In the 1960s and 1970s, Old Victorian family houses were not considered particularly valuable and you could buy them up quite cheaply, renovate/subdivide them, and advertise them as rooming houses. Now, amidst a housing affordability and availability crisis, they are considered very valuable, and so there is competition for these spaces. Out in the suburbs, split level single-family homes, bungalows, ranch style houses, and a lot of the housing stock that has been built in the last 70 years or so has been converted to multi-tenant (rooming) houses, and they serve a rather different group of folks than ‘single families’ – including anyone looking for an affordable place to live.
It was once thought that the downtown houses served people who were living alone, mostly men, and mostly unemployed. Today, they serve all kinds of people, including students, immigrants, working class individuals, and even families with children – what they all have in common is that the folks living in these multi-tenant (rooming) houses want/need to save money.
Fast-forward to amalgamation in 1998, and the city of Toronto has been trying to get a handle on this issue of how multi-tenant (rooming) houses are treated differently in the different parts of the city.
Starting in 2003, the City commissioned a report from some consultants, and the consultants were very thorough, interviewing all kinds of people - tenants, landlords, multi-tenant housing operators - as well city staff working in planning, licensing, fire protection, public health, and building inspections. They also looked at what other cities were doing. The cities they studied fell into two main groups: those that licensed rooming houses and enforced standards proactively, and unlicensed multi-tenant houses. Licensed multi-tenant houses have inspections, licensing standards, and other restrictions and requirements. To maintain your licence as a multi-tenant (rooming) house operator, you are required to have periodic inspections to ensure that your property meets these standards.
In North York, Scarborough and East York - regions where multi-tenant housing is not permitted - the City pushed for a laissez-faire approach where pretty much nothing is done unless there is a complaint. Unfortunately, the enforcement of these complaints are joined by significant implications for the residents of a multi-tenant house property (i.e. fire evictions, renovictions…), and there are so many restrictions associated with the licensing regimes that landlords are able to weaponize their illegitimate housing status to coerce tenant into not complaining. In some cases, tenants coerce other tenants into not complaining for fears that they will lose their affordable residences. Unlicensed multi-tenant (rooming) houses are still subject to the same standards that apply to licensed multi-tenant (rooming) houses, but there is no enforcement, tracking, and/or reporting mechanism capable of ensuring that unlicenced properties maintain these standards. The reality is — the City becomes increasingly unaware of where multi-tenant (rooming) houses are located because they’re not licensed.
A report was given to the city but nothing ever came to light. Another report came out in 2008, which attempted to find out a bit more about the people who were living in the rooming houses, specifically in places where they were not legal according to the zoning bylaws. The report provided unique insights about the conditions of tenants in unlicensed multi-tenant (rooming) houses, but it didn’t produce any structural and/or policy-related changes.
In 2009, the city proposed a new harmonised by-law for zoning across the city, included 11 different categories and was extremely complicated. The zoning by-law as a whole, with all of its provisions, faced about 700 different appeals. Things got so bogged down in the planning department, that eventually the whole thing was withdrawn in 2011 and sent back for review. Over the next couple of years, the city was pretty much able to sort out everything except rooming houses, and in 2013, a harmonised zoning by-law was passed including everything except for rooming houses.
Rooming houses were in a very odd position legally, so in former cities of North York and Etobicoke and Scarborough and York and East York, they remain an non-permissible housing type. These regions cannot pass their own by-laws and enforce them, and one legal scholar called them ghost jurisdictions with ghost by-laws. And those ghost bylaws are still on the books, some of them are very old, very old indeed but we can’t get rid of them and we can’t move on because we cannot somehow find a way to harmonise all the provisions.
At the same time in 2013, the Ontario Human Rights Commission produced a report called “Room for Everyone” which articulated the importance of zoning by-laws in shaping the multi-tenant (rooming) house residents' housing and living conditions. They argue that if the by-law has a proper planning or safety related purpose, then there is no human rights justification for applying it in one side of the city and not in the other; it should be applied uniformly across the city. This rationale laid the basis for today’s ‘Right to Housing’ approach.
The city commissioned a consultation in 2015 which engaged hundreds of Torontonians in a heated debate around multi-tenant (rooming) house policy. One interesting finding was that there were many people who were consulted but didn’t actually know the by-laws governing multi-tenant (rooming) houses, and yet they wanted to change anyway. The consultation was notably dominated by a relatively small minority of homeowners and NIMBYists that were quite vocal in sharing the perspective that rooming houses didn’t belong in any kind of modern city and should simply be wiped out. There was a stalemate, and again, nothing was brought forward for a vote. The city later commissioned another study of rooming house regulations in other cities (i.e. Ottawa, Kingston, Edmonton…), only to find that municipal by-laws in metropolitan centres had been applied in a similar, region-specific manner.So after all that work, what was the recommendation?
First, more consultation. What changed, however, was the implementation of five pilot programs in carefully selected parts of the city — outside the city core, in neighbourhoods surrounding post-secondary institutions including York University, University of Toronto at Scarborough, Humber College, Seneca College, and Centennial College. In the neighbourhood surrounding each of these campuses, areas where multi-tenant (rooming) houses were occupied by students and to serve the increasing demand for affordable student housing near their respective campuses.
The pilot project never really got off the ground, but there was another round of consultations in 2017, and one later in 2021. The City of Toronto set forth an extensive effort to get owners and operators, tenants, tenant service providers, housing organisations and providers, housing advocacy groups, post-secondary institutions and academics, sororities, fraternities, students and residents associations, and also the ‘general public’ inputs on how to proceed with the regulations, licensing, and enforcement of multi-tenant (rooming) houses. So what did we learn from these last few years?
Licensing rooming houses does not lead to a proportional increase in the total number of licensed rooming houses;
Toronto homeowners are often misguided by the myth licensing rooming houses will results in the rapid conversion of single-family homes into multi-tenant (rooming) houses;
The invisibility and inaudibility of multi-tenant (rooming) house residents — tenants whose physical and mental well-being, and livelihoods are at stake — remains a problem;
The City of Toronto effectively has decided not to decide. It has studied, consulted, deferred and prolonged any action on policy related to multi-tenant (rooming) houses.