History of Multi-Tenant Housing in Toronto

Constrained choices in the housing market limits more than individuals’ and families’ choice of home; it limits their choice of neighbourhood. In any given person’s search for housing in the City of Toronto, these individual options end-up being shaped by macro-economic functions of total supply, turnover, affordability, and availability. Conventional rental units – privately owned multi-unit buildings – are mostly found in inner suburban districts (131,000 units or 43 percent) and the central city (122,000); the outer suburbs have just 51,000 (CMHC 2004). Cheaper options are found in a low-rent district. Areas such as Downsview or York-Weston or Eastern Scarborough have market rents typically 20 to 25 percent lower than up-market districts.

Average rents across the city have surged over the past two decades. Since 2000 they’ve risen nearly twice as fast as the average income of a renter household; and in this sense we know that most renters are bearing the brunt of Toronto’s housing crisis. But it's really the lower income renters in our city that are truly being affected, with many living right now in a state of crisis. According to ACTO, as of 2016, 85% of renters live without any financial support from the government; 67% of renters with incomes levels below $20,000 rent in the private market, and 82.5% of them allocate more than 30% of their incomes towards rent; and 81% of renters with incomes between $20,000-$40,000 rent in the private market, and 71.4% of them are allocating more than 30% of their income towards rent. In short, right now there are hundreds of thousands of renters in the City of Toronto that rightly fear they are one eviction away from permanent displacement or homelessness. And while overall, vacancy rates have gone up, so has the average median cost of housing, meaning the rate of increase in the supply of new and/or existing affordable housing remains low.

So, on one hand, the median asking rent for a vacant bachelor apartment in Toronto is $1,400 CAD a month depending on the area of the city. On the other hand, multi-tenant (rooming) houses, which offer rents between $400 and $700 a month, should be seen as life rafts, these are the last lines of defence against falling into homelessness. For many others, they’re a springboard, the only affordable option for those escaping homelessness. And yet for years, we’ve been losing these units at a rapid pace because our city regulatory framework offers limited protections against gentrification and the pervasive culture of “Not In My Backyard” or NYMBYism.

Toronto’s had rooming houses in all parts of the city for many decades. We can call them by different names, but they are constant in city life and no matter what we call them or how we try to regulate them or even whether we acknowledge their existence, they are always going to be there, and the reason for that is simple – when you don’t have or earn much money, it's always going to be cheaper to rent a single room than to rent a fully self-contained apartment.

100 years ago, people had the option of renting a room in a family house. A lot of families made ends meet by taking in boarders or lodgers, but that model fell out of favour after WWII. More people were trying to have homes of their own. Paradoxically, during that same time in that post-war period, a lot of older larger family houses were converted to rooming houses and/or housing cooperative, and in these houses a number of unrelated people would each have a room and they would share a bathroom, a kitchen, or both.

Multi-tenant (rooming) houses did not attract much attention until the late 1960s. A man named Norman Brown, who was a rooming house tenant and had lived for years in rooming houses felt that people were unaware of what it was like to live in a rooming house. He interviewed other tenants and wrote a report, called “Rumours: The Lost Race of Society”. Mr. Brown felt they were invisible, forgotten and unheard.

Around the same time there were a series of fatal rooming house fires in the late 1960s and early 1970s that caused alarm in the city. So the city responded in 1974 by introducing a multi-tenant (rooming) house licensing regime. Most importantly, this regime was exclusive to what we know today as the ‘Old Toronto’, which was the downtown area - the core of the city - before amalgamation. Rooming houses were inscribed into the region’s municipal zoning by-laws there, and licensing added an extra layer whereby the buildings could be inspected and checked they had adequate fire and health/safety related protection.

Interestingly, even before this happened, a number of studies had predicted that what would happen after licensing would be a loss of rooming house socks, and that was in fact true. Four years later in 1978, the Toronto Star reported that about half of the stock had been lost. In 1974 when licensing came in there were about 1,200 rooming houses, and about half of them had disappeared just four years later. Every other city that has introduced licensing has found pretty much the same thing and there is a reason for it.

When licensing was introduced, the owners and operators took one of three decisions. Ideally they would bring their house up to the standards required, obtain a licence and continue in business. But some people would decide that is just too expensive, too much hassle or they’re getting close to retirement and they don’t want to do that kind of thing and they just decide to recoup their investment by selling their properties in the private housing market. And of course there are always a few who continue operating multi-tenant (rooming) houses without the licence, operating under the radar, and that of course maintains the problem that Norman Brown was talking about the houses and their tenants being invisible. It is, however, also worth stating that allowing rooming houses through by-laws and licensing does not necessarily lead to an increase in the number of rooming houses.

Beyond a lack of recognition, the issue with being ‘invisible’ - as noted by multi-tenant (rooming) house tenant - extends to predatory/exploitative landlord-tenant relations, a lack of control over their living conditions (i.e. repairs), a lack of measure to enforce fire, health, and safety property standards, and more. Imagine renting a property from someone with no governing and/or authoritative body – if you go to the landlord and tenant board, or the fire marshall, or municipal licensing and enforcement regimes, you risk not only evicting yourself, but the other members of the multi-tenant house too, creating often severe and fragmenting tension at home with negative implication for your physical and mental health.

Multi-tenant (rooming) houses operate in regions within the amalgamated city that grandfathered-in their municipal by-laws. Today if you go to the city’s website you will find that as of January the 1st 2021 there were 211 licensed driving houses in the city of Toronto.

  • There are a few rooming houses in the former city Etobicoke dubbed lodging houses;

  • York Region allows rooming houses in its zoning by-laws but does not require them to be licensed;

  • North York, East York and Scarborough do not permit rooming houses at all.

One would think there might be about 250 rooming houses in the city, but of course that is not the case. There are lots of people out there in those places where rooming houses are not permitted by zoning (but are operating under the radar). In the Village at York University, a new urbanist development of 800 single-family homes in North York - where rooming houses are not permitted - it is estimated that close to 20% or 160 homes are operating multi-tenant (rooming) houses without a licence. That’s one area (York Village), in one neighbourhood (York University Heights), in one region (North York) of the city. And illegal/non-permissible rooming houses are an extremely popular form of housing for students seeking affordable place to live, meaning that the existence of unlicensed multi-tenant (rooming) houses often surrounds post-secondary institutions, enveloping often vulnerable (i.e. racialized, 2SLBGTQIA+, gendered, low-income…) students in unregulated private market rental housing.