'It's low-hanging fruit': Scarborough housing advocates call for legalized, regulated rooming houses
Coun. Ana Bailao says controversial dwellings 'absolutely' need review
Ramalingam Sethu fled war in Sri Lanka in 1996, only to face a new struggle: Finding a job and place to live in Canada.
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The language barrier forced him to take minimum wage roles in restaurant kitchens; the busy working hours left him little time to learn English. Two decades later, the 66-year-old Scarborough resident lives off $1400 a month in retirement income, with half of it going to the $700 rent he pays for the room he and his wife share in a rooming house.
Speaking in Tamil through a translator, Sethu said his rooming house — a polarizing housing option in Scarborough — is the only thing protecting his family and keeping a roof over their heads.
He's now among the area's housing advocates renewing calls for the city to legalize the multi-person dwellings, which are currently outlawed in Scarborough due to pre-amalgamation zoning bylaws.
On Tuesday, a week after city council voted to back Mayor John Tory's latest affordable housing proposal, Sethu and other members of the advocacy group Voices of Scarborough held a community meeting to raise awareness of the housing struggles the area's residents face — and to include rooming houses as part of the current housing conversation.
"To me, legalizing rooming houses, it's low-hanging fruit," said housing advocate Joy Connelly, one of the panelists at the event.
While Connelly and other panelists said the unregulated dwellings can lead to tenant exploitation in Scarborough — with reports of underground landlords leaving residents in unsafe conditions or requesting extra money from vulnerable residents on top of their monthly rent — they're also a common housing option for low-income workers.
Rooming houses source of controversy in Scarborough
But they've long been a source of controversy in the community.
In 2018, 18-year-old international student Helen Guo was killed in a rooming house fire in the area, which led to multiple arrests.
The year before, more than 200 Scarborough residents expressed their opposition to a city pilot project that proposed legalizing rooming houses for a three-year span.
Still, planning and housing committee chair Coun. Ana Bailao says it's an issue that "absolutely" needs review.
In recent weeks, Bailao has been among those championing Tory's new Housing Now proposal, the council-backed plan to fast-track housing developments at 11 city-owned sites, a portion of which would be affordable housing. (Two of the sites are in Scarborough.)
She stressed that proposal is only one piece of the puzzle. "Housing is a complex issue," Bailao explained. "It requires several tools in the toolbox."
And rooming houses, she said, are "another tool" that needs to be brought forward alongside other strategies like inclusionary zoning and greater federal and provincial investment.
Coun. Cynthia Lai, a first-time councillor from Scarborough, said her biggest concern is resident safety, adding she wants more information before deciding whether legalization is the right approach.
"The last thing I want to do is have something serious happen because of these rooming houses not being at code," she said.
With files from Farrah Merali