Winnipeg's rooming house challenge: What we can learn from Toronto

One year after a rooming house fire in Winnipeg's St. Boniface neighbourhood killed an elderly man and injured several other tenants, what can the city and province do to ensure rooming houses remain safe, affordable places to live? There are lessons we can learn from Toronto, writes Jovan Lottis.

1 year after fatal St. Boniface fire, what can be done to ensure rooming houses stay safe?

Fire crews at the scene of a rooming house fire on Enfield Crescent, near Marion Street in Winnipeg's St. Boniface neighbourhood, on April 16, 2014. One man was taken to hospital in critical condition and later died. (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)

One year after a rooming house fire in Winnipeg's St. Boniface neighbourhood killed an elderly man and injured several other tenants, what can the city and province do to ensure rooming houses remain safe, affordable places to live?

The tragic event of April 16, 2014, served as sombre precursor to the release of the May 2014 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) — Manitoba titled Rooming Houses to Rooming Homes.

With the release of this report, a community forum was held and drew an audience of over 100, including community members, community agency staff, rooming house tenants, city and provincial employees, and others. The community forum started long-overdue dialogue about the complicated issues surrounding Winnipeg rooming houses.

In Winnipeg, there are 223 known rooming houses — buildings which are licensed with the City of Winnipeg and have met basic health and safety requirements.

The majority is concentrated in inner-city neighbourhoods and tends to house some of Winnipeg's most vulnerable individuals characterized by low incomes, physical and mental health concerns, and addictions.

The number of rooming houses has been in steady decline for decades and with each closure or conversion Winnipeg loses affordable housing units and in turn, an increase in homelessness.

Toronto's approach

Winnipeg is by no means unique in its struggle to adequately address rooming house issues. It is essential to look at how other cities have responded.

Toronto has 200 legally operating rooming houses; these affordable units are steadily declining in number due to gentrification of Toronto's inner city, house-fires, rising rents, and building conversions.

Toronto took ownership of the challenges related to rooming houses many years ago, making an ongoing commitment to working with local communities on these issues. City of Toronto-sponsored initiatives include community consultations, pilot projects to bring illegal buildings into compliance, by-law amendments, the funding of community efforts, and centralizing services for easy navigation by tenants and landlords.

Currently, the City of Toronto is in the process of undertaking a 12-neighbourhood rooming house review.

While research agencies like the CCPA and the Institute of Urban Studies have worked with community organizations to examine local rooming house issues with a critical lens, Winnipeg as a municipality has not undertaken an official review of rooming houses in our city.

We look to the approach taken by the City of Toronto, creating a co-ordinated response to address situations like this; this response was previously undertaken by the Rooming House Response Team (RHRT) recently integrated with that city's Emergency Management program.

Although every attempt is made to work with rooming house operators to bring buildings up to minimum standards and ensure vulnerable tenants are not displaced, closures or temporary evacuations may still occur. When a rooming house is closed due to health/safety reasons or a fire, services are coordinated to assist tenants who lose their housing.

In times of crisis, Toronto's Office of Emergency Management works with other city divisions, police and agencies like the Canadian Red Cross. By ensuring a co-ordinated, comprehensive response, tenants' needs are met in a holistic fashion and they are re-housed as quickly as possible.

Winnipeg does not currently have a group that functions as a RHRT, however, the city does make efforts to ensure that those displaced by fire or closure are at least temporarily re-housed and connected with available resources.

Stakeholders in Winnipeg's West Broadway neighbourhood are currently monitoring the possible closure of a local rooming house, home to nine individuals, because of a recently discovered zoning irregularity. The future of this building and its tenants is uncertain.

Slow pace of change

Rooming houses are on the city and provincial government's radar. In his platform promises, Mayor Brian Bowman pledged to renovate core area rooming houses through the use of tax-increment financing; and in recent years, there has been an increase in fire and bylaw inspections of local rooming houses. On the provincial side, a cross-departmental committee was set up in 2013 to tackle rooming house issues and the province offers forgivable loans to operators to bring properties up to minimum standards.

After the May 2014 forum, the city and province formed a task force with representation from community organizations and landlords. Action on these complex issues in Winnipeg's inner city is moving forward, but the pace of change is slow.

The City of Winnipeg and the Province of Manitoba have begun to look at rooming houses as an essential form of affordable housing and recognize that the issues surrounding them will not resolve themselves.

We still have a long way to go in adequately addressing this crisis and feel hopeful when we look to other jurisdictions like Toronto, where they are working to ensure rooming houses remain an affordable, safe form of housing.

Jovan Lottis is the rooming house outreach program co-ordinator at West Broadway Community Organization and co-author of Rooming Houses to Rooming Homes. She is also a member of the Rooming House Task Force and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives research associate.


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