advantages of legalizing rooming houses?
Legalization allows the City to put regulations and standards in place which legal rooming houses would need to follow. This is likely to ensure better living conditions for tenants. Arguably, it could also provide an improved situation for those who live beside what is currently an illegal rooming house; this, of course, only applies if the owner of the illegal rooming house decides to become legal, thereby subjecting themselves to regulations they don’t likely currently meet.
What are the disadvantages of legalizing rooming houses?
This would partly depend how it was done. If rooming houses were allowed as-of-right on all streets, as they now are in the former city of Toronto, one could be located next door to you – possibly changing the character of your neighbourhood – without you having any say in the matter. Compare that to the rezoning process, with full community consultation, that currently exists if someone wants to change the area by putting townhouses on a main street.
In my opinion, legalization will eliminate few of the illegal rooming houses simply because those property owners chose to break the law in the first place. As we know, the fact that some guns are legal does not prevent people who want to break the law from owning them illegally. The City, which does not have a great track record of enforcing any of its bylaws, would now have two sets of rooming houses to try to control: legal and illegal. In those few instances where we managed to get someone to court for operating an illegal rooming house, they could simply stall the proceedings by saying they intend to become legal (while having no intention of doing so).
You’re supposed to represent us, Councillor Filion, what are your positions?
Illegal Rooming Houses: In order to get rid of them, the Province needs to give us the right to inspect properties – but only when enough evidence has been gathered and presented to a third party showing that there is a strong reason to suspect that an illegal rooming houses exists.
Student Housing: Many of the illegal rooming houses in Willowdale provide housing for students from around the world who are coming to school here. Universities and colleges need to provide more student housing, and the city should look at facilitating that both on and off campus. Younger students should be in “home stay” arrangements, where families have one or two students live with them while going to school.
Affordable Housing: The enormous and growing need for more affordable housing units of all types, in all areas of the city, should be evident to anyone with their eyes open. What do we do?
For starters, the Province needs to provide more assisted housing and to remove the enormous financial burden it placed on the City at the time of amalgamation to fund social services. The Province also needs to give us the authority to require developers to build affordable housing units as part of larger projects. Imagine if just one in 20 (5 percent) of the high-rise units built in Willowdale over the past 10 years were small, affordable, and rented out to low income individuals and families through a non-profit agency.
Organizations which believe in helping others should work with the City and Province to create new housing opportunities. Newtonbrook United Church did this several years ago; I was hoping others would follow their excellent example.
As always, I am interested in your thoughts and suggestions. Contact me by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org