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E-BLAST: Rooming Houses: To Be or Not To Be?

Next week, City staff will present a proposal to Council that would allow rooming houses to be licensed and operate legally across the city. The official name for these dwellings would be multi-tenant houses.

If Council approves this framework, City staff would license the operators of these multi-tenant houses and require them to get these properties into compliance with the license conditions. This would include limiting the number of tenants, requiring true structural fire proofing, and other health and safety conditions. These houses would then be inspected regularly, with or without notice. Multi-tenant houses that do not apply for the new license or that fail to comply would then be put under investigation and shut down. A BRIEF HISTORY LESSON In Don Valley North, we have struggled with illegal rooming houses for many, many years. I understand why they exist, why staff are proposing a licensing solution but I also understand very well why residents are concerned. I am too. Bear with me as I walk through the elements of this issue.

North York, Scarborough and Etobicoke all have suburban college and university campuses that have been rapidly growing since 2003. That was the double cohort year that millennials in both grade 12 and grade 13 entered post-secondary. Students began to rent houses around these campuses under single leases or second suite leases, both of which are legal. As the student populations grew, savvy speculators moved onto these streets and started operating rooming houses where each student could have their own separate lease, which is not legal.

Today, almost 20 years later, we have a hodgepodge of legal and illegal rentals on our streets: owners who rent out their basement, absentee owners who rent out their whole homes, and owners who operate multi-tenant houses with a mixture of students and newcomers renting their first room in Toronto.

It is next to impossible for City bylaw inspectors to enforce bylaws in this environment. All of the aforementioned situations get reported as suspected rooming houses. Inspecting the legal situations is relatively easy. These owners invite the inspector in and are able to show they’re renting out part or all of their home legally. When inspectors are not invited in, they know they are probably dealing with an illegal rooming house but they do not have the same power of entry as a police officer or firefighter. No invite, no entry.

Worse still, in cases where City inspectors have concrete proof of an illegal rooming house, taking the owner to court rarely works out in the City’s favour. In a city where homelessness has been rising for some time now, judges tend to say, “You are asking me to shut this house down and make 10 tenants homeless. Provide alternative shelter.” Whether we agree with the judge’s position or not, the rooming house in this case does not get shut down. CITY STAFF’S PROPOSAL City staff held many virtual consultations over the last few months to share their proposal and get feedback from residents across the City. I logged on to a couple of these sessions, and I was concerned that most attendees speaking in favour of legalizing rooming houses came from areas of the city where rooming houses are already licensed. Whenever I’ve held local meetings to discuss our illegal rooming house challenges over the years, I’ve heard much more heated opinions.

Staff have a number of reasons for recommending the City license multi-tenant homes. The first is that there is an obvious need for this type of housing. There are thousands of Torontonians that can’t afford $1500 a month for a one bedroom apartment, and the waitlist for subsidized housing is years long and prioritizes families and seniors.

Unlicensed and illegal rooming houses often aren't up to fire code, putting tenants at serious risk.

Perhaps the biggest reason staff cite for legalizing and licensing multi-tenant houses is the power of entry. Once staff establish bylaws and license conditions, they will have created a legal path to enter the house and a condition of holding a license would be allowing routine inspections. This would provide far more protection to many tenants who are currently living in sub-standard or even dangerous rooming houses.

The conversation city staff have in court when the discover a non-compliant, non-licensed rooming housing would be quite different. Essentially, they would be asking the judge to order an operator to comply with the licensing regime or be shut down. If the judge was petitioned to shut down that illegal operator, there would be legal and licensed alternative rooming houses that displaced tenants could move to.

RISKS Does this proposal have risks? If you live next door to a single family home with eight tenants and six cars parked in the driveway, it might feel like there’s no downside to a licensing program that would limit rooming houses in our area to six rooms per dwelling and require concrete plans for cleaning, yard care, and pest control. But what happens if we license these houses without investing enough resources to actually make this work?

I would be ready to vote for this new proposal right now if I was sure that it would be very aggressively implemented. I would need to see strict timelines on requiring owners to license, followed by a city-wide effort to find and document unlicensed rooming houses. This would need to be followed by a dedicated legal team litigating the operators that refuse to comply.

If licensing means that the tenants inside these houses now have the right to make property management complaints, there will have to be a massive new inspection unit that follows up on these complaints.

Legalizing rooming houses will require significant investments in multiple City departments, and I don’t have a lot of faith that Council will agree to invest in the kind of aggressive implementation we need for this to work. Right now, there are illegal rooming houses operating in downtown neighbourhoods where the City does license legal multi-tenant homes. This happens because the staff that should be responding to these illegal situations are sorely under-resourced.

I’m going to have a lot of questions for staff when the Planning and Housing Committee meets on Monday to debate this item, called “A New Regulatory Framework for Multi-Tenant Houses”. Then, on Wednesday evening, I’ll be holding a Town Hall for our community so that you and I can discuss this proposal before Mayor Tory and Council comes to a final decision in July. If you would like to take part in our Town Hall, you can RSVP at and a meeting link will be sent to you closer to the date.

We have a lot to consider when it comes to licensing rooming houses here in Don Valley North. Follow the Committee meeting live on Monday and then join the Town Hall on Wednesday to discuss it with me.


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