Housing advocates say they are deeply disappointed by Toronto city council’s decision this week to put off a vote to legalize rooming houses — arguing that the move puts tenants at risk of illegal evictions and even death.
Right now, there’s a patchwork of rules governing rooming houses in Toronto that makes them illegal in some parts of the city and legal elsewhere.
“This issue is never going away, because people need a place to live. [Illegal rooming houses] are going to continue to cater to that,” said Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations.
While a rooming house inside the pre-amalgamation City of Toronto limits can be licensed and legal, required to undergo inspections and have a fire safety plan, the same type of building in North York or Scarborough is illegal and operates outside of the city’s view.
The new regulatory framework would have created a new multi-tenant house licensing bylaw that applies Toronto-wide. Instead, city staff will spend the next year conducting more consultations and research on the rules before reporting back to council.
“I don’t know when members of council are going to be willing to come to grips on this. I hope it’s soon. The only question is, how many people will live in squalor and how many bodies pile up,” Dent told CBC Toronto.
‘No other tenant faces that kind of risk’
Previous estimates have pegged the number of licensed rooming houses in Toronto at 350, while staff says it’s difficult to estimate the number of illegal houses in operation.
According to the city, there were 14 fire-related fatalities in unlicensed rooming houses between 2010 and 2020.
The potential for illegal evictions is also ever-present, says Coun. Gord Perks, who represents Ward 4, Parkdale-High Park and has spent decades fighting for city-wide legalization.
“I’ve heard stories of people arriving home and being told, ‘You have to get your stuff and put it on the curb right now, you no longer live here.’ No other tenant faces that kind of risk,” he said.
Regini David is in regular contact with illegal rooming house tenants in Scarborough in her capacity as the outreach and law reform coordinator at West Scarborough Community Legal Services.
She says tenants are often afraid to speak up about necessary repairs or other issues out of fear their rooming house will be shut down.
“We hear that people want their homes to be legalized, they want their homes to be safe and protected. They want to be treated equally,” she said in an interview with CBC Toronto.
David, who lived in a rooming house when she first moved to Canada and has spent more than a decade advocating for them, says a room in a shared house is often the only option for Scarborough residents who are “on social assistance… who have disabilities, [or who are] students and new immigrants.”
Rumblings of legal action
The decision to put off a vote on legalization has also raised the spectre of possible legal action against the city over its current incomplete — and some say discriminatory — rules.
At this week’s council meeting, Perks says, the city’s lawyer addressed the risk Toronto runs of receiving a human rights complaint by keeping its regulatory patchwork in place for another year.
“The people who live in rooming houses often belong to groups that are discriminated against. Human rights law says that you cannot say that racialized people or people with disabilities or people who are poor can’t live in your neighbourhood,” he said.
Perks says he’s heard a number of organizations talking about putting together a case, but that it’s “not a simple thing to do” and is both expensive and potentially risky for the rooming house tenants involved.
Sean Galbraith, a city planner, was one of many voices expressing bitter disappointment in the aftermath of council’s deferment this week, which he described as “cowardice.”
“I absolutely think the city should be sued for its discrimination against multi-tenant houses in Toronto. It is absolutely to me a human rights issue, that people should have access to safe and affordable housing,” he said.
“I hope the city gets sued, and I hope the city loses.”