Nova Scotia·CBC INVESTIGATES

Halifax quasi rooming houses avoid definition and licensing

A CBC News investigation has found numerous examples of buildings that even police and fire services call rooming houses, but which don't show up on the city's list of licensed properties.

One place had no smoke alarm, fire extinguisher or lock on the door

Christina Murray lived at 2179 Gottingen Street for five years and didn't know the people staying in the other bedrooms. (CBC)

A CBC News investigation has found numerous examples of buildings that even police and fire services call rooming houses, but which don't show up on the city's list of licensed properties.

Halifax's manager of building standards says the discrepancies illustrate the need to rework the definition of a rooming house, a process that is already underway.

City staff have even dubbed quasi rooming houses that fit no definition "watermelons." The city didn't have an explanation for why they use the term.

But some low-income housing advocates believe there are rooming houses that simply delist from the city's registry in order to fly under the radar and avoid inspections and potentially costly upgrades.

Fewer than 20 licensed rooming houses

There are currently fewer than 20 licensed rooming houses in the municipality. Complicating matters is the fact there are as many land use bylaw definitions of a rooming house, depending on the area of the city.

CBC News found examples of buildings used as defacto rooming houses where people rent individual bedrooms and share a bathroom and kitchen, without necessarily knowing who the other dwellers are.

"The police ordered that a bolt lock should be put on my door and he (the owner) never did it," Murray says.- Christina Murray

Take 2179 Gottingen Street.

Until recently, the two-story building housed a clothing store on the main floor and rooms on the top floor.

"I had a room. We shared a bathroom ... and we shared the kitchen," said 57-year-old Christina Murray, who lived there for five years beginning in 2009.

But Murray said she'd often not know who was living in the other bedrooms.

"They'd come and go...like 10, 15 (people)." 

Police were called to 2179 Gottingen nearly 200 times over a 22-month period. (CBC)

Murray, who relies on social assistance, says there was no smoke alarm in her room, fire extinguishers or locks on the doors — requirements of rooming house rentals.

"The police ordered that a bolt lock should be put on my door and he [the owner] never did it," Murray says.

The house, under a previous owner, was the home of a man found guilty in the beating death of his infant daughter.

From January 2012 to the day the property was shut down by the city in October 2014, police had been called to the address 193 times. Calls included illegal drugs, property damage and theft.

Murray says she was raped in the building three times. The police records include three sexual assault calls.

When the city finally shut it down in the fall, it cited serious structural, electrical and fire code issues.

Suspected rooming house still an 'open case'      

When CBC contacted the owner, Hasan Yildiz, he said not to phone again and hung up.

Halifax's building standards manager, Matt Covey, says the property is still an "open case" for the city and he's not prepared to say whether it was operating as a rooming house.  

But municipal staff are working to better characterize what exactly qualifies as a rooming house.

"It really became obvious that the definition isn't working," Covey says.

Matt Covey, Halifax’s building standards manager, says the city still hasn't determined if 2179 Gottingen Street was operating as a rooming house. (CBC)

Bylaw M-100 sets the standards for residential occupancies. It defines a rooming house as "any building in which three (3) or more rooms providing occupancy are rented for remuneration as separate units of residential accommodation whether or not meals or kitchen facilities are provided, but does not include apartment buildings or multiple unit dwellings."

Doors must have locks

"What we're seeing now is a number of different configurations of buildings," he says. "And so we've identified that as a problem and we're working to come up with a new definition that's going to cover all of those situations."

In the meantime, city staff who come across buildings that appear to be rooming houses, but end up not fitting the definition, are using a quirky label.

"It's just an easy word to remember," Covey says. "We know what we're talking about when we say 'watermelons'."

Waye Mason, the councillor for Halifax South Downtown, welcomes the review of the definition and rules around rooming houses.

"I think there hasn't been good communication between fire and between police and bylaw [officers] and I also think there hasn't been a real focus in Halifax on making sure that land use bylaws are being adhered to," he says. 

Substandard living conditions

And there are people living in substandard rooming housing conditions, says Michelle Towill, a social worker at the Alders by Adsum, a supportive housing project for low-income women in Halifax.

"You wouldn't really call it a home, not when you don't have a lock on your front door and you don't feel safe where you live and you have no heat," she says.

Mason says it is a "legitimate concern" that some rooming houses are delisting from the city's registry because they want to avoid the scrutiny of bylaw officers.

But also suspects some landlords don't know they are running a rooming house.

"If you have a lock on a door, if you are renting room to room directly to a tenant rather than having a lease for a flat, then you're running a form of a rooming house," he says.

As for Murray, she says it's time the city crackdown on unsafe housing.

"We're being robbed of a safe place to live."

About the Author

Bob Murphy

Reporter

Bob Murphy is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a CBC News reporter in the Maritime provinces for more than two decades. He has investigated everything from workplace deaths to unsolved crimes and government scandals.

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