Let’s Talk Rooming Houses – Ward 33 E-Blast June 15th

Back in 2003, Ontario experienced something called ‘The Double Cohort’. This was the year that the last class of grade 13 graduates and the first class of grade 12 graduates left school simultaneously. As a result colleges and universities filled up and there was a frantic expansion of campuses, particularly those located in suburban areas.

In the neighbourhoods surrounding suburban campuses like Seneca to our North, there followed a proliferation of rooming houses to accommodate the large campuses. My office began holding meetings about the problem and pressing for better enforcement. What we learned was that it is nearly impossible to properly close one down due to legal loopholes.

There is now a greater number of Councillors with this challenge in their wards. This term of office Council finally got on the same page and asked Senior City Staff to propose a solution and take it out to the community for consultation. This week City Staff came back to Ward 33 and presented a proposed pilot project to test a solution. In it’s very early draft form, the proposed pilot was quite controversial.

City Staff suggest licensing and bringing into full compliance rooming houses right where they currently are in 5 pilot areas across North York and Scarborough. Those that can’t or won’t comply would be shut down. For some, this will never be suitable. For others, it is a proposal with way too many unanswered questions to have any chance of success. I fall into the later category.

‘The Proposed Pilot area, bounded by Leslie Street on the West, Finch Ave on to the North, Highway 404 on the East and on the southern boundary, Fairview Mall Drive and Nymark Ave.

Here are the basics points of the pilot proposal:

1. Staff are proposing a 3 year pilot inside the boundaries pictured above plus four other areas.

2. During that period, Rooming Houses could apply for a ‘Multi-Tenant Housing License’ and rent a maximum of 7 dwelling rooms per house. To get the license, owners would be required to undergo an inspection and be brought up to fire code for each dwelling room. Each licensed house would be randomly inspected annually every year thereafter.

3. No cooking would be allowed in any dwelling room and all current city bylaws concerning garbage disposal and parking would remain in effect.

4. Rooming Houses that do not apply for a license or do not bring their homes into compliance within strict timelines would be shut down according to legal process.

5. Landlords and Tenants in Licensed Multi-Tenant Housing would be subject to and protected by the rules of the Provincial Residential Tenancy Act. Just as is the case now, tenants in an illegal, unlicensed rooming house would not be protected by the rules in the Act.

In its current form, this proposed, three-year pilot will never get the go ahead from Councillors. There are too many unaddressed concerns. I feel pretty certain I am about the most sympathetically inclined Councillor but even I have a long list of deal breaking concerns. Let’s look at a few:

1. The legal argument guiding staff is that an existing form of licensing will finally encourage the courts to grant our appeals to close the bad ones. However, no one is confident that staff have a ready-to-go inventory of known rooming houses. The proposal doesn’t describe going to each current rooming house and ordering each to apply for a license. Can we assume this is the plan?

2. The proposal doesn’t address the human resources and funding that would be necessary to inspect each license applicant, then re-inspect to check their fire code improvements, issue the license, deal with bad operators who have refused to apply and finally, deal with a rash of new operators jumping on the bandwagon.

3. The proposal sets no cap on licenses per area. Group homes co-exist happily in our subdivisions alongside families because they are scattered, not concentrated. The proposal offers no guidelines to avoid ending up with whole entire streets of Multi-Tenant Housing in the heart of a sub-division.

4. The proposal does not tell us what it will do after three years if the pilot has failed. Is my ward left with a large area of licensed Multi-Tenant Houses that now cannot be shut down even though the model has proven not to work?

5. We’ve been waiting a long time for better enforcement. If this three-year pilot is successful and we finally see the shutdown of a lot of unsafe houses, where do the tenants go? While most of our illegal rooming houses started out as student housing, not all of the tenants are students with homes to return to. Eviction support strategies will be needed.

6. Lastly, I agree 100% with attendees at the consultation who asked, “How can we be assured that you will come down hard on every non-compliant bad actor or even just get the parking infractions that plague our streets all night? You aren’t even doing that now?”

I am grateful to everyone who attended. You represented the concerns we’ve heard for years from many neighbours who could not attend. You listened carefully to the presentation, asked tough questions, and gave tough criticism in such a way that the recorders got it all down. Now we need credible answers to our questions and concerns.

City Staff have 3 more pilot areas to visit. They plan to report on their proposal, with any changes, and all of the community feedback to Executive Committee in the Fall. In the meantime, over the summer, I’d like to update my own office map. If you are aware of a rooming house on your street and you have never mentioned it to my office or myself, drop us an email or phone us. Come September, I’d like to have an up to date inventory of my own. I want to make clear to Executive Committee how risky this pilot proposal could be if not properly planned out and fully resourced.