Ottawa's rooming houses dwindling, report finds

The number of rooming houses in Ottawa is in such steep decline that the housing model could soon be in peril, a report from the City of Ottawa warns.

Vulnerable tenants forced into homelessness as housing model disappears, advocates say

As the number of rooming houses in Ottawa dwindles, former tenants will be forced out onto the street, advocates fear. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

The number of rooming houses in Ottawa is in such steep decline that the housing model could soon be in peril, a report from the City of Ottawa warns.

A recent consultant's report commissioned by the city on the state of rental accommodation in Ottawa zeroed in on rooming houses, a form of shared accommodation geared toward low-income tenants. Between rising costs and absent landlords, the report cautions that the number of licensed dwellings could shrink even more.

"Right now, we're sitting at about 90 rooming houses in the city of Ottawa," Shea Kiely, the executive director of Housing Help — a housing loss prevention group — told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Tuesday. 

There used to be more than 400 such dwellings in Ottawa before the homes required licences, which come with fees ranging from $380 to $650, depending on the type of residence.

The decline means tenants, many of whom struggle with mental health and addiction issues, are at risk of becoming even more vulnerable, Kiely said.

"More and more, we see people that are becoming homeless. People are accessing the city's shelter system and also couch surfing," she said. "This is something that's really hard to capture in statistics."

Host of challenges

Feedback in the report from stakeholders and community associations included a host of issues plaguing rooming housing in the city. Problems included "substandard" housing, concern over "exploitive and absent" landlords and "growing costs" for landlords in the form of increased property taxes and utility bills. 

"It makes it hard for landlords to want to continue renting out the space," Kiely said. "So what we've seen is that they're selling the buildings and then developers come in."

Kiely said expensive condominiums can sprout up in their place, pushing out opportunities for affordable housing.

While disagreements between tenants can and do occur, they can also form close bonds with one another. The current trend is disrupting those communities, Kiely said.

"We do see a sense of community within rooming houses. I think because people are sharing those common spaces they connect on a day-to-day basis."

Shea Kiely, executive director of Housing Help, says the organization's clients are finding it harder and harder to find places to stay. (Raisa Patel/CBC)

Incentives for providers

What housing providers need, the report noted, is incentives instead of penalties. 

Suggestions included forgiving licence fees, renewing licenses every three years instead of annually, adding property tax incentives and supplying landlords with renovation grants.

There's not enough actual one-on-one support for tenants living in rooming houses.- Shea Kiely, Housing Help

Kiely called such recommendations a "great start," adding that additional support for tenants could also benefit their landlords.

"There's not enough actual one-on-one support for tenants living in rooming houses," Kiely said. "Having staff that the landlord could work with to address mental health issues, addictions issues, those types of things."

Kiely said that ultimately, it shouldn't fall to landlords to handle certain aspects of their tenants' well being because housing providers have neither the appropriate qualifications nor the time.

"Having live-in staff or someone on call to work with tenants one-on-one would be really helpful," she recommended.

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning


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