Up to 150 illegal rooming houses near the U of M: report

Coun. Janice Lukes says a report she prepared over the past few years shows a perfect storm of conditions that has led to the spread of illegal rooming houses in Fort Richmond, University Heights and other nearby neighbourhoods.

Councillor says perfect storm of conditions led to hundreds of illegal suites in surrounding neighbourhoods

South Winnipeg-St. Norbert Coun. Janice Lukes says her report compiled three years of data to get a better picture of the number of suspected illegal rooming houses near the University of Manitoba. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A perfect storm of conditions has led to the proliferation of illegal rooming houses near the University of Manitoba, according to a report prepared by the area's city councillor.

In her report, Illegal Rooming Houses, Coun. Janice Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Norbert ward) focuses on the situation in Fort Richmond, University Heights and surrounding neighbourhoods. The report finds as many as 150 illegal rooming houses may exist near the university. 

"A shortage of affordable housing for students combined with an increase in demand results in the prolific development of illegal rooming houses," the report says.

"Combined with contributing factors of increasing overall student enrolment [at the University of Manitoba], the inability for international students to rent apartments because they have no local job history or co-signers, poor public transit to the University of Manitoba from nearby neighbourhoods and an aging demographic around the University of Manitoba who are selling their homes, a 'perfect rooming house storm' evolved."

The report crunches data from several sources, Lukes says, including real estate data, telephone calls to her constituency office, 311 and reports from area street captains with the local residents' association.

"We basically compiled three years worth of work into this report and we're highlighting not only what the issue was," Lukes said, "but what we've been doing to combat the issues. What changes have been made in bylaws, what things have occurred that are enabling us to crack down on basically slum landlords."

137 complaints to city

Lukes says after analyzing the data, 158 suspected illegal rooming houses were uncovered: "We don't know if they are, yet, because we don't go in and knock on the door doing surveillance."

A spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg said the city is "actively working to reduce the number of illegal rooming houses."

But she said the city can't speculate on how many such rooming houses there actually are.

"Identification of these properties can be difficult and we encourage Winnipeggers to report any concerns by contacting 311," the spokesperson wrote in an email to CBC.

The city received 137 complaints to 311 about potential illegal rooming houses between Nov. 1, 2016 — when the city introduced a new complaint process — and Aug. 31, 2017, she said.

Single family homes can be converted into multi-family residences legally, but that requires getting a licence from the city.

According to the city spokesperson, there are more than 690 licensed converted residential dwellings in Winnipeg, some of which include shared facilities like kitchens and bathrooms.

Since about 2010, real estate investors have begun converting single family homes into revenue-generating houses that saw basements, living rooms and dining rooms converted illegally into bedrooms for renters, Lukes says.

"I was at a house the other day," the councillor said. "It was up for sale. I toured it: Complete suite, full-out rooms in the basement, and the windows were taped and barred. It was horrifying."

The No. 1 concern about illegal rooming houses is the possibility of fire and ultimately, someone being killed, Lukes says.

"We've had an incident this past spring break, and there was a fire and three kids got out. Everyone was OK, but there was a kitchen at the bottom of the stairs. Well, that's not good. It caught on fire."

'A lot of positive changes': Lukes

Lukes says despite the report, things have improved thanks to a combination of determined residents, public education campaigns, co-operation with the university and better bylaw enforcement. 

"I think the good thing is that is coming out of all of this … You sit down and compile everything you've worked on for the three years, and you go: 'Oh my goodness. I knew we were accomplishing great things, but wow. A lot of positive changes have been made.'"

Lukes credits the Fort Richmond-University Heights Residents' Association for spearheading many of the changes. 

"The No. 1 problem for poor [bylaw] enforcement is improper infraction reporting," Lukes said.

"People weren't properly reporting. They have to email or phone 311. The residents have built a website that walks people how to make a report, what the trigger words are.

"When 311 gets these calls, they triage them. Is it a zoning issue? Is it a property issue? Is it a fire issue? There's a lot of different avenues that this call go in on. It's important, and residents have learned this."

The more we understand and try and enforce some of these bylaws, landlords just go deeper and darker. But we're on it.- Janice Lukes

An unexpected change came with how houses for rent were being advertised in the area, Lukes says. While before, houses were being advertised with rooms at various prices, now houses are being advertised at one price, trying to fly under the radar. 

"The more we understand and try and enforce some of these bylaws, landlords just go deeper and darker. But we're on it," Lukes said. "We're making progress, but I don't have that data [yet] to show it."

Now that the past three years of data have been compiled, the research will continue with more current and specific data to keep the pressure on, Lukes says.

As well, the councillor says, she's working to build affordable housing in the area.

"I've been working with developers. There are more dorm-like apartments that are going to be going up on Pembina Highway. It's going to help alleviate this problem. I'm rolling out the red carpet for them."

Details from the report's findings include:

  • Fort Richmond homes are 20.4 per cent legal rentals, and 79.6 per cent owners
  • The rental market in Fort Richmond grew by 27 per cent from 2011-2015
  • Rents are higher in Fort Richmond than in Winnipeg as a whole
  • There are 3,347 rental units in Fort Richmond and Fort Garry