City council to debate new rules to legalize rooming houses in all of Toronto

Toronto city council is expected to vote on a proposal this week that would legalize rooming houses across the city.

Coun. Ana Bailão says proposed rules are about safety of tenants and communities

A rooming house in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood. Toronto city council is expected to vote on a proposal this week that would legalize rooming houses across the city. (John Rieti/CBC)

Toronto city council is expected to vote on a proposal this week that would legalize rooming houses across the city.

City staff have put together a new regulatory framework for rooming houses in Toronto. Currently, rooming houses, or multi-tenant houses as they are known, are legal only in the former city of Toronto, parts of the former city of Etobicoke, and former city of York.

"It is important that what we do is ensure that these homes are safe for the tenants that live in there, they're well-kept, they respect the neighbourhoods where they are as well. That's the goal of this policy," said Coun. Ana Bailão, chair of council's housing and planning committee. Bailão also said the new framework is aimed at addressing the city's severe shortage of affordable housing 

Rooming houses would be limited to six dwelling rooms in most residential neighbourhoods and their landlords  would have to be licensed. There would be parking and washroom requirements based on the number of rooms. 

There would be a new licensing bylaw, a multi-housing tribunal, a new enforcement and compliance team that would carry out annual inspections and support for tenants in a bid to maintain affordable housing and not displace existing tenants. Multi-tenant houses provide accommodation in a single room with a shared kitchen and/or bathroom.

According to Bailão, the framework would provide for a "robust enforcement mechanism" to regulate rooming houses.

Bailão said there are 350 licensed rooming houses in Toronto, but illegal and unregulated rooming houses exist across the city, including in the former cities of Scarborough and North York. She said rooming houses are among the most affordable homes in the city, but when they are illegal, there are often concerns about their safety, upkeep and maintenance.

Coun. Ana Bailão, chair of the housing and planning committee, says the proposed rules are about safety, not only for tenants, but also for the surrounding community. (Doug Husby/CBC)

"All we're saying is, this is housing that is clearly needed because people, even in an illegal way and many times in unsafe conditions, they're living in these places. Let's make sure that we fill that need ... but we do it in a respectful way of the neighbours and the neighbourhoods," Bailão said.

The rules are overdue, she said. "It's been an issue for generations and nobody has been able to deal with it." 

Report contains 52 recommendations

Bailão said the city intends to ensure that existing tenants in rooming houses aren't displaced.

"Given that housing crisis that we have, it's really important that we are able to provide these homes in a safe and well-integrated into our communities way," she said. 

"We want to make sure that we have a framework that creates a pathway for us to go into those neighbourhoods and make sure the properties are kept up, that both the neighbours and the tenants that live in that neighbourhood have safe homes, either beside them or the ones that they are living in."

The staff report to be considered by council, which has 52 recommendations, contains the following components:

  • City-wide zoning standards that permit the use of and enable equal access to multi-tenant houses.
  • Licensing requirements for landlords of rooming houses to promote health and safety.
  • An enforcement and compliance team to ensure landlords follow the rules.
  • Initiatives to support tenants and maintain affordability.
  • A phased implementation over three years.

"This report proposes the creation of a comprehensive city-wide regulatory framework for multi-tenant houses, one of the most affordable forms of housing, to respond to calls for deeply affordable and safe housing in all parts of the city," the document reads. 

"The framework uses a human rights lens and ensures regulatory oversight to protect tenant life safety and create livable, well-maintained and affordable places to live that are part of complete communities."

Current bylaws 'fragmented,' report says

Zoning and licensing bylaws for rooming houses, described as "fragmented" in the report, have not been "harmonized" since Toronto was amalgamated in 1998, the report added.

"Due to this lack of harmonization, people continue to operate unlicensed multi-tenant houses throughout the city, to meet demand," the report reads.

It says unlicensed rooming houses can lead to unsafe living conditions for tenants, nuisance problems and community safety concerns. 

"The pathway to achieving safe, livable and affordable multi-tenant houses starts with the recognition of these multi-tenant houses in zoning and licensing bylaws, which then enables regulatory oversight and effective enforcement.".

Nathi Zamisa, chair of the York Village Housing Association, is interviewed at a BBQ about housing. (Submitted by Nathi Zamisa)

Nathi Zamisa, chair of the York Village Housing Association, said a framework is needed, but he fears it could lead to less affordable housing. He said he lived in a rooming house for three years, sometimes with as many as 15 other people.

"It's genuinely precarious, the living conditions, the folks that you live with, the kinds of interactions that you end up having to do, or negotiations that you have to go through every single day," he said.

With files from Daniel Taekema and Muriel Draaisma


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