In this era of scarce housing in Toronto, we can't afford to ignore any options. The Toronto Housing Charter says, "All residents should be able to live in the neighborhood of choice without discrimination". Given the situation, it just doesn't make sense that many of the rooming houses in Toronto are illegal.
Rooming houses are intended to provide accommodation for three or more people (some are much larger). According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the average market rent in the GTA as of October 2009 was $922 for a one bedroom apartment and $1,082 for a two bedroom apartment. In contrast, the average monthly rent for a rooming house is $400 - $450.
Rooming houses are the only affordable option for many Toronto residents, including: students, seniors, immigrants, refugees and people with disabilities (including psychiatric consumers/survivors. Many people who live in rooming houses work; they may have low income jobs, they may be between jobs or they may simply be unable to find other affordable housing.
Currently, they are the cheapest form of accommodation in Toronto. A study for the City of Toronto's Homelessness Action Task Force estimated that there are more than 1,000 rooming houses in Toronto, housing more than 10,000 people.
However, the city requires rooming houses to be licensed, and as it currently stands, they are generally only allowed in the former City of Toronto (pre-amalgamation). They are illegal in Scarborough, North York and East York, and in Etobicoke and York, they are only allowed in very restricted areas.
While the city may think its strict licensing process will protect tenants from poor maintenance, overcrowding and exploitation, many rooming houses operate outside the law, making them especially vulnerable to these threats, as well as legal consequences. If the city licensed rooming houses, it could protect tenants by setting standards and sanctioning landlords who fail to meet them.
We could also avoid tragedy. In 1989, 10 people died in a rooming house fire at the Rupert Hotel on Parliament Street.
It is no coincidence that rooming houses are declining at the same time as homelessness is increasing. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has asked the city to end its discriminatory treatment of rooming houses. The fact is that many people can't keep up with the rising cost of living on their meager wages and government assistance. This makes rooming houses the only alternative to the streets, hostels and shelters, In Toronto, 30,000 homeless people use the emergency shelter system each year.
Regulating rooming houses isn't costly, and it would save the city millions of dollars in the upkeep of shelters and hostels.In January, however, the planning and growth committee voted to defer further consultation on the issue until next year. I agree with the Rupert Coalition...it is urgent for city council to act quickly to license rooming houses across the city, including the adoption of a harmonized zoning bylaw that would bring them into the mainstream.