Questions and answers about rooming houses in Toronto:

Question's:

  1. What is a rooming house?
  2. Why are rooming houses important?
  3. Who lives in rooming houses?
  4. Who owns or operates rooming houses?
  5. What is an "illegal" rooming house?
  6. How many rooming houses are there in Toronto and how many roomers?
  7. What happens when tenants are evicted from rooming houses?
  8. What is a bachelorette?
  9. What is a boarding home?
  10. What are SRO's?
  11. What is Rupert Community Residential Services?
  12. Where can I find out more about rooming houses?
  13. How does the Tenant Protection Act affect rooming houses?
  14. How will changes to GWA regulations affect roomers and boarders?
  15. Is there and alternative to rooming houses for low-income tenants?
  16. What is the current status of bachelorettes in Parkdale?
  17. Should the new City of Toronto license rooming houses?

Answers:

What is a rooming house?

A rooming house is any building in which renters occupy single rooms and share kitchens, bathrooms, and common areas. The building may be a converted single-family house, a converted hotel, or a purpose-built structure. Rooming houses may have as few as three rooms for rent, or more than a hundred.

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Why are rooming houses important?

Rooming houses are the cheapest form of permanent accommodation currently available in Toronto. Rents average about $400-$450 a month. Those who cannot afford a room in a rooming house, or who are evicted from a rooming house because they cannot pay the rent generally have to go to a hostel. (This puts an added burden on the city, because housing people in hostels costs about $1,200 per person per month.)

Rooming houses are an essential form of housing for low-income people. They constitute the bottom rung of the housing ladder. If they disappear, it will become even harder for low-income people to remain on the ladder, let alone climb it. In other words, the fewer rooms that are available in rooming houses in Toronto, the greater the number of people who will fill the hostels and live on the streets. The decline in the numbers of rooming houses in Toronto has occurred at the same time as an increase in homelessness.

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Who lives in rooming houses?

The people who live in rooming houses are those who cannot afford self-contained apartments. These people include people on social assistance, people with minimum-wage jobs, students, new immigrants who are not yet established in jobs, refugees, old age pensioners with low incomes, disabled people, and former psychiatric patients. Recently, because of the shortage of inexpensive apartments in Toronto, working people who would normally have found apartments have begun to move into certain rooming houses.

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Who owns or operates rooming houses?

The Rooming House Information Center carried out a survey in 1996 of rooming house operators. Of 358 surveys, 75 (21%) were completed. Of these respondents:

69% operated only one boarding or rooming house;

52% had been in business for more than 10 years;

36% had houses with fewer than 10 beds;

51% had difficulty covering mortgage and operating costs;

44% were in the business because they cared about providing good housing for low-income people;

25% wanted to get out of the business.

Although the owners and operators are a diverse group, clearly there are many that are operating on a small scale, with limited financial resources.

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What is an "illegal" rooming house?

A rooming house is considered illegal if it contravenes city bylaws. In the former City of Toronto, rooming houses are required to obtain a license from City Hall to operate. Any rooming house that does not have a license can be considered "illegal." Rooming houses may also be "illegal" because their owners did not obtain a permit to make renovations to divide up the building, because they do not have sufficient parking for tenants, or because one or more rooms are below a certain minimum size. Rooming houses are also "illegal" if they are located in one of the former municipalities that prohibited them in its bylaws.

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How many rooming houses are there in Toronto and how many roomers?

The following table shows the number of licensed rooming houses in the former City of Toronto since 1986:

Time in Years

Number of Licensed Rooming Houses

1986

603

1987

576

1988

495

1989

518

1990

452

1991

495

1992

483

1993

457

1994

446

1995

383

1996

406

1997

432

1998

393

Some of these rooming houses have only a few rooms, a few have more than 100. The number of people in rooming houses is probably between 4,000 and 6,000. A study undertaken for the City of Toronto's Homelessness Action Task Force estimated that there are also more than 1,000 illegal rooming houses in the amalgamated City, housing as many as 10,000 people.

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What happens when tenants are evicted from rooming houses?

Tenants may be evicted from rooming houses for a number of reasons:

Most evictions (75 to 85 percent) are for non-payment of rent. Under the new Tenant Protection Act, tenants have five days to reply in writing when a landlord files a Notice of Application to carry out an eviction. Tenants who cannot write easily in English or French, or who do not understand what is required of them, may fail to reply in time. If they do not reply, the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal proceeds without hearing their side of the issue.

City of Toronto housing staff tries to help tenants who have been evicted when a rooming house closes. In 1998, the City's Homeless Initiatives Fund contributed $15,000 to help tenants cover moving expenses and first and last month's rent when they face relocation at short notice. However, given the shortage of affordable housing, staff cannot easily find other places in Toronto for evicted tenants to go.

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What is a bachelorette?

A bachelorette is a mini-apartment; usually a room with its own bathroom and some cooking facilities. Bachelorettes are usually associated with the Parkdale area of Toronto, although the housing form is not confined to this area. When they turn rooms into bachelorettes, owners must make extensive structural changes to accommodate the additional plumbing. These changes usually affect the exterior of the house and also make the house more difficult to "deconvert" - that is, restore to single-family housing. Some of the bachelorettes in Toronto are "illegal," because they do not conform to bylaws or because changes were carried out without the necessary permits. Bachelorettes are very unpopular with the homeowners who live near them. These homeowners have put pressure on the City to close down illegal bachelorettes and prevent the creation of new bachelorettes.

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What is a boarding home?

Boarding houses offer tenants food and other services in addition to accommodation. Boarding houses often house elderly people, former psychiatric patients, or the disabled. A program called Habitat Services helps ensure that certain boarding houses maintain adequate standards of cleanliness and care. This program requires that the owner/operator of the boarding home sign a contract with Habitat Services. In return for funding, the owner/operator agrees to accept periodic inspections of the house and regular visits from service providers.

At present, Habitat Services is planning to expand its services from --- boarding homes to --- (an additional 300 beds).

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What are SROs?

American cities such as San Diego have created large-scale single-room occupancy (SRO) buildings to house low-income tenants. Several are new, privately financed, low-rise buildings that offer rooms at rates between $275 and $400 U.S. without a large security deposit. Residents share kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities, television lounges and open-air decks or courtyards. In some cases, there is space for counseling services. Buildings like these are made possible by keeping construction costs low and by support from the municipality in the form of appropriate zoning, adjustments to the building code, and help with financing. Interest in SROs as an option for Toronto is growing.

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What is Rupert Community Residential Services?

The largest project ever undertaken in Toronto to help rooming house operators and tenants was the Rupert Coalition, which was formed when 10 people died in a rooming house fire at the Rupert Hotel on Parliament Street in 1989. The provincially funded project lasted for three years and created secure, affordable housing for more than 300 tenants in both private and non-profit houses. It demonstrated that many of the so-called "hard to house" could stay housed if they had access to supportive services and that rooming houses could provide good-quality accommodation if funds for upgrading are available. Although the project ended in 1993 when the funding was not renewed, a volunteer group called Rupert Community Residential Services Inc. has a small budget that it uses to promote rooming house issues and offer emergency help when roomers are evicted.

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Where can I find out more about rooming houses?

The City of Toronto has a Rooming House Working Group that meets every month during the fall, winter and spring (and less frequently during the summer) to discuss matters related to rooming houses. Landlords, tenants, service providers and anyone interested in rooming houses may attend these meetings. There is also a Rooming House Information Center, where tenants and landlords and people looking for a room or other rooming house related information could call. The Working Group and the Information Center fall within the Shelter Housing and Support Division of the Community and Neighborhood Services Department. Call 392-1274 for more information.

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Questions and answers about recent developments that affect rooming houses in Toronto.

How does the Tenant Protection Act affect rooming houses?

The inaccurately named Tenant Protection Act, which came into effect 17 June 1998, replaces the former Landlord and Tenant Act, Rent Control legislation, and the Rental Housing Protection Act. The new Act differs from earlier legislation in a number of important ways:

Rental units can more easily be demolished, converted to condos, or deconverted (that is, turned from rooms back to single-family houses).

These changes are expected to make the situation for low-income renters even worse than it is now.

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How will changes to General Welfare Assistance regulations affect roomers and boarders?

On 2 February 1998, the Ontario government announced further changes to the welfare regulations. Instead of the fixed amounts paid to low-income or homeless people to cover rent, utilities, or board and lodging, recipients will be reimbursed only for the actual amounts they pay for rent, utilities or board, up to a certain maximum. They must provide receipts for all expenses in order to be reimbursed. Health benefits have also changes, and people will be required to pay an annual deductible for prescription drugs (for example, $350/year for people with an income of less than $6,500) and a fee of $2 for each prescription filled. The first result of the changes will be to increase the volume of paperwork for welfare staff. Over time, the changes will mean that those who cannot produce the necessary receipts will not be reimbursed, and may lose their housing when they do not receive the payments they need. People who depend on medication (such as insulin) will have to spend almost a month's welfare payment per year on prescriptions before they receive a subsidy.

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Is there an alternative to rooming houses for low-income tenants?

A report issued in 1998 by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation called New Ways to Create Affordable Housing suggest 12 housing models that differ from traditional housing forms. The ideas include new ways to pay for shelter, new ways to share ownership, and new housing forms.

The City is currently considering a proposal to create "Affordable Housing Demonstration Projects." A report to the Community and Neighborhood Services Committee, dated July 7, 1998, recommends three different kinds of demonstration projects:

1. Transitional housing: housing that will fill the gap between hostels and permanent housing, mainly for formerly homeless people.

2. Affordable rental housing: rental housing for low-income people at prices below market levels; this project will try to solve the problem of how to offer reasonable housing at affordable rents without bankrupting landlords.

3. Affordable ownership models: housing that low-income people can buy over time; this project will try to ensure that these houses are sold to those who need them most and that any profit on resale is used to support the creation of further housing.

In order to start work on demonstration projects the City will need to establish a fund, offer unused city-owned land, and help get the private sector involved.

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What is the current status of bachelorettes in Parkdale?

In the 1970s, homeowners in Parkdale began to complain about the appearance of bachelorette buildings, the number of cars around the buildings, and the tenants who lived in them. The former City of Toronto responded by creating regulations for the size and type of units allowed in converted houses and appointing a "clean-up team" to prosecute owners of bachelorettes and close them down. Some were closed down and the tenants evicted, others were brought into conformity with the bylaws, but dozens remain which do not fit all the requirements.

Homeowners are still complaining and the City is still trying to resolve the situation. In December 1996, the city passed an interim control bylaw to prohibit new rooming houses in Parkdale. The bylaw will expire in November 1998. In July 1997 the Urban Development Services department of the former City of Toronto issued a report called "Ward 2 Neighborhood Revitalization," which contained recommendations for prosecuting the "worst case properties" and licensing and inspecting others. One proposal that the city is considering is to limit the number of rooms in any new rooming houses to three. Most landlords will probably find that it is not cost-effective to run a rooming house with only three rooms, so this may effectively halt the creation of new rooming houses in south Parkdale.

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Should the new City of Toronto license rooming houses?

At present, only the old City of Toronto licenses rooming houses. Licensing has benefits and drawbacks. Its chief benefit is that it makes rooming houses officially "visible." City of Toronto staff may inspect licensed rooming houses to ensure that they comply with building codes, fire codes, and city bylaws. This allows the city to set standards and to apply sanctions against landlords who do not keep their properties safe or in good repair. However, some of these standards are onerous or unrealistic for small rooming houses. If a smaller rooming house cannot comply, it may lose its license, and either close down (evicting tenants in the process) or continue to operate illegally, without inspections.

If the new City does not extend the system of licensing to the other five former municipalities, rooming houses throughout the City will become "invisible". There will be no way for the City to enforce fire protection measures or building codes on a routine basis. From the point of view of the rooming houses themselves, however, invisibility may offer some protection from NIMBYism, since homeowners are often hostile to rooming houses in their neighborhoods.

One way or another rooming houses will continue to exist throughout Toronto. If licensing is extended to the entire City, some landlords will continue to operate illegally. If it is not, rooming houses will operate legally where multi-unit conversions are permitted and illegally everywhere else.

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